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Which is the most useful foreign language to learn?

Revised: May 2021

If you’re interested in learning a new language, there’s always that burning question – which will be most useful to you? You obviously want to get the most out of the extensive time and effort it takes to add a foreign tongue to your vocal repertoire.

So today we want to raise some key points for consideration.

Why are you learning the language?

Before you can decide which language will be most useful, it helps to know why you’re learning it in the first place. Whether it’s for work, travel or the pure fun of it, the ideal language for you largely depends on what you hope to gain from it. Make a goal, you could even plan a holiday to practice your skills with native speakers.

Professional factors

If your aims are purely professional then you’ll probably want to be quite pragmatic about things. For example, the CBI finds that French, German and Spanish are the most in-demand languages with UK employers.

But you may have ambitions to head elsewhere with your language learning. Rising markets like Southeast Asia and Latin America might be a more exciting prospect to you? Determine what your end goal first and choose the language most likely to help you achieve that goal.

The numbers

When you’re weighing up languages it’s useful to consider the number of people who speak the language and the number of countries where it’s widely spoken.

Chinese is the most widely spoken language by native speakers, but it only really spans three countries. Meanwhile, English covers a whopping 101 countries and Arabic a total of 59. Next you have French with 51 and Spanish with 11.

Considering the numbers can be useful if you’re thinking from a travel perspective, but don’t forget nations trade with countries in all different languages if you’re solely looking at the professional incentives.

Difficulty & accessibility

Sadly, there are no easy languages to learn, but some are certainly more difficult than others. We wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from taking on a difficult language, but there are a few points worth considering.

If you’re a native English speaker, for example, languages like Spanish and Italian share more similarities to your native tongue than Korean and Japanese. So, if you’re limited for time, you might want to make life a little easier for yourself by choosing a language with a shared history.

There’s also the question of accessibility, because you’ll need to be able to get your hands on good resources. If you’re learning a language in its country of origin then this won’t be so difficult. You can practice every day with native speakers. However learning Vietnamese in the UK may be more of a challenge to find good resources and tutors for example.

Fun!

Finally, it’s always worth considering the enjoyment factor. It’s much easier to learn a language when you’re having fun in the process. Much of this comes down to approach (e.g. practical exercises vs study sessions) but the best place to start is with the language e.g. is it associated with a culture you admire? A good tactic is to watch films or TV in the languages you’re considering, so you can get a feel for how they sound and how they’re expressed. You may find you associate with some, more than others.

Learning more languages

Once you feel you’ve made enough progress with your new language, it may be worth considering learning another. If you’ve learned Spanish, learning Italian and Portuguese is far easier, and the grammatical structure of Chinese can make Japanese and Korean less difficult to grasp.

This is especially true if you’re taking on language learning from a professional point of view. You can use the time invested in one language to help you take on another one and drastically boost your career prospects.

Not only does being bilingual give you an edge in job interviews, it also makes you an attractive candidate for global companies. With the demand for interpreters and translators expected to continue rising over the coming years, there is a wealth of career benefits that come with learning a new language.

So, the most useful foreign language to learn is completely down to your goal. It doesn’t really matter if more people speak Chinese in the world, if you’ve always dreamt of travelling South America!

Ask yourself the above questions and you are sure to arrive at the right answer for you.