Perhaps you’re dreaming of backpacking through South America. Or maybe you’re hoping to do business in Beijing. Perhaps you’re planning to study spirituality in India or have your eye on becoming an interpreter.
Whatever your goal, there’s a language for that. The question is just which one to choose. ,
What is the best language to learn? Here’s good news: There is no “best” language. Every language comes with a rich cultural history (and a few words you’ll find a bit tricky to pronounce). The language that is best for you is the one that is best for your goals.
If you want to spend time in Europe or Africa…
With 351 million speakers in the world--from Canada in North America, to Haiti in the Caribbean. to Senegal in Africa--French acts as a global passport. That makes it a smart choice for both business and travel.
French and English share a large portion of their vocabulary, so cognates are plentiful; although modern French is reluctant to incorporate English, English is rich with French loanwords such as déjà vu and voilà.
Unlike languages like Spanish, however, French pronunciation and spelling don’t always appear logical, and it may take a bit of practice before you remember to drop those final consonants. Learning French, however, is a gateway to centuries of culture: Imagine reading Les Miserables or Le Petit Prince in their original form.
With 95 million native speakers, German boasts the highest number of native speakers of any language in Western Europe. The size of Germany’s economy makes it a smart choice for anyone looking to do business in Europe.
German higher education is also free, so acquiring a working knowledge of the language provides you access to a range of top universities. Along with French and English, German is one of the three designated procedural languages of the European Commission -- a plus to anyone hoping to work in politics.
Although German has a reputation for being difficult, English’s status as a Germanic language means that you’ll encounter many words that feel familiar. “Bett” is “bed,” for example, while “Hunger” is, well, “hunger.” Although it's infamously long words may look a bit intimidating, the language is phonetic – what you see is exactly how it’s pronounced. What a relief!
If you want to learn about one of the largest cultures in the United States...
American Sign Language
Just as there are thousands of different spoken languages, there are numerous sign languages as well. Some estimates count as many as 300 in the world, with new ones developing often.
The sign language you’ll find in the United States (ASL) differs from that which you’ll find in the UK (BSL), but learning ASL will make picking up other sign languages easier.
The global d/Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community is large and diverse. Six hundred thousand people in the US alone identify as deaf--and ASL is the third most-used language in the US after English and Spanish. Learning sign language, therefore, is a step toward appreciating this community.
American Sign Language is also nuanced and more expressive than many spoken languages, as facial expressions – not just hand motions – are key.
If you’re interested in business...
Although English is the most widely learned second language in the world, Mandarin is the most widely spoken native language, with speakers numbering at a billion. China’s economy continues to grow exponentially each year and is slated to become the largest economy in the world by 2050.
Learning Mandarin will also open your eyes to thousands of years of Chinese culture. Mandarin’s beautiful logographic writing system, called Hanzi, forms the basis of Japanese kanji and has also influenced Korean and Vietnamese, so learning Mandarin will help you find cognates in other Asian languages. And although the tonal system is tricky, grammar is refreshingly straightforward.
With 1.3 billion people, India is the world’s second most populated country after China. While hundreds of regional languages are spoken, standard Hindi boasts 322 million native speakers. So if you would like to take your career abroad, it would be a smart choice.
The writing system, the Devanagari alphabet (which is technically an abugida, as each character on a bar corresponds to a consonant sound), is known for both its beauty and its logic, making it simple to learn.
Learning Hindi also means you can jump into the world of Bollywood cinema, known for elaborate costumes, extended dance numbers, dramatic plotlines, and songs that will stick in your head all day. And if you are interested in certain spiritual and meditative practices, Hindi will help you better understand the original texts.
The Arabic-speaking world has historically been the cradle of science, mathematics and architecture. And becoming an Arabic speaker allows you to converse with people and engage with cultures in over twenty countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Although differences in regional vocabulary mean that you’ll have to focus on a specific dialect, learning one will help you learn another, much like learning German makes learning Dutch easier.
Because it has an alphabet, a logographic script like Mandarin, learning to read it is quite easy, although it is an abjad – vowels aren’t always written down. You have a wide variety of Arabic dialects to choose from; if you’re drawn to religion and poetry, then Quranic/Classical Arabic might have the most draw for its sheer beauty, but if you’re most interested in news and literature, Modern Standard Arabic would be a good choice.
If you want to travel through South America...
Spanish is spoken widely – in addition to Europe, you’ll find Spanish-speakers in North America, South America and the Caribbean. It’s the official language of 20 countries, and 35 million more speak it as a household language in the United States alone.
Thanks to its similarities to English, picking it up is a relative breeze for English speakers. Its pronunciation and its spelling are extremely regular – a word is spelled like it sounds. Thanks to it being a Romance language, if you can speak Spanish, then you’ll have a much easier time picking up Portuguese, French, Italian and even Romanian.
If you know Spanish, Portuguese is a logical next step because they’re so similar. But even if you don’t, it’s a rich language that will allow you to speak with 252 million people in Europe and in Africa--and, of course, in Brazil, one of the largest and most diverse countries in the world.
Because it’s rarer to find English-speakers in Brazil than in Nordic countries such as Sweden or bilingual countries such as Kenya, you will experience Brazilian culture more fully if you’re able to converse with locals.
The Brazilian accent in Portuguese is often called musical, and the country’s rhythmic traditions include everything from samba and funk to fado and bossa nova. That means you’ll always have a reason to dance.
If you have a passion for philosophy and literature...
Russian may only be the official language of two countries--Russia and Belarus--but the decades-long influence of the Soviet Union means you’ll find Russian speakers in many Eastern European countries, as well as the Baltics and Central Asia. In total, Russian speakers number 268 million.
Russian literature is not for the faint of heart--no one ever referred to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as light reading – but it is rich in philosophy. And after working your way through the classics, you’ll want to visit the country for yourself to find out what inspired the writers. Only 5% of Russians speak English, so if you plan to spend time there, you’ll make more friends the more Russian you know. Even in particularly cosmopolitan cities such as Moscow, a little Russian will go a long way.
Learning Russian can be difficult for English-speakers, but it does have an alphabet; that makes it simpler to read than languages than have abjads or logographic writing systems. More than 50 countries use the Cyrillic alphabet, so if you pick it up for Russian, you’ll be able to read languages such as Bulgarian and Ukrainian too.
If you love music...
Korean Pop (K-Pop) is one of the fastest-growing and most popular music scenes in the world, and many K-Pop fans use the music scene as a gateway to the language. However, Korean offers so much more than just a catchy chorus.
For starters, you can learn the Korean writing system in 10 minutes. Yes, 10 minutes. The alphabet, or Hangul, was designed 500 years ago by King Sejong the Great, who was determined to improve literacy in the country by making writing as simple and logical as possible.
Pronunciation is logical too – there are no consonant clusters like in German, tones like in Mandarin or guttural sounds like in Arabic. The grammar is simple, nouns don’t have gender and there are no verb conjugations.
More than 75 million people speak Korean. While that’s quite high, that also makes it a bit less common than the other languages on this list – and that might actually be an advantage.
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