Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.
There’s something wonderfully challenging and wickedly fun about learning a rare language--about wading through vocabularies and grammars spoken by just a few thousand people (like Kujarge, 1,000), or a few hundred (like Satawalese, 460) or even just a few (like Njerep, 6).
On the other hand, if you’re looking for practicality over prestige or personal interest, then you may be more drawn to languages that have the highest number of first- and second-language speakers. It is, after all, a matter of pragmatism. If you want to participate in international business, travel the world or study in a foreign country, you’ll have a higher chance of being able to communicate if you speak one of the world’s most common languages.
So which are the most popular foreign languages in the world to learn?
Let’s count down the top 15.
As a lingua franca of West Africa, Hausa is the second language of 20 million people and the first language of 44 million more. Because it is a trade language across Nigeria, Ghana and many more countries, this is an excellent choice for business.
Bengali is the most widely spoken language in Bangladesh, and the second most widely spoken official (referred to as “scheduled”) language in India after Hindi. But learning Bengali will serve you well even outside of southeast Asia, as the Bengali diaspora is spread across North America and the Middle East. It is the second language of 37 million people.
As the national language of Thailand, Thai is spoken as a first language by 20 million people and learned as a second language by 44 million others. Similar to Hindi, much of its vocabulary is derived from Sanskrit; unlike Hindi, it is mutually intelligible with Lao. So if you find yourself in Thailand, perhaps a trip to Vientiane is in order.
Although the Philippines is home to 185 languages, its most common is Filipino, which is learned by 45 million people as a second language, usually after a smaller local language.
As a West Germanic language, German is a close cousin not only to English, but also to Afrikaans, Dutch and Yiddish. It also shares a lot of vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish. On top of that, with 95 million people speaking German as their primary language, it is the most widely spoken native language in the European Union, with another 56 million people learning it as a second language.
Spanish is the second most common first language in the world, after Mandarin. In addition to 460 million native speakers largely concentrated in North and South America, it boasts 74 million second language speakers. It’s also one of the closest languages to Latin (after Sardinian), so learning this one will give you an enviable window into all of the other Romance languages.
Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa and many parts of southeastern Africa, so by learning this language, you’ll gain access to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda--and six more countries. Although it is a Bantu language, much of it is derived from Arabic, so learning one will offer an advantage with the other. It is the second language of 82 million people.
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, a country of more than 200 million people. Spoken Urdu is mutually intelligible with spoken Hindi, so by learning this language, you’ll also open yourself to one of the most popular languages in India. More than 100 million people learn it as a second language.
Until 1991, Russian was the de facto language of the Soviet Union, which at one point comprised nearly 300 million people. Today it is still the most widely spoken Slavic language, with more than 104 million people learning it as a second language. Because of that, it’s the most widely spoken language on the Internet after English. Its primary speakers are in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
With more than 250 million people, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world; 150 million people learn Indonesian as a second language. Most Indonesians also speak at least 1 of 700 local indigenous languages, so if you’ve already mastered Indonesian, consider picking up one of those next.
Of the ten dialect groups of Chinese, Mandarin is the largest, and is primarily found in the North of China. The Beijing dialect is said to be the most influential. It is the second language of 199 million people, and large populations of Mandarin-speakers are also concentrated in Taiwan and Singapore.
Due to a legacy of relentless colonialism, French is an official language in 29 countries, and 84 countries use or teach French at an official level. Only 40% of French-speakers live in Europe; the majority live in Africa and Asia. Two hundred million people speak it as a second language.
3. Standard Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic, which is a relatively literary form learned as a second language by 270 million people, is not a spoken mother tongue--millions of people speak a dialect as their first language and learn Standard Arabic for religious and educational purposes. Unless you’re exclusively learning Arabic in order to study Quranic literature, you’d be better off learning a dialect.
Spoken across the Indian subcontinent, Hindi is one of the two official languages of the Indian government (the second official language tops our list; we’ll unveil that one in a moment). But because India has 22 scheduled languages, Hindi is often used as a lingua franca. Two hundred seventy-four million people have learned it as a second language. Useful if you’re planning a move to Delhi!
With more than 750 million people learning English as a second language, it’s little surprise that this tops the list, even though the number of native speakers (375 million) is drastically lower than both Spanish and Mandarin. It’s currently the most spoken language in the world, at 1.32 billion people, but if you already speak it, why not challenge yourself with something else on the list?
To start learning many of these languages--plus a few more--head over to the Rocket Languages course page for free lifetime trials.