Knowing a second language is a highly desirable trait in today’s world, especially if your work or hobbies have an international focus. But for most people, learning languages is an arduous undertaking, constituting a big investment of intellectual resources. The best advice is to learn something you enjoy or gives you meaning, as by far the biggest challenge in learning any language is maintaining the motivation to keep studying and improving month after month. But if you’re one of those who have difficulties choosing, perhaps this list will help. I rank the languages based on their global importance (demography; economic & political influence), ease of learning, and personal usefulness (e.g. good tourist destinations; are in demand).
1. English is first, without competition. It is the world’s lingua franca, with people from different non-Anglophone countries frequently using it to communicate among themselves. About a third of the world’s population understands it to some extent. Almost all international business, academic, and diplomatic discourse is held in the language of Shakespeare. In many European countries, it is now hard to hold down high-paying professional jobs without some command of this language. Fortunately, English is relatively easy to learn.
2. Español is arguably the second most desirable language, at least for Americans. It will facilitate communications with Spanish-speaking citizens (especially in the south), as well as enrich travels in Latin America or Spain. It is a UN language. But best of all, the language of Cervantes, Borges, and 700 million other people is by far the easiest to learn on this list.
3. 中文 is the language of the country that is trending to become the next global superpower. China has 1.3 billion people, the world’s biggest industrial economy, and a multi-millennial cultural heritage. It is a UN language. Out of the Chinese languages, I unreservedly recommend Mandarin, as it’s both the official language and dominant in most of the country (and is now displacing Cantonese in the south). Speaking Chinese is relatively easy, once you get over the tones – though that is quite important, seeing as getting the pitch wrong could make you confuse your mother for a horse. The grammar is very simple. But the writing system, based on hieroglyphs (or characters), is fiendishly complex, to the extent that even many Chinese themselves never fully master it. See Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser.
4. Русский is spoken by about 250 million people in Eurasia, as well as many older people in East-Central Europe. The Russian language also boasts the world’s second largest repository of scientific and technical literature. One can indulge in the literary achievements of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or benefit from Russia’s (re)emergence as a major energy and business power. It is a UN language. It is a relatively hard language, with a grammar that is complex, but logical and consistent; it is probably the easiest of the “hard” languages.
5. العربية is the language of the Arab world, with perhaps 400 million speakers, and is the holy language of the Koran. In recent years, the importance of Arabic to the global discourse on energy and security has become very significant. Speakers are now in demand and well compensated, though whether this will last is another question. Most of the culture of Classical Europe was preserved in Arabic texts, as were the theories of many medieval philosophers, such as Averroes and Ibn Khaldun. It is a UN language. Featuring a hard writing system and very complex grammar, Arabic is a very difficult language to learn, probably the third most difficult (after Chinese and Japanese) on this list. Adding to your woes, Arabic dialects vary substantially.
6. Français plays a major historical role, as it was the European lingua franca prior to English. It remains the second international language, with 130 million native or bilingual speakers. About half of those are in France, and another half is spread out across West Africa and the Maghreb. French is also a hugely influential language in the European Union, which has its capital in francophone Brussels. In the North American continent, it is spoken in Quebec and parts of the American South. That said, unless you’re a diplomat, EU bureaucrat, or existentialist philosopher, knowing French is far less useful than it was fifty years ago. It is relatively easy, similar to English.
7. Português is fast becoming an increasingly attractive choice because of the emergence of Brazil as a major economic and resource power. Learning it will differentiate you from the multitudes who learn Spanish. Spoken by 200 million people. It’s trickier than Spanish, but no harder than English or French.
8. 日本語 is the language of Japan, which remains a major economic power (if one that is being steadily eclipsed). Spoken by 130 million people. Very hard language, with complex grammar and a panoply of honorifics that change based on gender, situation, and social status. Fun anecdote from Japanese acquaintance: since Japanese girls are attracted to white foreign males who are studying the language there, those “unfortunates” end up speaking like girls. Arguably, harder than Chinese. See Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese by John Pasden.
9. Türkçe is the language of the foremost Middle East power, with similar dialects spoken across Turkic Central Asia. Spoken by about 100 million people, it is perhaps easier than commonly thought (hence the reason it makes the list).
10. Deutsch is the language of Mitteleuropa, and a useful one to know for Europeans and aficionados of 20th century history. It is also a solid business language, due to German exports and economic prominence in the Eurozone. Since most young Germans know English, and with the Vaterland in demographic decline, the German language is likely to continue falling in prominence. Spoken by 100 million people. It is similar to English in ease of learning, with a harder grammar, but more logical structure.
The major contenders that didn’t make the list include:
- Korean is relatively important, but has limited potential for further growth in global influence, not to mention being almost as hard as Japanese or Chinese. Has only 70 million speakers.
- Italian and Polish are two other major European countries, but don’t have any special international significance.
- Hindi would have made the list, as the official language of India, except for the fact that in practice Indians mostly use local languages or English to communicate among themselves.
- Farsi is a cool language to know for Middle East specialists.
Since I have a bit of a mania for quantizing things… In the following table, I rate each language for:
- Influence / 10 – Approximately, what kind of economic, demographic, cultural, historical, and prospective influence does said language have at the global level?
- Usefulness / 10 – How useful is said language for getting jobs, standing out of the crowd, exploiting new economic opportunities, having fun in cool touristy places, etc? Note that having a large number of English speakers actually undermines a country’s rating here (because then it’s not as important to know their language), which is one of several reasons why, say, French scores higher than German.
- Hardness / 4 – Rough estimation. For the “1” languages, it takes about one year to become fully fluent; about 2-3 years for the “2” languages”; about 5 years for the “3” languages; and 10 or more years for the “4” languages (many foreigners never manage to achieve native level mastery).
The Language Utility Index (LUI) is calculated by Influence * Usefulness / Hardness.
Additional links of possible interest
Robert Lindsay’s series: What’s The Hardest Language To Learn?, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Indo-European Languages, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Non-Indo-European Languages. BTW, Robert is an intriguing and counter-intuitive thinker in general, with many interesting thoughts on fields as diverse as Marxism, linguistics, the Jews, and race and IQ.
Fluent in 3 months is a blog dedicated to the science of learning languages fast.
The Lazy Glossophiliac has an unscientific comparison of Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.