If you are a frequent reader of The Amateur Financier, you’re probably aware that I encourage people to learn foreign languages at a fairly frequent basis. Heck, some of my major goals before I die (aka, the items on my Bucket List) are to learn several foreign languages before I bite the bullet. (Ideally, of course, while I’m still young and vibrant enough to travel the world and put said languages to good use.) But what are the best languages to learn?
I decided to do some research to answer that very question. I researched into everything from number of speakers to difficulty of the language itself and crunched the numbers to come up with a score for each possible second language choice. I took the ranks of the most total speakers (making up 20% of the total score), the most native speakers (another 20%), the difficulty of learning the language (30%), the top business languages for the future (20%) and of course, the best languages to learn for hitting popular tourist spots (10%, because what fun is learning a new language if you can’t enjoy it a little?). Then I ranked the top ten for would-be language learners. And now, the countdown:
The 10 Best Languages to Learn
10. Japanese (53.5/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 127 million (126 million native)
Difficulty: 5 (5 is hardest, 1 is easiest)
Business Language Rank: 4th (out of 15)
Tourism Language Rank: 16th (out of 20)
Comments: Just barely making the top ten, the low tourism rank and the difficulty of learning the language (it is not only in the hardest category in the linked table above, but it’s marked as even harder than the other languages) are offset by the high rank of Japan in business and impressive number of speakers (it is ranked eighth by number of native speakers, tenth by total speakers). Definitely a language worth considering, even with the extreme challenge to work through.
9. Russian (57.6/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 255 million (145 million native)
Business Language Rank: 12th
Tourism Language Rank: 8th
Comments: As part of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries with tremendously growing economies, Russia is definitely a place worth keeping an eye on. Add in all those former Soviet-bloc countries still speaking Russian, and it’d make a decent option, even if we don’t need to worry about that Soviet bloc reforming (although, with Putin around…)
8. Arabic (60.7/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 230 million (206 million native)
Business Language Rank: 10th
Tourism Language Rank: 4th
Comments: A language that’s only been increasing in influence over the past half-century (being added as an official UN language in 1973 was just a start), and with increasing business ranking and impressive levels of speakers, this is another difficult, but worthwhile, language to contemplate. That’s even before considering the numerous countries you’d be able to talk your way through as a world-cruising tourist.
7. Italian (62.6/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 61 million (61 million native)
Business Language Rank: 8th
Tourism Language Rank: 6th
Comments: You’ll notice that there’s a decided drop in the number of speakers here, both total and native (and that there aren’t enough non-native speakers to even count, really). The low difficulty for native English speakers, combined with the high business and tourism rankings, make up for the limited number of speakers with whom you’ll be able to converse. Plus, as a Romance language, it is well regarded among most English speakers.
6. Hindi (72.3/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 490 million (370 million native)
Business Language Rank: 2nd
Tourism Language Rank: 15th
Comments: The ‘Language of the Union’ of India (along with 22 regional languages), and since India is rising as an economic power, learning its primary language could definitely be a good thing. Just look at that rank as the #2 non-English business language by 2050; being able to converse in Hindi will prove to have more advantages than chatting with your tech support person before too long.
5. Chinese – Mandarin (75.0/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 1.051 billion (873 million native)
Business Language Rank: 1st
Tourism Language Rank: 3rd
Comments: Ah, Mandarin. If you have gotten any list of suggestions previously on what language would be the best to study, Mandarin probably topped it. With the most speakers (native and overall), the highest business rank, and for that matter, China having a tourism industry that ranks it just behind France and the U.S. as a tourist’s destination, it’s only the difficulty of learning the language that led me to rank it at 5th, rather than 1st. (If difficulty is no obstacle, of course, by all means, go with Mandarin as a second language.)
4. French (76.8/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 130 million (67 million native)
Business Language Rank: 6th
Tourism Language Rank: 1st
Comments: French is surprisingly widespread (once upon a time, the French held a vast empire), but it has lost much, although not all, of its influence. Still, with a decent business future, an easy (so to speak) to learn language, and the most impressive tourist industry in the world, France itself is a pretty formidable force, even without taking into account the other countries where French is spoken (largely in Africa), making learning its language is a good way to improve your future.
3. German (77.7/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 229 million (101 million native)
Business Language Rank: 5th
Tourism Language Rank: 5th
Comments: Pretty similar to French, German is a European language with numerous speakers, decent ranks of business and tourism, and it is fairly easy to learn for an English speaker. It’s somewhat more difficult, but also gives you more people to communicate with and, if the German speaking countries (mostly in central Europe) do as well as predicted, there will be more business possibilities. Which language you would choose will likely depend on your particular situation (although as Pennsylvania Dutch myself, I’d give the edge to German).
2. Portuguese (78.9/100 Overall Score)
Total Speakers: 213 million (203 million native)
Business Language Rank: 7th
Tourism Language Rank: 12th
Comments: How’d this manage to squeeze ahead of the other European languages we’ve just been discussing, particularly when Portugal is such a tiny little country? Well, there’s this place called ‘Brazil’, with numerous native speakers and a rapidly rising economy, as well as being a pretty impressive country for tourism. While it ranks fifth in the number of non-English native speakers, it’s definitely a language worth being able to speak, as Brazil, and Portuguese, rises in power.
And now, THE Best Language to Learn…
1. Spanish (94.1/100 Overall)
Total Speakers: 420 million (350 million native)
Business Language Rank: 3rd
Tourism Language Rank: 2nd
Comments: Oh, don’t act so shocked. With so many countries and so many people that speak it, there is a lot that you are able to do with a good understanding of what is perhaps the closest thing to a second ‘universal language’ that currently exists, particularly here within in the Western Hemisphere. Add in the fact that it is the de facto second language of the United States already, and being able to converse en Español will do you well in the near future.