Which Foreign Language Should I Learn?

Modified on by Guest Blogger



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Guest post by Dorothy Feng: Dorothy Feng is a language and marketing summer intern at Brainscape in charge of our marketing research and strategies and the content for our Chinese vocabulary application. Dorothy is from Mainland China and is currently studying Marketing Management at St. John’s University. She loves traveling, photography, art and cultures. Dorothy speaks fluent Mandarin and English and she is also interested in learning Japanese, French and other languages. Her favorite quote is, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Dorothy believes every day is a starting point for a better life by learning progressively. Live, not exist.

These days, even in the English-dominant United States, remaining monolingual is essentially a commitment to stunt your educational development, to restrict your communication and thinking abilities, and to deny yourself the ability to fully appreciate and understand the world.  Most educators agree that learning another language will open up new opportunities and give you perspectives that you might never have encountered otherwise.

The question for most native English speakers, therefore, is not whether to learn a foreign language, but which foreign language we should learn.

How to Choose a Language to Learn

When we decide to learn a foreign language, there are several aspects we have to consider.

Usefulness:

Clearly one of the most important factors in which language we learn is the number of native speakers who speak the language across the globe.  If that is your main criteria, the best languages to learn (in order of “usefulness”) would be: Mandarin Chinese (720 million), English (480 million), Spanish (320 million), Russian (285 million), French (265 million), Hindi/Urdu (250 million), Indonesian/Malay (230 million), Arabic (221 million), Portuguese (188 million), Bengali (185 million), Japanese (133 million), and German (109 million).

Of course, many other factors affect usefulness including the dollar volume of trade conducted in that language (Japanese and German would rank high on this scale), as well as how many of those foreign speakers speak English anyway (e.g. most Hindi speakers are also fluent in English).  You should seriously think about your future decades of communication possibilities more than just whether a language sounds pretty or is spoken in a country that you want to visit for a week some day. [For more details on volumes of foreign language speakers, see the Modern Language Association homepage.]

Availability:

There is something to be said for learning popular languages such as French, Spanish, and Mandarin, among others, because – thanks to the size of their economies and the digital proliferation of their cultures – the learning materials are virtually everywhere. For less common languages, you may have trouble finding the necessary resources.

Difficulty:

Each language presents you with a different set of challenges. Generally, the more a language differs from your first language or other languages that you know, the harder it is to learn.

For English speakers, the least difficult languages are probably: Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.

The most difficult languages for English speakers, and indeed speakers of most other languages, are Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. This is largely due to the fact that they have completely different characters from the English alphabet.

Demand of Employers:

If you want to learn a language in order to improve your employment or promotion prospects, then choose one that is in demand by potential employers. The best way to find out about this is to look at job descriptions on recruitment sites for positions that you are interested in, or to ask people in the field. Even if a certain foreign language is not required for a job that you want, multilingualism is always impressive on your resume.

I hope you found these ideas helpful in narrowing down which foreign language you want to learn.  But keep in mind, there’s no reason to stop at just one!



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6 comments

Amy at Accredited Language 3 years ago

Thanks for this informative article. We have a few tips for those who want to learn a second language: http://www.alsintl.com/blog/le...

Julie Sheridan 4 years ago

I would encourage everyone to learn at least one foreign language. In my own country (the UK) it's really depressing how few people ever bother. English is universal so they don't see the need. Living in Spain ('the continent!') has opened my eyes to how fluid the European working world is, and how frequently people hopscotch between countries and languages for work. Meanwhile, the Brits sit on their island. I do hope it changes.

Amanda Moritz 4 years ago

Hi Julie,

There does seems to be a general attitude of English speakers that, since English is universal, they don't NEED to learn a second language. Since motivation is crucial to learning another language, perhaps the universality of English decreases the overal motivation of English speakers to learn another language, decreasing their success rate?

Good luck with your Spanish!

Best,
Amanda

Greg Shepley 3 years ago

This is a good article, I've looked at a way of working out which is the best language for you, by taking into account a lot of these factors (how easy it is to learn, employment possibilities, how much you like the culture). It's in an article here: http://thelanguagekey.co.uk/20...

Annie 6 years ago

Many instead of which language, perhaps how many languages. Certain jobs and career paths demand the knowledge of multiple languages like historians and archaeologists. I think usefulness is a way to choose a new language especially if you're a business man seeking a project in the growing Chinese economy. I think another variable that one could add is choosing a language based on the amount of growth of the language (i.e. the mortality, increased number of courses offered at a school...etc.). I think one of the most difficult things about learning a new language is being discouraged by the challenges that come with it. It's really hard to not give up when you can't pick up the correct tones and sounds!

Andrew Cohen 6 years ago

So true, Annie. As an aspiring polyglot myself, I often have to ask myself whether I want to start learning a new language at the expense of postponing my studies of my existing languages. I even sometimes worry if learning a new language will make me forget others I've learned before!

An important criteria to add to the "Which Language?" decision is whether your goal is to be able to survive in several languages, or to be able to be truly conversant in a few key languages that make sense for your own purposes.

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