As the world has become more global, learning new languages has become increasingly important. Travel is at record levels. Businesses want to expand overseas. Professional mobility is popular. Language skills are really valuable for social, professional, and personal reasons. So the question is: what are the best languages to learn?
The short answer is that it’s personal. Everyone has different goals. So we can’t necessarily pick what’s right for you. But we can give pros/cons for the major choices and let you decide. And of course, we can help you with the best way to learn.
English is the most widely used language. Since you’re reading this article in English, we assume you already know it. And we assume you know your native language (if it isn’t English). But what’s next? If you had to invest learning time, what should you choose?
Our list is below. As you’re reading, keep in mind that we have a lot of resources at Reverse Tide. We’ll start with our article How to Learn a Language. No matter which language you choose, this article helps with the best sources and methods in learning it. Use it to your advantage.
Likewise, we have resources for choosing certain countries/regions. If you are learning for business purposes, we have an international business learning series to help you apply your language learning skills. We have learning pages for the USA, United Kingdom, European Union, China, Japan, and India. If you aspire toward visiting or working with these countries, these pages will help.
Finally, if you want to work abroad, we have career resources. We’ll start with our International Business Job Application guide. That helps with applying to international employers. However, also consider our many other career products like building great resumes, cover letters, portfolios, and more. You can find the full list and details in our top menu or at the bottom of this page.
Ok. Without further ado, let’s answer the question: what are the best languages to learn?
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 955 million
Countries valuable in: Mostly China, however, with China’s population so large and immigrants all over the world, it is deceiving to believe it’s only usable there.
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: The most obvious reason is China’s economic prowess. They have the world’s second largest economy and most widely spoken language. One of the biggest considerations, however, is that many Westerners are deterred by the language’s difficulty so not many non-Chinese ethnic people are fluent in it. This creates a significant advantage and differentiator for people choosing to go through with it (a lack of supply to cover the growing demand). While definitely difficult, creativity and innovation always provide solutions. Check out one such interesting idea:
Chinese students are common throughout the Western university system and then often go on to skilled jobs. As Chinese immigration continues growing and Chinese companies expand into Western markets, interacting in this language becomes more necessary and having a significant understanding of the culture is a very marketable skill. Likewise, Western businesses are all over China and always looking for people able to manage their interests either locally in China or remotely. While many Chinese management level people will speak English, it’s incredibly advantageous to have equivalent communication flexibility.
Why we might consider other options: For Western learners, this is considered one of the world’s most difficult to learn. Unless you’re fully committed and have an outcome by which to apply the language, your chances of becoming frustrated are much higher than other languages. I think this is a poor excuse as the benefits are so high here, however, it’s also not worthwhile to start something you’re not able to finish. In addition, be very wary of the pollution and air quality issues if you’re intending to live in China (a common Western issue with being an expat in large Chinese cities).
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 89 million
Countries valuable in: Germany and its surroundings (Austria, Switzerland, etc)
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: Some may question me for putting this as second most recommended despite it being only the 11th most spoken. My reasons are purely economic. As the recent Greek monetary issue negotiations and Ukraine/Russia territorial dispute negotiations demonstrate, Germany has taken the leading role as chief arbiter. The European Union is actually the world’s largest economy and Germany is the largest and thus holds significant influence. The German economy, while very exposed to debt issues from peripheral countries is still quite sound. Their savings rate is high, debt levels low, unemployment rate low, and should the Euro ever disintegrate have one of the world’s strongest currencies and capital markets (all rarities in Europe).
In addition, it’s a fantastic place to live or visit. They have world class cities and a lot of diversity among regions.
Why we might consider other options: Germans tend to speak very good English. Business will mostly be in German but you can be social on English alone. In addition, if you’re looking for the most geography to cover with your language selection, you’re best choosing elsewhere.
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 405 million
Countries valuable in: Spain, all but Brazil in South America, Central America
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: Spanish covers more countries than any other and is the second most spoken by native population and in many of these countries, English understanding is less common than others. This gives you immense choice in how to use it. For Americans, Hispanics continue to become an increasing proportion of ethnic demographics, making Spanish fluency valuable even at home. Spanish has many similar words to English so ease of learning is higher than many other options
Why we might consider other options: Your likelihood of using Spanish is probably higher than any other language, however, the economies of Spanish speaking countries are much smaller than others on this list, limiting some of the economic opportunity (and generally aren’t growing very strongly either).
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 125 million
Countries valuable in: Japan
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: Japan is the world’s third largest economy and has a lot of well known international brands in autos and electronics. Japan has a very interesting culture and is highly recommended among those that have spent time living there. If you’re choosing a single country to live and work, Japan rates well.
Why we might consider other options: Similar to Chinese, Japanese is considered a difficult one to learn. You’re also unlikely to use Japanese outside of Japan, as Japanese people tend to immigrate less than other cultures. If you’re looking for more bang for your buck, other options are more suitable.
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 155 million
Countries valuable in: Russia and its surroundings
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: After economic upheaval following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has regained strength on the international scene and is fast growing economically. In terms of relevance to world affairs, Russia ranks highly. There are also many countries (primarily former Soviet states), where you can use your Russian skills.
Why we might consider other options: Russia and its surrounding states still have a long way to go before becoming economically sound. They are heavily reliant on oil and with recent price declines, it will have an adverse impact. Corruption and other structural impediments also remain a roadblock. For those looking to relocate, weather may be a factor.
Countries valuable in: A large portion of the Middle East and North Africa
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: Arabic is among the most widely spoken languages. You can also use it in many different countries. Modern cities like Dubai and Doha have attracted a lot of investment and thus substantial opportunity.
Why we might consider other options: Political instability plagues many of the countries where Arabic is spoken. While there are many cultural reasons to learn Arabic, there are more viable alternatives economically, as the thriving economies are very reliant on oil revenues.
Wikipedia estimated native speakers: 215 million
Countries valuable in: Brazil, Portugal
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: Brazil is a very populous country and has exhibited strong growth in recent years, while Portugal is a fabulous country culturally. You thus have a bit of variety for whatever purpose you choose to learn Portuguese. There are many similarities to Spanish so those with proficiency can learn more quickly.
Why we might consider other options: Economically, both countries still have many limitations. Portugal has debt and other structural issues inhibiting growth, while Brazil has substantial poverty to contend with. Variety is limited when only two countries speaking Portuguese.
Countries valuable in: France and surroundings (Belgium, Switzerland, etc) and parts of Africa
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: French is spoken throughout the world and is a common second language to learn. It is among the easier languages for a Westerner and is spoken in France, the world’s 5th largest economy.
Why we might consider other options: 74 million is a small number when comparing language usage. French is less relevant internationally than it was in prior centuries.
Countries valuable in: South Korea
Why it’s one of the best languages to learn: South Korea has been growing rapidly for a long time and is the world’s 14th largest economy. It is home to famous international brands like Samsung and Hyundai. Westerners don’t often learn Korean, making this a differentiating qualification.
Why we might consider other options: Korean is another difficult language and doesn’t stack up in terms of usage or opportunity as its bigger competitors.
10) Other Best Languages to Learn…
We encourage you to look into many of the languages not on this list. Other options have less relevance outside of its native locality, however, are still incredibly rewarding and useful.
So what’s your choice for best languages to learn? As we said, use our resources at the top of the page. And consider our learning, career, and partnership resources below. Best of luck to you!