Choosing a foreign language to learn from among the most popular languages can be tough. Do you pick a language that's spoken in your region, or in a region you want to visit? Do you pick the native language of your favorite author, or of people who work in your field?
While everyone ends up using different reasoning to pick the best languages to learn, we've got a few ideas to help. We've crunched some numbers and looked at the options, and believe these are the best languages to learn in 2020 (and any time!).
Second only to Chinese, Spanish has 400 million native speakers around the world. But unlike Chinese, this language of Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Pablo Neruda is also the official state language of 20 countries -- and is commonly spoken as a first, second, or third language in many more.
Speaking Spanish won't just open up avenues for travel in South America and Europe; it's also the ideal second language for folks living in North America. Today, about 13 percent of the U.S. population speaks Spanish as a first language, and one study predicts that by 2050, the U.S. could have more Spanish-speaking residents than any other country around the world (source). All the more reason for this to figure among one of the top languages to learn!
The fifth-most spoken language in the world, French is also the second-most widely learned foreign language after English. A common first language not just in France and Canada but also in many African and Asian nations, French is a very useful foreign language for travel: even if it's not your interlocutor's first language, it may well be one of the languages that he or she speaks!
The language of nouvelle vague cinema and of authors from Victor Hugo to Marguerite Duras to Camara Laye, French will also invite learners into a world of rich, diverse culture.
The most widely spoken native language on the European continent, Germany is an academic, economic, and political powerhouse. Despite jokes and warnings to the contrary, German is actually a fairly easy foreign language for English speakers to learn. With thousands of cognates and a fairly rigid rule structure for grammar, an attentive student of German can acquire the language pretty quickly.
German is spoken not only in Germany but also in Austria and the majority of Switzerland. The language of Goethe, the brothers Grimm, and Herman Hesse, German boasts a rich literary culture to explore.
Chinese is the most-spoken language in the world, so it's no wonder it's on our list! But as you may be aware, Chinese is not just one language, but rather a group of dialects, some of which are so distinct from one another as to technically be separate languages (and mutually unintelligible!)
The official language of China and Taiwan is called Standard Chinese; it is based on the most common Chinese dialect, Mandarin, which is spoken by a whopping 70 percent of all Chinese speakers.
Because Chinese uses a writing system of characters rather than an alphabet, however, learning just one Chinese dialect – like Mandarin – allows you to communicate in writing with speakers of other dialects, even if you cannot understand one another when speaking.
One of the six official languages of the United Nations, Russian is the most widely spoken native language in Europe and the most widespread language in Eurasia, spoken to varying degrees not just in Russia but in many former Soviet states as well as in Israel and Mongolia.
Russian is far from the easiest foreign language for English speakers to learn. Not only does it use a different alphabet, Cyrillic, it also has an abundance of noun cases, which isn't something most native speakers of English have come across before.
But the U.S. government has identified Russian as a priority language, so learning it could be an avenue into employment with one of many federal agencies.
Many nations in the Arab world speak some form of Arabic, a macro language made up of 30 modern varieties. Learning Arabic will not only help learners access the written word throughout the Arab world, but it will also pave the way for learners to acquire one or several dialects spoken in different regions and countries.
Speaking Arabic also provides ample opportunities for work and travel. Business, politics, journalism, and more are industries that welcome the expertise of Arabic speakers.
Italian has earned its reputation as a romantic language, but this Romance language is useful for far more than the art of seduction! The language is spoken across Italy but also in Switzerland, Slovenia, and Croatia is the native tongue of Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante, and Primo Levi, providing learners of this popular language more than ample opportunities to access the culture of Italy.
Italian is also a relatively easy language for speakers of other Romance languages like Spanish, French, or Portuguese to learn. Conversely, those who speak Italian can absorb these related languages with far more ease.
Learning Korean as a foreign language will grant you access to a number of useful tools, not the least of which is an improved understanding of language and linguistics on the whole.
Korean's unique writing system, invented in the 15th century, has been dubbed one of the most phonologically faithful by linguists: the shapes of the letters mimic the shapes the speaker's mouth should take when pronouncing them. This quirk also makes Korean relatively easy for foreign speakers to learn.
Of course, learning Korean will also afford you access to Korean culture, literature, and music. And since the K-Pop wave is here to stay, that's a good reason in and of itself.
Popular places to learn Korean include: South Korea
The ninth most spoken language in the world, Japanese one of the top languages to learn, whether for folks who want to travel to Japan, understand lyrics to their favorite J-Pop songs, or read their favorite manga in the original Japanese.
Japanese is also a fantastic gateway language for learning other Asian languages. Because the Japanese writing system includes some Chinese characters and its grammar is similar to Korean, a working knowledge of Japanese helps learners gain access to both of these languages.
Popular places to learn Japanese include: Japan
English is the most popular second language in the world, with 1.4 billion native and non-native speakers combined. One in five people globally speaks at least some English, so even if you don't speak the native language of your interlocutor, it's likely you'll be able to communicate in English.
English forms a bridge between cultures and languages that might otherwise have none. It's no wonder it's one of the top languages to learn around the world.
There are a number of reasons you might want to learn a second language, or third... or 10th! Whatever reasons you have, we believe these languages will open more of the world to you and help you achieve your professional and personal goals -- whatever they may be! The only question is: which of these languages will you learn next?