The most useful foreign languages an English speaker can learn, and why

One word, many languages.
One word, many languages.
Image: Flickr/Quinn Dombrowski
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Answer by Sanda Golcea on Quora.

Let’s get down to business!

While choosing which language to learn is a very subjective thing, I find these three lists make it clear which languages you should consider:

  1. The 10 most spoken languages in the world (excluding English, of course): Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi, and German.
  2. The list of 10 most spoken languages by number of countries: French, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, Mandarin, Malay, Kiswahili, and Russian.
  3. The six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
map of world

Maps courtesy of Quick Maps of the World

Why these three lists?

  1. Of course, when you learn a new language, your goal is to reach the largest number of people that language can make available.
  2. You probably want the language to be the most useful language when you travel, right?
  3. Which better languages to take into consideration than the ones used by a mega international world-wide organization?

The first problem of learning a language:

You only speak English? Is this going to be your first foreign language?

Then you want a relatively easy language to learn. You don’t want to take years and years, learning how to read all over again. You want a language that will empower you, a language that will be easy to learn and master to fluency, because if you’re not fluent in the language after years and years of study, how useful will it be?

Therefore I’d suggest you do not start with any language that has a different alphabet (or no alphabet), such as: Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Bengali, or Punjabi. That would leave you with: Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, or French.

Also Malay—I’ve personally never met anyone that speaks Malay, but from what I’ve seen, this language would be useful in Asia—and Kiswahili—which is spoken in parts of Africa and uses a defective Latin alphabet (replacing Arabic), so it might make sense if that continent is your target.

The second problem that comes up in the case of learning any language:

Do I have resources for learning this language readily available?

And by resources I mean:

  • schools: language centers or tutors
  • internet resources: movies, shows, music, internet sites, internet TV, or software that helps you learn
  • other resources: newspaper, magazines, libraries, médiathèques, or TV stations
  • and last but not least: people

If I were you, and lived in:

  • the US, I’d go for Spanish. There is a huge Spanish community in the US; you’ll probably travel to Latin America as it is one of the closest travel destinations; there are a lot of shows and movies/series in Spanish; and there are a lot of internet resources and software to teach you.
  • the UK, I’d say a good bet would be French from the logistics of it. From London, you have a one hour train to Lille in France, and two hours to Paris. French is a very well represented language: there are a lot of language centers around the world, a lot of movies and French artists, so you have many options here.

These would be my personal choices. I’ve also chosen romance languages because learning one will enable you to understand some of what’s spoken in the other romance languages; there are a lot of common roots for vocabulary, and grammar also has many things in common.

At any rate, choose a language and stick with it—and make sure you have a lot of motivation, you’re going to need it.

What is the most useful foreign language to learn?“ originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on TwitterFacebook, and Google. More questions:

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