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Which Foreign Language Should You Learn?

When it comes to deciding on a foreign language to learn, there are often many variables that come into play. Depending on the circumstances and motivations underlying the decision to learn another language, individuals will weight certain factors differently.

Today, many high schools and liberal arts colleges require a certain level of proficiency in a foreign language, which presents students and parents with the question: Which language is advantageous and practical to learn? In other situations, the decision to learn a foreign language might strictly be to gain an advantage in a particular career field. Alternatively, there are those who wish to travel and want to learn a language that will allow them to get by in another country without having to rely on locals’ knowledge of English.

Whatever your motivation, here are several aspects to consider when determining which language best suits your interests.

Spanish homework. Keith Williamson/Flickr

Why learn a new language?

A fundamental and important step in the process of choosing a foreign language to study is to take a moment to reflect on your goals and intentions. Here are a few questions to consider that can help the decision become clearer:

  • What foreign language(s) are you interested in on a personal level? Are there any that you feel naturally drawn to?
  • Why do you want to learn a foreign language?
  • What are your long-term goals for putting your foreign language skills to use?

What is the economic value?

As blogger Jacomine Nortier points out, trying to assign a dollar amount to a particular language can be problematic. In many instances, the intrinsic value of learning a language outweighs the economic benefits.

For example, being able to connect with a new community and becoming immersed in a different culture are not experiences that can be assigned a dollar value. Besides, learning a foreign language only equates to a 2% return in annual income on average, according to Harvard economists Albert Saiz and Elena Zoido. The main point is that factors other than economic value should be considered when choosing a language to study.

In terms of demand and the range of opportunities in which a language can be used, it might be more useful to look at the number of native speakers for each language. According to Ethnologue, here are the top languages of the world in terms of number of native speakers:

  1. Chinese (1,197,000,000)
  2. Spanish (414,000,000)
  3. English (335,000,000)
  4. Hindi (260,000,000)
  5. Arabic (237,000,000)
  6. Portuguese (203,000,000)
  7. Bengali (193,000,000)
  8. Russian (167,000,000)
  9. Japanese (122,000,000)
  10. Javanese (84,300,000)

What kinds of career opportunities?

Not all careers require knowledge of a foreign language. However, there are some fields in which knowing a second language is either advantageous or a requirement for success, such as international business, social work, and translation. Here is a look at these three fields and the top languages for each.

International business

According to Bloomberg rankings, the top eleven foreign languages, other than English, for conducting business around the world are:

  1. Mandarin
  2. French
  3. Arabic
  4. Spanish
  5. Russian
  6. Portuguese
  7. Japanese
  8. German
  9. Italian
  10. Korean
  11. Turkish

Social work

If you intend to go into social work in the U.S., it might be useful to study a language that is widely spoken around the country. Spanish is the most widely spoken language other than English in the U.S., at nearly 38 million speakers, according to the U.S. Census . Other top languages in the U.S. include Mandarin (2.9 million speakers), Korean (1.2 million speakers), Vietnamese (1.4 million speakers), and Tagalog (1.6 million speakers).

If you are hoping to do international social work for an organization such as the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders, it is important to decide the region in which you plan to work. Although knowledge of a foreign language isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite, being able to speak Spanish and French, for example, will enable you to work in specific regions.

Translation and interpretation

Similar to social work, if you are interested in translation and interpretation, the languages in highest demand differ depending on where you plan to work. For translation and interpretation in the U.S., fluency in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, or Tagalog are most beneficial. For online work as a freelancer, consider the most widely spoken languages on the internet. Foremost, speaking English puts you at a significant advantage as it is the number one language used on the internet. Following English, the top nine languages are:

  1. Chinese
  2. Spanish
  3. Arabic
  4. Portuguese
  5. Japanese
  6. Russian
  7. German
  8. French
  9. Malaysian

Travel opportunities

If your reason for learning a foreign language is travel, take some time to think about which areas of the world you would most like to visit. Knowledge of basic Spanish, French and Portuguese will enable you to get by in a large number of countries and regions of the world. Have a look at this world language map to see which languages best fit your travel desires!

Photo: Spanish homework. Credit: Keith Williamson / Flickr

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.