You want to learn a language, and you want to learn a powerful language, one you’ll use for the rest of your life. Which language or languages should you learn to do that?
Maybe you want to learn a language with population power, allowing you to talk to millions, or even over a billion people. Maybe you want a language with global power, spoken in dozens of countries and allowing you to travel the world with ease. Maybe you want a language with cultural power, allowing you to fully experience the richest cultures of the planet in their original language. Maybe you want a language with financial power, one that will make working in the richest nations on Earth, or on the most critical trading routes, easy and profitable. Or maybe you just want a language with staying power, one unlikely to undergo the tragedy of language death in the next 10 years, let alone the next 100.
This is my attempt to answer – for myself at least – which languages are the most useful and powerful to learn, especially in the immediate future. There are many factors to think about when choosing a language to learn (some of which are notoriously hard to pin down, such as total number of speakers), and your list might look radically different than mine. With that said, here are my choices:
If you’re reading this post in English, congratulations: you have mastered the lingua franca of the early 21st century. For better or worse, English is the closest thing the world has to a global language. It’s spoken by over 1 billion people if you just count first and second language speakers, but the number is even higher if you count people with any amount of English proficiency (you don’t have to be perfect, just get the point across). It’s one of the six official U.N. languages, and is the premier or official language of science, trade, publishing, air travel, and the internet.
It’s used in some capacity by nearly 100 countries, (including developing future superpowers like India and Nigeria) but is also the unofficial official language of the most powerful economic, military, and cultural superpower the planet Earth has ever seen: The United States of America (home to five or six times as many native speakers of English as there are English people). Perhaps another language will come to be the lingua franca of the world, but for now English got here first, due in no small part to the British empire and the global influence of the U.S.A.
If you were born in a nation where English became your native language, know this: you were born in the center of the empire, at the height of it’s power, and you have an enormous advantage over billions of others when it comes to global affairs. But that advantage probably won’t last forever. If you want to maintain that advantage, you’ll want to learn another language, or two, or ten.
2. Mandarin Chinese
If you’re looking for a potential challenger to English, at least in sheer numbers alone, then you need to take a serious look at Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin, just like English, has over a billion speakers, and nearly 1.3 billion if you count different variants and dialects of Chinese.
Considering that China is already the second largest economy on the planet, and is forecasted to overtake the United States sometime in the next several decades, it’s an incredibly valuable language to learn if you have any aspiration of working in, around, or with Chinese people and companies. However, the reason it is a very valuable language to learn is also the same reason blocking it from being the global language on the same level as English: 90-95% of Chinese speakers live in China. This is changing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, where China is building infrastructure and trading relationships all over Eurasia, with Chinese people and companies creating a global presence where none existed before. Not that it didn’t already: Chinese is another of the six U.N. languages. However, with BRI, pockets of Chinese speakers will be found along the key trade routes of the world, both ancient and modern.
While it doesn’t boast over a billion speakers, like English or Mandarin, Spanish does boast an impressive 500 million speakers worldwide, and a spot as the third of the six U.N. languages. Spoken in Europe, parts of Asia, parts of Africa, most of the Caribbean, and the entirety of Latin America save for Brazil (reflecting the Treaty of Tordesillas), learning Spanish will open an impressive amount of the world up to you. If you have any goals that involve visiting or working in Latin America (or even the United States of America, where around 50 million people speak Spanish, second only to Mexico’s 120+ million), Spanish is an incredibly useful language to learn.
While French is no longer the lingua franca of diplomacy that it was a century ago, French is still an important global language. It is the fourth of the six U.N. languages, is a working language of several international organizations (such as the Olympics Committee and FIFA), and is spoken by around 280 million people around the world including in Europe, Canada, and huge parts of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. French’s presence in Africa is key, with some projections placing French as the future most spoken language – though there are key reasons to doubt this, given that not every country in the Francophone nations has universal French fluency. Regardless, French is expected to grow in number of speakers, and in global importance.
5. Modern Standard Arabic
The Arab World stretches from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and the lingua franca of this gigantic region is Arabic. However, saying “Arabic” is misleading, because while estimates put the total number of speakers above 300 million, those 300 million people speak several different regional and national dialects of Arabic, many of which aren’t mutually intelligible. What is mutually intelligible is Modern Standard Arabic, or simply Standard Arabic. Based on Classical Arabic, MSA is used throughout the Arab speaking world, and is the fifth of the six U.N. languages. While English might be the current global language, and French might be widespread throughout North Africa, anyone who wants to work in or around the 22 nations of the Arab League (many of which are global hot spots of conflict, commerce, or both) would be wise to learn Standard Arabic.
German probably shouldn’t be considered a global language, considering that of it’s 100-120 million speakers, most of those those speakers live in Germany and neighboring countries. However, what makes German a crucial language to learn is Germany’s impact on world trade and global affairs. As of 2018, Germany is the fourth largest economy by GDP, is a member of several international organizations (NATO, G7, G20…), and is one of the central members (if not THE central member) of the European Union, with Brussels serving as the de facto capital of the emerging global superpower. Although, even if Germany wasn’t a key member (and German a key language) of the European Union, anyone who wants to spend much time in central Europe should look into learning German.
While neither the Russian Empire nor the U.S.S.R. still exist, Russian remains an important global language. Boasting 260 million speakers worldwide and a spot as the sixth of the six U.N. languages, Russian is the lingua franca of Eastern Europe, much of Central Asia, and naturally: Russia, largest country on Earth by size, ninth largest by population (over 140 million), and eleventh by GDP (not a minor country by any stretch of the imagination). The issue facing Russia – and affecting the potential number of Russian speakers – is demographics, where fertility declined dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union, and currently sits at about 1.6 births per woman – well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. This has led some pundits to discuss the possibility that this low fertility, combined with western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, will lead to a demographic death spiral in Russia. Personally, I’d say calling it a “death spiral” is melodramatic. In spite of this, Russian will continue to be an important language to study, no matter where you are in Eastern Europe.
While India might have the second largest number of English speakers on Earth (with around 125 million), Hindi is the primary language of India. I say primary, because India has 22 official (scheduled) languages, with support for English as the 23rd, and over 1000 other languages spoken within the country. With over 500 million speakers (over 600 million if you include Urdu speakers) worldwide, and with India soon be largest nation on Earth (overtaking China as the most populous sometime before 2030), Hindi can’t and shouldn’t be ignored as a language.
Japanese, like German, is not a global language – 125-130 million people speak it, with a moderate diaspora outside Japan. What makes Japanese an important language to learn is that Japan, like Germany, punches way above its weight in global affairs – particularly in commerce, where Japan ranks third in GDP, in part due to creating some of the most successful corporations and media franchises on Earth. However, like Russia, Japan faces it’s own demographic problems, with a fertility rate well below replacement leading to a shrinking workforce and shrinking Japan. While this is likely going to lead issues in the future, so long as Japan remains one of the top economies in the world, Japanese will continue to be an important language to learn.
Portuguese is spoken by around 260 million people worldwide. It joins English and Spanish as a language where the majority of speakers live outside the country it originated – in this case, Brazil, where over 200 million of the 260 million speakers live. Like India, Brazil is a rapidly growing superpower, with membership in major international organizations such as BRICS and Mercosur – but also with it’s own host of problems endemic to Latin American countries, including corruption, mass poverty, and history of military coups. While some would argue that Portuguese and Spanish are similar enough that you could get away with learning the more-spoken Spanish, so long as Brazil emerges as a regional and global superpower, Portuguese will be a valuable language to learn.
Other Languages Worth Learning:
With those key 10 languages spoken for, we should acknowledge that global events, and the global impacts of different languages, can change rapidly. Maybe Russia’s or Japan’s demographic troubles will spiral out of control, making their languages irrelevant. Maybe several North African nations will reject French in favor of complete reliance on Arabic. Maybe the European project will fail, and with it Germany’s importance on the world stage. I think each of these events is incredibly unlikely, but the future is uncertain. In case the future is dramatically different than anyone can predict, here are some other languages for you to consider:
- Korean: South Korea is similar to Japan (don’t tell any Japanese or Korean people I said that), in that South Korea has an outsized impact on world trade and global affairs compared to its size.
- Italian: Italy is the 9th largest economy in the world, ahead of Russia or Canada, making Italian a language well worth learning.
- Non-Mandarin Chinese: If you want to spend a lot of time in or near China, then learning a variant of Chinese other than Mandarin could be worthwhile.
- Languages of India: Particularly Bengali, Punjabi, Telugu, Marathi, or Tamil.
- Languages of Indonesia: Particularly Indonesian, the lingua franca of the more than 700 languages spoken there. Indonesia is the fourth largest country by population, and is very likely going to have a huge impact on global trade in the coming decades.
- Persian: Spoken by nearly 100 million people, if you learn this you will probably get some very interesting job offers from the U.S. military, even more than if you learned Arabic. Something to think about.
- Swahili: One of the lingua francas of Eastern Africa, and spoken by between 50 and 100 million people – though most Americans have probably only heard it mentioned by Weird Al Yankovic.
- Turkish: As I’m writing this, Turkey is having some… issues. That said, Turkey’s location on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea makes it highly influential on global trade.
- Languages of Southeast Asia: With the growing influence of Vietnam and Thailand on trade, either through trading done within their countries or by their proximity to extremely important Asian trade routes, Vietnamese and Thai will open you up to several unique opportunities.
- Conlangs: Conlangs are constructed languages, and include languages such as Klingon, and more famously, Esperanto. Under this category I’m also including sign languages, even though I’m not sure actual linguists would agree with that. These can be extremely useful, at least if you want to get paid for knowing a language few others do. More so for sign language than Klingon though.
What language should you learn? That’s going to depend on your goals in life, and I can’t answer that for you. If you want to bring North and South America closer together, learn English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese. If you want to work in Japan, learn Japanese. If you happen to be half-German and half-Korean, look into German and Korean. If you want to be the most amazing polyglot that ever lived, learn every one of these languages and more. With all of that said, I’ve answered my own original question to my satisfaction.