What Are the Top Languages to Learn?
The Importance of Being Bilingual or Multilingual
Having a second or third language can bring tremendous benefits to your personal and professional lives. Personally, being able to speak and understand another language provides insight into another culture that you could not gain without knowledge of the language. Foreign language knowledge also creates more independent travelers who can navigate international travel and participate in foreign cultures more easily.
Furthermore, learning and using another language makes the learner smarter. For students, foreign language learning improves not just a student's knowledge of English grammar and usage, but also "course content of other coursework" ("The Benefits of Second Language Study" 2). It sharpens verbal and written communication skills and improves memory (3); bilingual and multilingual individuals have been shown to be more creative and "better at solving complex problems" (4). But these benefits are not limited to children and students: adults and professionals will also find that knowing a second language will enhance their careers.
The language one chooses to learn depends upon one's academic, career, and travel interests and goals. For example, if you were looking for a military or government job during the Cold War era, you were learning German, Russian, and the East European languages; today you'll want to know Arabic, Pashto, or Urdu if you're looking to work for the U.S. government. Teachers in American high schools and middle schools will find more opportunities for employment if they are certified to teach French or Spanish (along with, in particular, one of the sciences, math, or special education). Consider learning Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, or Hindi if you're starting your own business or trying to make your way in the business world.
You can also decide to learn a language based on which languages are most widely spoken around the world. This list will, of course, change over time as populations increase and decrease; but for now, here is a list of the top ten languages spoken around the world (as of 2009).
Are you fluent in another language besides your native language?
According to Ethnologue's Statistical Summaries*, standard German is the tenth most widely spoken language in the world.
Wo spricht man Deutsch? German is spoken in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. German has official status in Belgium, Italy, and Luxembourg; it is a minority language in parts of Romania, Poland, and Russia; in Namibia, Rwanda, and other former German colonies; and in parts of North America, such as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. German is also spoken in areas of France, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Denmark, as well as in parts of South America like Argentina.
Japanese is spoken (obviously) in Japan. There are also large populations of Japanese speakers in Brazil, the United States, and major cities like Paris, New York, and London.
Russian is the official language of Russia, and a co-official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrzygstan, and Moldova. A significant number of speakers use Russian in Israel, Armenia, Mongolia, Turkey, Georgia, Jordan, and Latvia, among other countries.
Besides Portugal, Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, East Timor, and Macau, and has significant populations of minority speakers in several other European, South American, African, and Asian countries, including Japan.
Spoken in Bangladesh, Bengali is also one of the official languages of India.
Hindi, with its many dialects, is an official language of India. It is also spoken as a minority language in areas of Africa, South America, the U.S., the U.K., and the South Pacific including Australia. The popularity of this language will probably increase over the next few years as India's population grows, despite the country's efforts at population control.
Arabic is the official language in many Asian and African countries. If you learn Arabic in a university, you'll likely learn Modern Standard Arabic: there are many dialects depending where you go and use your Arabic. Lebanese Arabic is similar to, though not the same as, Egyptian Arabic. These two dialects are my personal favorites, and not just because my family is Lebanese; they sound beautiful.
Although English (American, British, and Australian) is spoken as an official language in many countries around the world, it is still not the number one language in the world. Perhaps it is the most widely distributed language, since many people have English as their second language even if it is not an official language of their countries; however, this list was compiled based on the number of people that speaks a language, not necessarily how the speakers are distributed worldwide.
Spanish is the official language of Spain and several African and South American countries. It is not yet a co-official language in the United States, though it has a significant population of speakers throughout that nation.
1. Mandarin Chinese
There are several dialects of Chinese, but Mandarin is the used by the most speakers (it also has its own dialects). One or another dialect of Chinese is a minority language in nearly every region of the world. The Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State claims that Mandarin is among the five most difficult languages for English speakers to learn (with Arabic, Yue [Cantonese], Japanese, and Korean making up the other four).
How to Learn a Language
There are a lot of options for learning a language—self-study guides, college or university courses, community courses, immersion programs, study abroad. The best way is to live or travel in a country where the target language is commonly spoken and practice, practice, practice!
"The Benefits of Second Language Study." http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/PDF/Curriculum/Curriculum_Root_Web_Folder/BenefitsofSecondLanguage.pdf.
Foreign Service Institute. http://www.state.gov/m/fsi/.
FSI Language Courses. http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php.
Lewis, M. Paul (ed.). Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Sixteenth edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2009. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/.
Middlebury Language Schools. http://www.middlebury.edu/ls/.
Monterey Institute Summer Intensive Language Programs. http://www.miis.edu/academics/language/summer.
*Top ten list derived from Ethnologue.