While the very idea of referring to a language as the "best" or "most practical" is subjective and a matter of your personal situation and opinion, there are a few important things to keep in mind when deciding which language is best for you. For Americans, there are a several aspects that can help to determine which languages are the most practical for you to learn:
1. The Number of SpeakersThis is the go-to reason that many articles use to determine whether or not you should learn a language. After all, if almost a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese, then we're more likely to use it, right? If we base our language choice on number of speakers, then Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, and Russian should be at the top of our lists.
So we should all just learn Chinese, right?
The number of speakers isn't the best way to determine how practical a language is to learn. Just because there are more native Mandarin Chinese speakers than native speakers of any other language in the world doesn't mean that it's the best language to learn. Just considering the number of speakers doesn't take into account where those speakers are located and whether or not you'll be able to interact with them at work or in your personal time. If you don't have the opportunity to interact with Mandarin Chinese speakers on a weekly, monthly, or even yearly basis, then this may not be the best language for you to learn.
2. Location, Location, LocationIf you grew up in a small Midwestern town like me, odds are you didn't have a lot of exposure to foreign languages. Even though I started studying Spanish in high school, my first experience interacting with a native speaker took place in Mexico. While the number of Spanish speakers in the United States is rapidly increasing, I knew that I had to leave my small town if I really wanted to put my language to use.
Thanks to geography and location, there are more Spanish speakers in the United States than ever. It's even estimated that the United States is now the second largest Spanish speaking country in the world.
So what does this mean for you?
Where you live and work plays a big role in which language you should learn. If you're in the United States (especially in the South or a larger city), it's likely that Spanish will be useful for you. Likewise, if you live near Eastern Canadian border, French is another good choice. Not only are you more likely to need these languages in your daily life, you're also more likely to have opportunities to practice them and improve your language abilities.
3. Your Job, Industry, and Career PlansWhat you do also plays a big role in which language you should learn. Perhaps you travel to Montreal frequently for work or your company sells in both Canada and the United States. In this case, learning French may benefit you in your job. Maybe your company just opened a branch in Beijing and you would like to get a promotion and be able to travel to your new branch. Learning Mandarin Chinese might be your answer. Maybe your coworkers come from Mexico and you would love to be able to speak with them during lunch breaks. It might be time to start learning Spanish. Perhaps you would like to work as a translator and want to study a language that could land you a government job. If so, Arabic or Russian may be good choices.
Choosing the best language for you often depends on your job and industry. With just a little bit of research, you can determine which language is best for you, your résumé, and your career.
4. The Difficulty of the LanguageOne final thing to keep in mind is the difficulty of the language you want to learn. There are some languages that are naturally easier for English speakers to learn. These languages may have a similar alphabet, similar roots, or even similar grammar. In general, these languages are the easiest languages for English speakers to learn and take less time to learn.
If you're trying to approach language learning in a practical, time efficient manner, learning one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn can help you to learn the language faster. On the other hand, if you want a challenge and are prepared to put in some extra time, a difficult language might be best for you. If ease and fast learning is your goal, however, Spanish, French and Portuguese are the best languages to learn because they share the same alphabet and many similar roots as the English language. English speakers can learn these languages faster and more easily.
The Three Best Languages for Americans to learnKeeping all of these aspects in mind, it's time I address the ranking and list lovers out there. If we take into account the number of speakers, location, career possibilities and ease of learning, the overall three best languages for Americans to learn are (drum roll, please):
Spanish, French, and Mandarin ChineseFirst of all, there's no denying that Spanish is one of the best languages for Americans to learn. Not only is it widely spoken throughout the world, it's also widely spoken in the United States. More and more jobs require Spanish, and it's alphabet and grammar make it an easier language for English speakers to learn.
French is also a great choice for Americans because of the proximity of the French speaking province of Canada and French speaking Caribbean islands. French is also one of the official languages of many organizations (like the UN), and there are over 75 million French speakers throughout the world. Practically speaking, learning French is easier for English speakers because of its similar alphabet and because many English words have French roots.
Finally, Mandarin Chinese may not be the easiest language to learn, but there's no denying that there are a lot of Mandarin Chinese speakers both in China and throughout the world. As the most spoken Chinese language, Mandarin is also the second most popular online language and China is currently competing with the United States for the world's largest GDP. A recent British Council report cited Chinese as one of the top 10 most important languages of the future.
While there's no denying how useful these three language are to learn, it's always important to remember that the best language for you to learn depends on you and your personal situation. In general, if you keep these four aspects in mind when choosing a language and pick a language that you can and will use in your life, you're choosing to learn the best language.
This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer. If you found this article interesting please share it!