Top 10 Most Useful Languages

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.

Rating Languages

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.

Language Influence Useful? Hardness LUI
English 10 10 2 50
Spanish 4 6 1 24
Chinese 6 8 4 12
Russian 6 4 3 8
Arabic 4 4 4 4
Portuguese 3 3 2 4.5
French 4 4 2 8
Japanese 3 3 4 2.25
Turkish 2 2 3 1.33
German 3 2 2 3

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 LanguagesMore 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.

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months by Tim Ferriss, and Simple guide to speaking foreign languages by Zen Habits.

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.

Fluent Historian is a new blog by Natalie (previously at Birdbrain) with many personal anecdotes about learning Russian. Zsuzsi’s Playground is a blog in a similar vein.

Comments

  1. Scowspi says:

    I basically agree with your Top 10, though (as with the “10 Most Powerful Countries” entry), I may quibble about the order of ranking. BTW, you might be interested in my article on the condition of Russian in post-communist space – my prognosis is a bit more positive than some others I’ve seen:

    http://russiaprofile.org/culture_living/a1270055800.html

    On another note, I like the Lindsay blog too. He’s kind of a nut, and probably doesn’t know near as much as he thinks he does; but I like his non-conformist attitude and provocative approach.

    • Excellent article, I enjoyed reading it.

      You’re right about the transformation of Russian from serving in an official capacity to being the lingua franca of Eurasia-Eastern Europe. I think the biggest threat to this isn’t however nationalism, but the spread of English instruction in both Russia and the former USSR. As soon as the elites of all these countries become Anglophone, Russian will be superceded as the regional lingua franca by the global lingua franca.

      I don’t think there’s any threat of distinctive, mutually unintelligible forms of Russian appearing in places like Lithuania. This process typically takes centuries. American Hispanics and Spaniards still understand each other fine; so do Brits and speakers of Indian English, etc. The threat of this is further diminished by the homogenizing effect of modern communication technologies.

      • Scowspi says:

        About the spread of English instruction: I don’t think that is likely to have much effect for the foreseeable future. It will take ages to train enough English teachers and create enough materials in most of the FSU to displace Russian. I read somewhere that former CCCP republics (Ukraine and Belarus in particular) have the lowest level of English knowledge in Europe.

        As for the relative uniformity of Russian, that situation is kind of a mystery. German and Italian, in their restricted geographical spaces, developed greatly differing dialects. Russian, spread over 11 time zones, hasn’t, with the exception of a few regional peculiarities.

        • As importantly, in Ukraine and Belarus the Russian language remains very widely spoken, whether as a first language (the majority of Belarusians, there) or as a second (first and second in Ukraine). The situation is similar in Kazakhstan, where many Kazakhs, even, don’t speak their language.

          The relative homogeneity of Russian may have much to do with the extensive migration within Russia, to Siberia and other frontiers and cities and whatnot. Dialects are fading in Italy and Germany–and regional languages have nearly disappeared in France–because of migration. That, and education.

  2. Cheers for the links. I will definitely have a look. I more or less agree with the ranking and reasoning. I would have a few caveats about French:
    * French is actually not that prominent in the EU. It is the number 2 language of European *institutions* (the “European community” of Eurocrats, lobbyists, diplomats, politicians..) – way behind English but very solidly ahead of German. You cannot work in the Eurocracy without working English (and it can be “Euro-English” or “Globish”) but French does give you an edge. The majority of texts within the European Commission used to be drafted in French until the mid-1990s and Commissioners – especially from the UK – were expected to be French-speaking. I am not completely insensitive to the argument that the Union’s recent spinelessness and being at ease with the “neoliberal-American order” is in part linked to this.
    * You assessment of it as the second international language (still!) and of Africa are spot on.
    * French texts are worth reading. In particular, I think the works of Raymond Aron – a great liberal and anti-communist French journalist, political scientist and sociologist – are in and of themselves reason enough to learn French. They are always lucid and brilliant, including “The Opiate of the Intellectuals”, “In Defense of Decadent Europe”, “Progress and Disillusion”, “War and Peace Among Nations”, “Clausewitz”… Abridged versions are typically available in English.
    * The French – at least much of the elite – are absolutely anal about their language. They seem to be hedging: French could still be number one and the world’s lingua franca if we hold out and the right events occur. E.g.: the U.S. collapses into civil war/becomes Spanish, the Brits leave the EU, the number of Frenchmen outnumbers Germans (French becoming the EU language?), Hindi nationalists eliminating English in India… And zen everyssing vill be perhfect!!

    • About the last point, isn’t there some law that says 75% of French radio (or was it TV programs?) has to be in the French language? And IIRC, there’s also a commission that tries to fight off the introduction of English-derived words into the language.

      I think it’s a French thing, not an elite one. One thing that most tourists (including myself) have noticed is that the French are very reluctant to help out foreigners who don’t make an effort to speak their language. The expectation seems to be that foreigners should at least try to speak to speak some French before they are to be helped. I don’t particularly disagree with this attitude, though; when in Rome, you…

      That’s quite a scenario you have there. Problem for the French is that, with the US and India out of the language game, IMO the logical language to take over would then be pinyinized Chinese.

  3. Scowspi says:

    By the way, “hardness” is such a relative term that it doesn’t make sense to rank it, unless you’re doing so from the perspective of one language (or a group of related languages). E.g. Russian is easy if your native language is Polish, but not if it’s English.

    For what it’s worth, Defense Language Institute in Monterey puts Russian and other Slavic languages in Category 3 of difficulty (for English speakers) out of 4. The hardest category, 4, includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic.

    • Charles says:

      Agreed, I clicked on of Anatoly’s links and IIRC it was talking about how Czech was a hard language to learn- but if you already have a ‘foot in the door’ of the Slavonic languages it is not.

      • Scowspi says:

        That said, of the 3 Slavic languages I know (Russian, Polish and Czech), I think Czech is the hardest. This is in line with the theory that as a language spreads, it becomes simpler and more regular. Czech was never an imperial language like Russian; it was always confined to a small territory, and has retained lots of arcane rules, and a huge number of exceptions, which make it incredibly difficult to speak correctly.

        • When large numbers of foreigners learn a new language, they tend to regularize it. Creoles tend to be more regular than the languages on which they’re based. “Ebonics” has mostly done away with the only grammatical case standard English has left (the genitive), has regularized “go, goes” to “go”, “go, went, gone” to “go, went”, “am, is, are” to “be” in lots of situations, and so on.

          Also, all languages seem to be traveling in a closed loop: inflectional -> analytical -> agglutinative -> inflectional. Over the centuries English has moved further and further along the road from the inflectional to the analytical camp. Black English is more analytical than standard English. When a lot of foreigners learn a new language, they tend to push it further along the loop. This loop simply points towards the direction of least resistance. Since Chinese is already very analytical, one would expect foreigners to push it in the agglutinative direction if they ever adopt it en masse. Bulgarian most likely lost its cases when a lot of Turkic speakers adopted it.

          Alternatively, a language that no one is interested in learning will tend to stay put at its particular spot on the loop. The most conservative Germanic language is Icelandic, the most conservative Romance language is spoken in central Sardinia, the most conservative IE language overall is of course Lithuanian – all of those are spoken in very provincial spots.

          Czech is conservative partly because foreigners never had a reason to learn it and to regularize it in the process.

          • Yalensis says:

            Very good discussion! In his books (for example, “The power of Babel, a natural history of language”), John McWhorter also also makes the same point that isolated languages, when left to their own devices, tend to ornament themselves with increasing layers of grammatical complexity, while lingua francas like English tend to simplify themselves – ebonics is a good example, although I prefer the term “standard African-American dialect” (which also has sub-dialects based on geographical region).
            On “hardness” of languages, although somewhat subjective and relative, I do believe this can be quantified. One important factor is alphabet. Many educated people learning foreign language are learning in order to READ (not so much for casual conversation), so writing systems can be scientifically ranked on how phonemic (or non-phonemic) they are. On these grounds, languages like Spanish and Czech are almost perfect: there is almost perfect one-to-one correspondence between individual letter (of alphabet) and phoneme (meaningful vowel or consonant). Serbo-Croatian is also excellent. Russian is pretty good (although with the well-known quirk about using same letter to denote both hard and soft consonant). English is bad and desperately in need or orthographic reform. Chinese is terrible, because uses complex word-symbols instead of phonemic system. If China wants to rule the world, then they MUST get themselves a scientific alphabet. No excuses!

            • Re-“Russian is pretty good (although with the well-known quirk about using same letter to denote both hard and soft consonant).” I will probably slap my forehead at the answer, but could you give an example of this quirk? I don’t get what you mean here.

              Re-Chinese. There have been discussions about Latinizing the script since the 1920’s, I believe, but the only result is that it was “Simplified” in the 1950’s/60’s. Problem is that there are now TWO systems, one on the mainland, the other in Taiwan and antique texts. So even if you know Simplified perfectly, but little of Traditional, you will not be able to read The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, full stop. Overall, this was probably a step back. More recently there have been debates about pinyinization, but it’s not politically feasible.

              I think with time the issue will retreat, however, mainly thanks to technological progress. When writing Chinese characters on computer, you write in pinyin (say, “zhongguo” – you don’t even have to specify the tones) and the program will in real time conjure up a numbered series of character suggestions (in this case, pressing “1” will produce 中国).

              Passive recognition of characters is much easier than the active recollection that is needed for writing, so it is not as much of a core problem. However, even here there are developments, e.g. there are apps for iPhone and Droid phones where you point the camera at Chinese characters and they automatically recognize them and translate them into English.

              • Yalensis says:

                Sorry, Anatoly, I should have explained what I meant about “hard and soft” consonants in Russian.
                Back in the day when the Cyrillic alphabet was invented by Saints Cyril and Methodius (who were world-class linguists themselves and really knew what they were doing), the Common Slavic language had something in the range of 20 consonants and something in the range of about 7 vowels (the usual A-E-I-O-U, plus a “yat’” that was probably pronounced something like the “a” in English word “cat”, plus the “yery” (same as Russian “y” as in the word “dym” (“smoke”).

                Then, as East Slavic dialects evolved, something strange happened, and the number of vowels went down by 2 (leaving just the 5 vowels (A-E-I-O-U) while the number of consonants almost doubled: consonants B, V G, D Z, K, L, M, N, P, R, S, R each acquired a “sister” that was pronounced with softened palate. Thus, we get morphemic pairs such as “Dima” (nickname for Dmitry) vs. “dyma” (genitive case of “smoke”). Native speakers who haven’t studied linguistics probably feel intuitively that the difference lies in the vowel, because the “D” is spelled the same, but a different vowel is used after it. However, their intuition is wrong, and structural linguists know that the phonemic (=meaningful) difference actually lies in the consonant: a hard “D” vs. a soft “D’”, and that whether the “I” vowel (which is a single vocalic phoneme, even though it has two spelling variants and two phonetic variants) is pronounced higher or lower in the mouth is completely dependent on the preceding consonant.
                Hence, if Russian spelling were completely phonemic, then there would be, in this example, two different letters for the two different D’s, and the vowel (“I” or “Y”) would be spelled using the same letter. So, the spelling reflects the way the Common Slavic language was several centuries ago, before the change occurred in East Slavic which almost doubled the number of consonants. I hope this is helpful?

              • Yalensis says:

                Addendum:
                So sorry! In my haste I forgot about the two “nasal vowels” in Common Slavic (so, Common Slavic actually had somewhere in the range of 10 vowels, making it vowel heavy and relatively lite on consonants); as opposed to modern Russian, which is a consonant-heavy language and lite on vowels. In addition to the vowels I mentioned, there were 2 nasal vowels in Common Slavic (preserved to this day in Polish): a “low” nasal vowel probably pronounced like the “on” in French “bon” (“good”), and a “high” nasal vowel probably pronounced like the “ain” in French “pain” (“bread”). In East Slavic dialects like Russian, these nasal vowels merged into non-nasal vowels “u” and “a”, respectively. Two examples from Middle Ages, common European words borrowed into Slavic: “vampire”  ampir’ (with low nasal vowel)  Russian up’ir’; “kuningas” (“prince”)  kning (with high nasal vowel)  Russian kn’az’ (with the G becoming Z through a different sound change).

    • Yeah, I was working under an Anglophone / West European bias here. You are correct, of course. As another example, it is said to be easier for the Chinese to learn Japanese, due to the similarities of their writing systems, that any European language.

      • Scowspi says:

        Minor correction to the above interesting post:

        “the “yery” (same as Russian “y” as in the word “dym” (“smoke”).”

        Actually the *yery* (today the hard and soft signs) are believed to represent reduced vowels originally. Let this guy explain it for you:

        http://russianmentor.net/gram/mailbag/topics/phon2.htm

        • Yalensis says:

          @Scowspi: My apologies again, my post was very sloppy. I posted from an Anglophone environment (i.e. = work), without access to my Cyrillic keyboard or old lingusitics textbooks! Anyhow, by “yery”, I meant the Cyrillic letter ы which is an allophone of the Russian phoneme represented by the letter и.
          Although… if you look at the otherwise excellent Wikipedia article on Russian phonology , editors seem to feel there is some “controversy” about whether or not ы is its own phoneme, or just an allophone of и. Well, you know how academics are …. always have to have something to argue about!
          Anyhow, in my earlier haste, I not only omitted the nasal vowels from Common Slavic, but also the “hard sign” and “soft sign” that you mentioned, ъ and ь respectively, not to be confused with “yery” ы, although their official alphabet names were also something like “yer” and “yer’”. (Now called “m’agkij znak” and “tv’ordyj znak”.)
          These two symbols (now just “hard sign” and “soft sign”) represented actual VOWELS in Common Slavic. The ъwas pronounced something like the “u” in English word “but”, and the ь was pronounced something like the “I” in English word “bit”. (These are just guesses; they didn’t have tape recorders in those days!)
          Common Slavic was what linguists call a C-V language, every syllable consisted of a consonant followed by a vowel, so every word was like “la-la-la-la”.
          Then, due to mysterious unknown forces, the two “yer” type vowels ъ and ь disappeared, leaving disjointed C-V-C syllables and lots of crazy consonant clusters. It was this radical change which eventually led to the development (in East Slavic dialects) of hard vs. soft consonant pairs, as the consonants were left to struggle with the new syllabic structure. Around the same time, the number of vowels was reduced to a minimalistic five (A-E-I-O-U).
          Note: changes this radical in a heretofore stable language usually indicate a massive influx of non-native speakers trying to learn the new language and bringing old habits and foreign accents in with them. But, in the case of Old Slavic, I don’t believe the history books record such a development; so it is a mystery why all this change happened so suddenly….

          • Yalensis says:

            P.S. This discussion caused me to revise my earlier opinion that Russian orthography is “pretty good”. That was one of my personal criteria for how “hard” or “easy” it is to learn a specific language. I used to brag to English-writing friends that Russian spelling was so easy, that is why there is no need for spelling bees in Russia. However, this discussion and review made me realize that Russian orthography has many anomalies. For example, in a scientifically phonemic spelling the common word его should be spelled йево. Plus, the number of vowel letters should be reduced to five, and the soft (paired) consonants should be denoted with some type of stroke over the letter.

            • Isn’t that what Polish does? It looks like a right mess, I’d stick with the current system. ;)

              • Yalensis says:

                Ha! Actually, I am ashamed to say I don’t speak Polish (ashamed, because my father spoke it fluently but didn’t pass that along to me), however I can READ anything written in Polish, with more or less correct pronunciation (not knowing what the words mean, of course), thanks to the fact that Polish orthography is phonemic. It looks like a mess on paper, because they will use 2 letters for one consonant (for example, sz, cz, etc.), so that makes the words excessively long, but aside from that quirk the spelling is pretty darned good. Nice job, Polish dudes [whoever invented their alphabet] !
                :)

    • “hardness” is such a relative term…”

      This is only true to a point. For example, I’m pretty sure that almost no matter what your native language is, French will seem more difficult to you than Spanish and Italian. And I only say “almost” here in order to exempt actual French, Spanish and Italian speakers. French happens to be objectively more difficult than its southern neighbors – lots of sounds that are rare in other languages, a less direct connection between spelling and pronunciation, etc. The Mexican version of Spanish almost exclusively uses the sorts of sounds that are present in almost any language on Earth. That kind of thing contributes to objective ease.

      Among the Slavic languages Bulgarian is unique in having a relatively simple grammar. This would most likely make it the easiest Slavic language to learn for non-Slavic speakers.

      • Yalensis says:

        @Glossy: Bulgarian SEEMS like an easy language … until you get to past tense verbs. Back in my student days I tried to learn Bulgarian (just because I love Bulgarians and I love the sound of their language), and I was okay so long as I limited my discussion to things happening in the present and future. But past tense … sheesh! Talk about hard!

      • I was researching the demographic situation in different countries, and when I visited the Bulgarian state statistics portal, I was amazed to find that I could understand it without any problems; indeed, it was a lot easier even than Ukrainian. I was expecting it to have diverged more (after all, they’re South Slavs) and to have assimilated more Turkic elements, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

        The reason, as I later learned, is that the Bulgarians got most of their modern words from Russian in the late 19th century. This means that ironically, it is actually easier for Russians to read somewhat more complex and technical (e.g. about GDP) Bulgarian texts than ostensibly simpler ones but where purely Bulgarian words predominate.

        Of course, these are casual observations; it seems yalensis is the person to go to for more info on Bulgarian.

        • Yalensis says:

          Not really! As I mentioned, I never got beyond present and future tense verbs in my Bulgarian studies. I had to give up when it came to past tense verbs making distinctions between something “directly observed” and something “reported/hearsay”. Yikes!

    • I attended the DLI and I speak very broken Russian. I’d rather learn Russian that Arabic as far as difficulty goes.

      BTW it’s difficulty, not hardness. Hardness isn’t a word to describe difficulty, but rather texture or strength of a substance…

  4. I’d echo C-W’s comment on French, above, and add that “…relatively easy, similar to English” is accurate only insofar as their sharing the same alphabet. However, structurally French has much more in common with Russian than with English. Vocabulary-wise, a lot of terms are identical, or so close that extrapolation is easy – “trottoir” means “sidewalk” in both languages, while nothing in English – past or present – is even close. “Bibliotheque” in French becomes “Biblioteka” in Russian, and both mean “Library”. “Meubles” in French becomes “Mobles” in Russian, and both mean “Furniture”, while having nothing in common with the English word.

    Structurally, in both French and Russian, the verb is modified dependent upon past or present tense, many or few subjects and the gender of the subject or subjects. English is not a gender-based language.

    There’s not enough in common between French and Russian to say that knowing French makes it easy to learn Russian (mostly because they do not share the same alphabet), but knowing French can give you valuable insights into the structure of Russian. If you know both French and English, you can intuit a lot of the vocabulary as well.

    • I don’t think there’s any particularly strong resemblance between Russian and French. On vocab, German also has made a lot of contributions, especially in academic and military terms (Schule / школа, Soldat / солдат, Landschaft / ландшафт; though for latter, granted there’s also paysage / пейзаж); and most of the modern terms are borrowed from English (television, tank, computer, mobile phone, etc). As for grammar, French is nowhere near as inflected / complex (or flexible!) as Russian. Of those I’m passingly familiar with, the West European language with the most similar grammar to Russian is Latin. I would say many, perhaps most, languages also have grammars that are highly dependent on gender; French and Russia are hardly atypical in this regard (the most prominent examples I can think of that don’t are English and Chinese).

      PS. Minor correction – furniture is mebel’ (мебель) in Russian.

      • Thanks; my Russian is still not all that great. Maybe that’s why my wife always laughs at me when I say that word – you may have solved a mystery for me. Or it could be something sexual. Well, never mind.

        Anyway, I did mention that there is not enough commonality between French and Russian to assure easy learning of the one if you are fairly well-versed in the other. I should, perhaps, have caveatted it with “Russian and French share startling structural commonalities in verb employment and conjugation IF YOUR MOTHER TONGUE IS ENGLISH” (I’d have underlined or italicized that if I knew how; I’m not shouting).

        For those who learned English first, that style of verbal manipulation is a completely foreign concept, which typically appears needless to us (since English is nothing like that, especially the gender component). It may well be that other languages I also do not speak well or at all share a good deal more commonality with Russian – but I’m unaware of them. Another commonality, as I discussed, is the existence of French words in Russian (I’m sure the origin was French) that mean the same thing despite their being represented in different alphabets. Of course there are English words that appear in Russian, but they are typically colloquialisms which are universal regardless of alphabet: “hamburger”, for example, is hamburger in pretty much every language. Many words that are common to French and Russian are not anything alike in English.

        • Yalensis says:

          @mark: Russia went through a phase in history where there was huge influx of French words (all the ones you mentioned, plus many more). Russian nobles (and all educated people) learned French and many even spoke it at home, instead of Russian, which they considered a peasant patois. If you read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in Russian, there are whole chapters written in French. For example, there will be a big scene in a ballroom, and all the aristocratic characters are chatting to each other in French. Later in the book, there are scenes set in Napoleon’s camp, and all the French officers are naturally talking to each other in French. Tolstoy assumed that his readers would be able to read all the French passages, so he didn’t bother to render them into Russian.
          P.S. The deeper reason why French and Russian share some common structural features (e.g., gender) is because they are “cousin” languages, which evolved from the same distant ancestor (proto-Indo-European, which was a gender-based language). English evolved from the same proto, but many centureis ago lost the feature of gender, except for such relics as “him” vs. “her”.

  5. muslim says:

    what ever it is…islam promote to learn or study at least 7 language..as a muslim we already know that every language (knowlege) in this world is from god.. in the quran allah said, the translation is : all people/humanity/mankind we(god) have created you from a pair of a male and female and we have made you into people and tribes that you may know one another.
    my opinion is the easiest thing or the easiest way to know each other is to study other race language..
    * (we) at the translation, in arabic words it have two kind of plural there is plural of number and plural of power.

  6. First, thanks for the link.

    I agree with almost all of this. One thing I’d add is that machine translation is very unlikely to become as good as the human kind in our lifetimes. Adequate translation is impossible without actual understanding of the text, and I doubt that that kind of AI is yet on any sort of a horizon. So languages will continue to compete with each other in the traditional way for a very long time, maybe even for as long as our species survives. Written Chinese is too complicated to ever become as widespread as English is now, but the spoken and pinyin versions could make a run for the top – why wouldn’t they?

    “Most of the culture of Classical Europe was preserved in Arabic texts…”

    That’s the one thing I disagree with. 99.9% of the literature of the pagan Greco-Roman world was lost. Most of the little, most likely unrepresentative, bits that have come down to us were preserved in Medieval Christian monasteries. Very small portions of the extant 0.01% were retranslated into Latin from Arabic during the later Middle Ages or dug up by archaeologists in Egypt during the 20th century. If you start reading up on the histories of individual Greek and Roman texts, you see a pattern – almost all came to us through medieval monasteries. If Dark Age monks weren’t interested in it, it didn’t survive.

    • search says:

      The Byzantine Greeks should be given the most credit for preservation of Greco-Roman culture. First they were looted of their art and treasure by Latin Crusaders (who built their own wealthy city states with it), then Greek scholars fled West mostly to Italy when their city fell to the Turks. This was in 1453, when the West was “rediscovering” this knowledge.

  7. “That’s the one thing I disagree with. 99.9% of the literature of the pagan Greco-Roman world was lost. Most of the little, most likely unrepresentative, bits that have come down to us were preserved in Medieval Christian monasteries. ”

    Most of it was lost, but obviously we can’t quantify what has survived but more importantly I strongly disagree with what you say about these bits being irrelevant : they are, to the contrary, from the most famed authors and texts of their times. Their reputation was the foremost factor leading to their conservation, if only because such classics had always had more copies increasing the chances for them to land in a scriptoria.

    I sometimes wish we could have a bit more of the trivial litterature from the ancients!

    • “Most of it was lost, but obviously we can’t quantify what has survived…”

      The number of titles in the biggest libraries of antiquity (Alexandria, early Constantinople) are said to have been in the low hundreds of thousands. If you put everything that has survived to our days from the pagan Greco-Roman world, the number of volumes you’ll fill will be in the low hundreds. The Loeb classical library, which I understand to be comprehensive, only takes up a few shelves. I’ve seen the 0.1% estimate in several places.

      “I strongly disagree with what you say about these bits being irrelevant : they are, to the contrary, from the most famed authors and texts of their times.”

      Not really. I’ll give a few examples.

      The most comprehensive, one might even say official, Roman history of Rome was Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Only about a quarter of it has survived.

      Everything that has come down to us from Aristotle is thought to represent lecture notes. None of the stuff that he actually prepared for publication and published, in other words, none of the stuff for which he was actually famous in the ancient world, has survived.

      The only reason why we know that there were astronomers in ancient Greece who believed that the Earth revolves around the Sun is a couple of off-hand references to them in surviving works. The actual works arguing for the heliocentric model are lost, together with the ancient arguments for that model. Did they stumble upon it by chance or did they actually understand what was going on – a pretty important question – is now unanswerable.

      The earliest known novel is Satyricon by Petronius. I remember reading that the portion of it that has survived represents 1% or 2% or something like that of the total. And it was probably not the first novel, just the only one besides The Golden Ass of which anything at all has come down to us.

      Other fascinating stuff that was lost:

      A Greek named Pytheas from what is now Marseille wrote a book in the 4th century BC about his travels in northwestern Europe. he had circumnavigated Britain and been all over the continent’s Atlantic coast. Considering the subsequent importance of that part of the world, it would be very interesting to find out what he found there, but his book is now lost. The earliest written materials that we still have about that part of the world are centuries older.

      I remember reading about ancient references to a scholarly Greek work called Indike about, surprise, surprise, India. It’s lost. Ancient Indian history is many times murkier than ancient Western or Far Eastern history, so the loss of a stand-alone work dedicated to India is of gigantic importance.

      The emperor Claudius produced a dictionary of the Etruscan language and a history of Etruria. They’re lost. Etruscan is now largely unreadable. The people of Tuscany have been pretty important to world civilization – Virgil, Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Raphael, Galileo, etc. Where did they come from, how did they get that way, what was their ancient history like? I’m sure that this interested the ancients at least as much as it interests the modern world, probably more so. Rome was, in a way, a bastard child of Etruria and it ended up conquering half the civilized world. Unfortunately, most of the products of this very understandable interest are now lost.

      Quoting from Charles Murray’s “Human Accomplishment”:

      “…in literature, the masterpieces the West retains from ancient days are probably outnumbered by the ones we have lost. We know that Sophocles wrote at least 123 plays, of which only 7 survive in their entirety. Aeschylus wrote about 90 plays, of which we have 7. Euripides wrote at least 92 plays, of which we have only 19. One of the greatest of Euripides’s surviving works, “The Trojan Women”, won only second prize in a contemporary competition. We know nothing about the play that cam in first.”

      Plus there’s the sure existence of fascinating stuff we don’t even know we don’t have.

  8. Scowspi says:

    Here is a list of the Top 10 languages on the Internet, by number of users. As you can see, it corresponds 90% with Mr. K’s list, although the ranked order is different:

    http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm

  9. kirill says:

    Japanese is only hard because of the kanji script. Cantonese, which is even simpler grammatically, is hard because of the same character based script plus meanings rendered by 9 levels of intonation. Interesting how over-simplification results in backtracking to more structure.

    While one would expect Japanese to have nothing in common with western languages, I find it to have fragments (non-random) of similarity to Russian. So it has complex origins and perhaps island isolation facilitated preservation compared to the mainland. Here are some examples: the particles no, ka and ra can mean the same thing in Russian when appended to words; no denotes “of”, ka implies question (but the common Russian one is li), and ra is a plural-izer (not common in Russian). Japanese does not have gender and tends not distinguish between plural and singular. There is no politeness tense in western languages, unlike Japanese. A native Japanese speaker told me it is easier for them to pronounce Russian words than western European ones and I believe this. There are a lot of ch, ts, and sh sounds in Russian. I have encountered Japanese words that are similar to Russian (for example “baba” which means the same in both languages, and even has an impoliteness aspect in both) that are hard to fob off as coincidence. Even words like “yama” which means mountain in Japanese and hole in the ground in Russian; in Japanese “yami” means darkness so somewhere in there is an overlap in origins (one would not expect vocabulary to survive separated for thousands of years). The verb “kakeru” means to leap or jump in Japanese; in Russian, skakat means to jump about and since the “s” is an emphasis prefix in Russian I would say this word has the same root. The word “ogon” in Japanese means gold (the more common one is “kin”) and in Russian it means “flame”. Yet another loosely related word if you think colour and there are many more like this.

    • Scowspi says:

      I think some of these presumed Russian/Japanese links are fanciful or coincidental. Terms like “baba,” and other words relating to family, like “mama,” are nearly universal and are probably rooted in “baby talk.” “Ogon” (fire) can clearly be traced to Proto-Indo-European (e.g. Sanskrit “agni”, Lithuanian “ugnis”, Latin “ignis”) and has no provable link with gold, which derives from a different IE root.

      Of course, if you adhere to the Nostratic or Proto-World hypothesis, it’s easy to see these things as genetically linked. But it’s nowhere near provable.

      What I do find interesting about Japanese is the way it adapts foreign (usually English) words, radically changing them because Japanese phonology is so restrictive. For instance, the word “doraiba,” which means screwdriver. There’s also a certain amount of linguistic archeology: e.g. the word for a stapler is “hochikisu,” which tells me there must have been a company named Hotchkiss somewhere in the Anglo world that made staplers, and these staplers became well known in Japan. Analogy with Russian: the older Russian term for a typewriter, “andervud” (Underwood).

      • Yeah, in Chinese too: mom is māma. But funnily enough, bàba isn’t grandmother, but dad.

        However, I think kirill has a point about yama; they probably come from similar roots in both Russian and Japanese.

  10. In Turkish, are you including Azerbaijani speakers? I’ve been given to understand–not through first-hand experience that the two languages are almost if not entirely mutually intelligible.

    (Hmm. Azerbaijanis as Shi’ite Turks, separated by the Kurds and by the Soviet-era Armenian republic?)

    • Yes, I’m. From what I’ve been told by Turkic speakers, yes, Turks and Azeris have no problems understanding each other. Kind of like Norwegians and Swedes, I suppose.

  11. Howard Rork says:

    I have no knowledge of the Japanese language and the humorous trap of Westerners talking like girls there, but I can’t absolve Russian from this same phenomenon either. Russian women have a strong proclivity to speak in the diminutive. It is adorable but dangerous when mimicked in public. When I was a beginner, I made an ass of myself a few times while using words learned from Russian girlfriends. Further study of the language can remove you from this peril very quickly, but memories of those embarrassing moments still leave me red-faced.

    As for the role of the Chinese language in the future, it certainly seems, statistically, that it will only grow in prevalence. However, the Chinese are learning English at such a faster pace than the rest of the world is learning Chinese, that it may never reach a point where “we’ll all be speaking Chinese some day.”

    Without question, there is enormous benefit to learning a second language in order to build a greater understanding of the culture behind it. While AK may gladly remind me that I haven’t learned a damned thing about Russia based on my study of their language, it still goes a long way when interacting with the locals you work with or befriend. Russians are particularly thrilled when you make any effort to speak their language, even if your effort is beyond bad. I doubt you could say that about the French.

    As for the list, it looks quite good. In the end, you want to go with where your opportunities and interests lie. It makes learning a specific language so much more enjoyable.

  12. According to the Conventional Wisdom of the Blogosphere, at least the HBD segment of the blogosphere, before too long the entire world will be speaking Arabic, following the Islamic conquest of the world and the establishment of the global Caliphate.

  13. Good post…one little quibble, though:

    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.

    Korean is relatively easy compared to Japanese, and much easier than Chinese, mainly because its alphabet is simplified. My wife learned Korean fairly easily when she was at uni there, but balked at Chinese. She’s learning Thai now, which is horrendously difficult, especially to read and write.

  14. Antonio says:

    I believe Portuguese is spoken by more than 220 million by now. Best,

  15. Dont know if you know this. But english is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn…. Just thought i would throw that out there.

  16. Scott Peterson says:

    I agree with your list, but think that Japanese should be removed and would replace it with Hindi. I speak Japanese and lived in the Tokyo area for several years. Japan’s population is highly likely to shrink rapidly over the next couple of decades, and Japanese industry is not keeping up as far as technological advancement is concerned. Foreigners, even with excellent Japanese skills, are not likely to rise to significant decision making positions in Japanese corporations (although there are some exceptions).

  17. Ironballs Mcgillicutty says:

    This article seems to have only partial knowledge of the state of the German language. If true, possibly the others too. It’s spoken by about 125 million native speakers and roughly 80 million more as a 2nd or 3rd language. It’s widely studied throughout eastern Europe in schools and is second in that regard only to English and, then, not by much. No other language is close in that region. German is a lingua franca in that whole area along with English. It has also surpassed French as a studied foreign language in Turkey and the Balkans (Japan too). It is becoming increasingly important again as a language of science and popular culture (movie and music industries). It’s even grown in stature and numbers in Namibia where it holds constitutional “national language” status. It’s also recently attained a level of translation status at the U.N. although it doesn’t have official status (yet). Having official, national, or regionally recognized status in at least 13 countries, this language has really been on the move again since 1990 and I’m surprised he ranked it so low.

    • Ironballs Mcgillicutty says:

      A few things that I wanted to add to my comment regarding the German language. It is one of the 3 working languages of the European Union. It has also surpassed French as a studied foreign language in the Baltic countries and Russia, as well as Turkey, the Balkan countries, and Japan. Obviously, throughout Eastern Europe as well. In a few other select world areas too. Spanish is almost non-existent as a studied foreign language, in schools, throughout most of these areas. German is the 3rd most studied foreign language in the world today.

      One out of every ten books published in the world is done so in the German language, making it one of the very top literary languages. More importantly though is that German has recognized the importance of the internet, to not only service your language speakers, but also to promote your language and make it more relevant. Today, the second most number of websites on the internet, after English, are in German. I would have thought Mandarin, but no, it’s German. Check out the number of German language websites that pop up when you’re searching for something in English. Also, after .Com, the next largest domain in cyberspace is .De. I hope I’ve made a little case here for German, which I thought was overlooked, and possibly out of date, in the article.

    • Anna Koltz says:

      In Japan , it is completely uncorrect , Japanese people like Europe so the most they can do at once , they would but mostly they go to Paris and when they prefer something closer where do they go : HAWAII , GUAM OR FRENCH POLYNESIA and even if they have many English words , most Japanese do not speak English . That said , do you seriously care about German language when you go to Turkey , most do not speak German , those who do came back from Germany .
      Russia language is from the same principles so yes it helps .

      French and Spanish are before German .
      Some people do not like the sound of some Germanic languages most young and older older remember war so neither .
      And about culture , most can watch in English, German TV programs can be seen abroad for examply in Austria or France and half because of the French-German channel Arte and laws between both countries .

      German cars are famous because of speed , it is not everyday’s car and of course what shines have success .

      And about cyberspace , i remember to read a German-French article it said German are more on web but less longer than French so it does not mean a lot .

      Tschuss

      • Anna Koltz is stupid bitch says:

        Shut up, stupid retard, you have absolutely no knowledge of what you are babbling about, you are probably some communist subhuman who is living in his red cave. I would recommend you one thing, retarded aborted fetus, look in the newspaper what languagae are studying unemployed greeks and spaniards. He presented official sources while you presented some biased fairy tales from your degenerated brain. GERMAN LANGUAGE IS ON THRE RISE AND YOU CAN DO NOTHING ABOUT IT, STUPID INBREED. IN EUROPE GERMAN LANGUAGE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SPANISH AND FRENCH, USELESS RETARD.

  18. soundersbloke says:

    I feel like its also relative to the gender. As this article seems biased to Westerners in terms of difficulty, women are unlikely to travel to the Middle East due to their low status in the Muslim culture, thus find Arabic completely irrelevant to their future. Chinese is only useful if you are to go into business or live in the country, however as its an emerging superpower more tourists will appear and be unlikely to learn Western languages as it is very difficult with the difference in grammar.

    • Sounds like a baseless generalization to me. Of the fifteen or so odd Arabic-speaking Americans I know, 12 of them are women and all of them have lived and traveled in the region extensively and expect to continue doing so. The challenge with Arabic that I haven’t seen mentioned here, besides the grammar and non-Indoeuropean structure, is that almost every Arabic-speaking country speaks a dialect so different from one another as to almost be separate languages: modern standard Arabic is understood widely, being the language of TV talking heads and pan-Arabic broadcast journalism, but bears little resemblance to what is spoken on the streets in Damascus or Marrakech, Beirut or Benghazi. Either you speak Modern Standard and everyone understands you, but you understand no one, or you speak a dialect which is mostly usful for that country and more complicated if you go elsewhere. Although granted, speaking, say, Moroccan Arabic in Baghdad is probably better than no Arabic….

  19. Interesting, but about the ratings- I don’t think someone can be fully fluent in any language in 1 year. I’ve been learning Spanish for almost two years and I’m still not completely fluent.

  20. Hi. My name is Aik Tun. I’m from Myanmar(Burma). I don’t know why. I’m so interesting in foreign languages. So, now I’m learning English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and a little of Spanish and Russian. But it not complete yet. In future, I have plan to learn French, German, Arabic and Italian. I know it is hard to learn for many languages and complete in fluent but I will try my best.

  21. Hardness has nothing to do with utility.

  22. Most of the languages on here are good picks, but what about “lingua Latina?” I know it’s a dead languages, but it’s extremely useful today’s world. Most every european language borrows several words from it, including the dominant language here, English. It also looks very good on a resume and has several historical and cultural benefits, such as knowing about the ancient roman empire all the way to things like deciphering animal taxonomy and medicines. It’s easily 10-8-3, according to the chart, for a final LUI of 26.66. That’s the 2nd highest language on there. Other than that, I think all of the languages you had were very good picks and suit today’s world well.

  23. Anna Koltz says:

    I find difficult to understand how French and Portuguese can be that close even Brazil does not make it accurate , French is way more usefull .
    -It gave many words to English ;
    -It helps a lot if you want to learn Spanish , Arabic , Italian or Dutch for example ;
    -It is the only language with English spoken in all continents ;
    -The pronounciation of French completely helps for Japanese ;
    -In Western Europe , in France it is needed but there is Andorra , Monaco , Luxembourg , Belgium , Switzerland , and in Ireland , Scotland , Wales and Germany after English and their country language/s the next language taught is French ;
    -In Russia , the high society used to speak French;
    -France has many neighbors unlike Portugal and many regional languages in France are spoken on neighborhood countries .

    AND SO ON

  24. Visitor-kun says:

    “Portuguese … it’s no harder than English or French”
    Are you kidding me? I’m Portuguese and I find English much easier to learn than my own language, though it’s not like I know English as I do with my language but the difference isn’t that great.
    Anyways, I agree that Portuguese is as harder as French (I’ve also studied French but I forgot most of it *facepalm*)

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