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What Language Should I Learn?

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The best languages to learn — based on why you want to learn, how easy languages are, and how many people speak them.

Globe of the world, illustrating that a language can be a vehicle for travel

Learning a language is so hard that before you start out you really have to make sure: are you learning the right language?

People tell us after we tell them about our language learning plans: “Wow, you’ll be able to speak to just about anyone in the world.”

A map of the world with countries coloured depending on the languages we want to learn
A language coverage map with my sixteen target languages. Grey countries are places where I wouldn’t speak a primary language of the country.

This then begged the question: What languages would we have to learn to speak to anyone in the world? What a goal! But is this even the right goal?

There are so many languages out there. There are some countries with several – even dozens – of major languages spoken by significant groups of people.

So this brought us to one guiding question: Why do we learn languages? And how do we choose what language to learn next?

In a nutshell… What Language Should You Learn?

Here’s the general framework for figuring out what language to learn.

  1. Figure out your “why”. There are lots of great reasons for learning a language, from learning the language of your family, wanting to connect to other cultures, wanting to travel, or others. Choose a list of languages based on your “why”.
  2. Prioritise by how hard the language is to learn, and what kind of investment you’ll need to get to the level you want.
  3. Decide how “cool” the language is. This is highly personal, but it’s this motivation that might keep you going!

Let’s explore below thinking through each of these, plus some example languages to learn.

Figure out “why” you’re learning a language

Deciding ‘why’ you’re learning a language is critical. You can really narrow down your list by figuring out the “why”.

People often wonder what the most “useful” languages to learn are. Obviously, the most useful languages would be the ones that best serve your purpose.

So “useful” can mean so many things — it might mean visiting a country, ordering food in a restaurant in your native country, or just reading books. That’s why we talk more about “motivation” to get more specific.

Our main motivation is to be able to understand people different to us, to bridge cultures. That tells us which languages to learn: those spoken by cultures that are interesting to us and about which we know nothing. For us, this includes major languages from all over the world, as well as those spoken by smaller communities, like tribes in Africa and Australia.

But there are many other reasons to learn a language. The reason you learn a language might be to speak to family, to connect with more people around the world, or maybe even just to impress people (like for your résumé).

If you are learning a language to speak to your loved ones — then that’s the language you’re going to learn.

Your motivation will also dictate how we learn.

For example, if your motivation is to learn and perform poetry, you’d go in deep and focus a lot on rich vocabulary and perfect diction.

If your motivation is to just chat with locals and have a laugh, you wouldn’t go anywhere near as deep.

Motivation: Why you want to learn a languageHow fluent you need to getSome suggested languages
To speak to family or loved onesIntermediate — fluency in household issues is more important than high literacyWhatever language your family/loved ones speak!
To connect with people in unfamiliar cultures, make friendsIntermediate — everyday fluency is more important than breadth of vocabulary/grammarWherever is unfamiliar and the language will connect you with many people — Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Russian
To read literature, poetry, or musicVery/extremelyFrench, Italian, German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese
Intellectual curiosity, or a mental challengeAs much as you want!Any language! Pick up Duolingo and go.
To travel as a touristBasic-Intermediate (most conversations are about food, prices)Languages spoken in many countries — Spanish, French, spoken Arabic
To build your résumé/impress peopleIntermediate (as much as you need to pass an interview)Any language (the easier the better) — French, Spanish, Indonesian

Sometimes it’s a bit hard to work out your motivations. We did it through a conversation, “Socratic style”.

Dana: “Hey Jo, let’s learn Russian!”
Jo: “What, I don’t want to go to Russia! OK, maybe another country that speaks Russian. Russian’s pretty cool. But isn’t it also really hard?”
Dana: “OK you’re right. Well, we’re going to Estonia… but I don’t want to learn Estonian. It’s one of the hardest languages in the world, we’re not staying long, and everyone there speaks English.”
Jo: “How about Swahili? They speak it in the Lion King and it sounds so beautiful!”
Dana: “Well, it is the most spoken language in Africa. But what about Xhosa? It has those click sounds!!”
Jo: “But do they speak it in the Lion King?
Dana: “No”
Jo: “Also more people speak Swahili and I want to go to Tanzania and Kenya. Also, Lion King.”

Our motivation: To connect with people in countries/regions we want to visit, and with our families

As an example, we have two main answers to “why” learn a language: 1. to connect with cultures that are unfamiliar to us, and 2. to get closer to our families.

For the first reason, this means spending time in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, the Former Soviet Union countries, and Eastern Europe.

An important secondary consideration is: will we even need the language to connect with the local people there? This can vary dramatically.

In Africa, there are a number of major languages, plus lingua franca languages like Swahili, English, and French. To cover a reasonable portion of Sub-Saharan Africa, we’d need to add Swahili (best learned in Zanzibar) and Hausa to our portfolio.

In the Middle East, we’d need to learn a spoken dialect of Arabic rather than Standard Arabic. We eventually settled on Egyptian Arabic.

It’s simple — using this framework, pick the place that’s least familiar to you, and learn that language. If you have a few choices, then pick the easiest one. If you are only interested in connecting with Chinese culture, then you learn Chinese!

Prioritise by how “easy” the language is

“Chinese??” You cry. “Isn’t that hard?”

YES! They’re all hard! There are no ‘easy’ languages to learn. Just some that won’t drive you QUITE as crazy. And they’re hard in at least a few ways. It depends on what your mother tongue, is, too.

If you’re interested, these are the hardest languages in the world to learn.

In some ways, every language is easy because a child can speak them. They’re only as hard as we make them for ourselves. We tend to be our own worst enemies by sending up roadblocks, like clinging to failures.

But knowing what you’re up against helps you decide how much effort to put in, and what to expect from learning.

This analysis assumes you’re an English speaker who’d learn in English. You may or may not know some other languages. I’m also going to consider just languages people learn – say, the ones most spoken in the world, the kinds that might have a couple of phrasebook options available on Amazon.

There are four main ways in which a language may be easy (or hard).

How easy is the language’s vocabulary?

Take French or Spanish. In Spanish, carro or coche is pretty easy to remember as “car”. Other words like político, restaurante, gobernamiento, teléfono, and legislación are all pretty easy to guess. Pick up any newspaper you can kind of figure out what’s going on even without knowing any Spanish.

A copy of El Mundo, a Spanish language newspaper, that shows that Spanish and English have a large overlapping vocabulary
El Mundo newspaper from Spain. Being able to read Latin text makes parsing a new language a lot easier.

The same is true of French and other languages with a familiar alphabet and a lot of related words.

Go to the front page of China Daily and it’s a different story. You’re just looking at the photos now.

A Chinese newspaper showing it's harder to learn a language that doesn't use a Latin character set
Copy of the People’s Daily newspaper. Do you want to learn all these characters?

How easy is the language’s pronunciation?

No language has REALLY easy pronunciation (including English for non-native speakers). But some get way harder.

Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai all have tones. Other languages like in Arabic, German, Hebrew, Dutch, Spanish, and French have letters that are difficult to pronounce. The letter r is a usual culprit for English speakers.

The easiest languages are those that have fewer sounds than in English. These languages are standardised and usually follow rules.

Bahasa Indonesia, for example, is the easiest major language (>300M speakers) I know of. It is relatively modern, standardised in the 1940s at the formation of the Indonesian nation. You pronounce it like it’s written and write it like it’s pronounced.

Korean and Japanese are very easy to pronounce (if you can read the words), but you do have to get used to some unusually pronounced letters.

The hardest major language to pronounce is Cantonese. Vietnamese is actually more linguistically dense, but at least has a standardised Roman writing system (and a smaller population of speakers).

How easy is the language’s alphabet?

It’s nice if it’s an alphabet you know (French, Spanish, hey even Vietnamese!), but if it’s not, it’s nice if it is an alphabet at all.

Korean has a very standard writing system.

Arabic and Farsi have alphabets — but they write right to left, and don’t write in short vowels, which throws a lot of people for a loop.

You might like: How to learn to read and write any language.

Sitting somewhere in the middle, at the ‘somewhat complex’ level are Indian languages, of which there are many, with many scripts. The common languages use syllabic scripts, meaning each major letter usually represents a consonant, with an attached vowel (and sometimes just a standalone vowel/consonant).

The very hardest scripts are those using Hanzi (in Mandarin Chinese)/Kanji (in Japanese), which are all the Chinese languages (which share a common script and written form, but not common verbal expression) and Japanese languages. You can, in theory, learn to read and write Japanese just learning the simpler alphabets, but you’ll end up not being able to fully participate in society. The casual traveller will do fine without kanji.

How complicated is the language’s grammar?

Grammar can by itself make a language very difficult.

Grammar can be hard when there are

  • Conjugations, like how you talk about the past, future, completed actions, things that might not happen, etc. This is very hard in Spanish and Italian, quite hard in French and other languages but most have fewer. Written Arabic has a lot, but spoken Arabic only two. It’s pretty easy in English and again, absent in Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia (hooray for small victories).
  • Cases, like in German, Russian and Arabic. Basically the word changes shape depending on what role it plays in the sentence.
  • Genders (two, like in Latin languages and Arabic, or three, like in German, Russian, Marathi and a few other Indian languages), or a whopping eighteen noun classes like in Swahili (cripes! We’ll have to find some shortcuts)
  • Persons, like in English (I eat, she eats… it’s pretty easy though), all romance languages (yo como, tu comes, ellos comen etc.), though NOT in Chinese (it’s easier than you think! OK that’s one of the only ways) or Bahasa Indonesia
  • Number of exceptions – German and English are all exceptions, it seems
  • Extra (common) grammar constructs that seem alien but that you have to become familiar with, like ci (to it) in Italian, en (‘some of’) in French, the 把 in Chinese, the use of ‘al’ in Arabic to denote ownership, etc.

It’s rare for grammar to be anything but hard, but it’s nice to have an understanding of what’s coming up.

What are the hardest and easiest languages?

With all that said, we analysed the 25 most spoken languages and put them into a few groups so you can prioritise them.

Very hardHardModerately hardNot too hard… maybe even “easy”
Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese) — hard for the script, grammar, and pronunciation.Russian – Hard mostly for the grammar and vocabularyArabic (spoken dialects): Much easier than Standard Arabic.Latin languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian. You have a huge head-start on these if you know English; even more of a headstart if you know one of the other ones.
Japanese (if you learn writing). It’s easier if you just learn to speak, but at some point, you need kanji.Indian languages: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, all for the grammar, script and vocabularyFarsi: Grammar is not too hard but has a lot of subtleties. Plus it’s right-to-left and has a foreign vocab.Swahili: Difficult for the system of noun classes, but people are also forgiving when you speak!
Arabic (Modern Standard): This is the official style of Arabic, which we wouldn’t suggest most learners start with. See below – spoken Arabic is easierVietnamese – for the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciationGerman: for the grammar (all exceptions), but not as bad as Russian because sometimes it sounds like English.Bahasa Indonesia/Malay: Wow, almost no complex grammar, easy pronunciation and alphabet… still has alien words, but that’s fine
Korean: Once you get past the basic structures, it’s phonetic and makes sense.Javanese: Like Indonesian/Malay.
Turkish: The grammar is complex and the vocabulary alien. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to pronounce, read or write.

Cool factor: How awesome would it be to speak this language?

We may be able to motivate ourselves a lot, but many of us benefit from outside motivation. This includes people telling us “Wow, you can speak Cantonese!” as well as native speakers looking at you with awe as you say just a few words in their language.

Roughly the same number of people speak Bengali as do people who speak Swahili. But Swahili is in The Lion King!

Jo’s first reaction to learning Arabic was “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if some Asian chick could speak Arabic?” Yes, it would (and it is)!

In the exact opposite way, how people ask me “does Arabic have much in common with Farsi?” (It doesn’t, but each one did help me a bit.)

Related to cool factor is the cultural return on investment. People aren’t surprised if anyone can speak French or Spanish. You have to be fairly fluent for someone to be impressed.

On the other hand, when I learned just ten words in an African village’s language while running in Africa, people were much more impressed than when I spoke Swahili. If you’re aiming to please people and make them happy (not a bad goal!) you’d know what to do.

What languages do we want to learn?

Here’s our list. It’s a work in progress. In rough order of the ones we want to know/learn in our lifetime.

Languages we both know:

Languages that one speaks and/or that we’re working on

  • Chinese (Mandarin) – I speak this well (here’s what I used to learn Chinese fluently), Jo’s not going down this treacherous path
  • Farsi (spoken) – I speak pretty well, Jo knows the basics but wants to improve
  • Korean – I know the basics and wants to learn it conversationally (it’s harder than he thought), Jo needs to get fluent. This is a project for 2019.
  • An Australian aboriginal language (or a bit of a few) — TBD which one(s), and mostly for basic conversation
  • Italian – I speak OK and could get better easily, Jo doesn’t
  • Hebrew – I am always working on this. (I spent 30 days learning it while I happened to be working in Tel Aviv, and got pretty far!)
  • Modern Standard Arabic — I know the basics but needs to drastically improve next time we’re in an Arabic-speaking country

“Nice to haves” — Depends on what comes up in life

  • Russian – Neither of us speaks, but I low-key want to learn
  • Japanese – We both know nothing, but it won’t take TOO much with a foundation in Chinese
  • German – I can fake it, and feel like it’s achievable. Jo doesn’t speak
  • Chinese (Cantonese) – I could learn with a bit of investment, Jo isn’t keen
  • Portuguese – Neither of us speak it, but it seems easy with a foundation in Spanish
  • Malay/Indonesian – I can count to ten and will learn at some point. Jo knows none

We might add more later. But that’s it… for now. I think it’s enough!

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