Beyond Words - Language Blog

The 10 Most Useful Languages to Learn

Although there is no holistically objective way to quantify and rate the impact and import of world languages, there are several objective factors that contribute to creating a list of the world’s most useful languages to know. In his influential mid-90s survey of world languages, George Weber pinpointed several of these factors, ascribing a numerical value to each and tallying up the scores that each language received.

Weber’s findings emphasize the value of population, number of primary and secondary speakers, and the scientific, diplomatic, economic, and socio-literary weight of each language. The study received some criticism for failing to distinguish between various dialects of spoken Chinese and Arabic. I have updated his list, taking into account population growth and changes in business dynamics, as well as other relevant criteria for learning a second language:

10. Italian — Approximately 60 million speakers and the official language of the Vatican

9. Portuguese — Approximately 190 million speakers worldwide and spoken in over 20 countries

8. Japanese — Approximately 125 million speakers and the world’s 2nd-largest economy by GDP and 3rd-largest by purchasing power parity (PPP)

7. German — Approximately 120 million native speakers and a second language for many Europeans; it is the world’s 3rd-largest economy by GDP and 5th-largest by purchasing power parity (PPP)

6. Russian — Approximately 185 million native speakers and the second language for all nations of the former Soviet Union

5. Arabic (MSA) — Approximately 250 million speakers worldwide and the official language of 20 countries; it is the lingua franca of the Middle East

4. French — Along with English, French is the working language of the United Nations; it is also culturally and historically critical in Europe and much of North and West Africa

3. Mandarin Chinese — Approximately 880 million speakers, or 20% of the world’s population, and the second strongest economy in the world — after the United States — based on purchasing power parity (PPP)

2. Spanish — Approximately 350 million native speakers and the primary second language learned and spoken in the United States; Spanish is the language of trade and commerce in approximately 20 countries.

1. English — Most widely used language of business, commerce, and the internet and the primary second language learned in most countries

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  1. i agree but arabic should be equal with chinese and ahead of french since it is not only spoken in the arab world but also a lingua franca of the muslim world (the language of the quran) so over 1 billion people can understand and speak arabic across at least 50 countries.

  2. Where does american sign language fall? Also, what is the recommendation for a general second language choices (say top three behind english) for the high school student to best prepare themselves?

  3. Hindi

    First language: ~ 490 million
    Second language: 120%u2013225 million

    The economy of India is the twelfth largest economy in the world by market exchange rates and the fourth largest by purchasing power parity (PPP) basis.[Wikipedia]

  4. Agree with Joe. As it is the language of the Qur’an, most non-Arab Muslims can read vowelled Arabic (from a young age) but not necessarily understand it save those who go into religious studies.

  5. I’m sorry, I don’t agree with Joe. Muslims are very very very highly recommended to learn Arabic. According to most Muslim scholars, it is not a must, but almost a must for Muslims to learn Arabic. And I’m not trying to be in any way derogatory, but most Muslims have a better idea about their faith than Christians about theirs (generally). And so, I’m sure a higher percentage of Muslims speak Arabic than Catholics. But I agree-not all Muslims speak Arabic. But a lot do. And a lot are Arabs too, so don’t go adding a billion to the Arabs.

    I know Arabic, and I’m not pursuing so called “religious studies”. I learnt Arabic in a so-called Sunday school, which almost all of the Muslims in the US attend.

    I’m sure Yusaf is a Pakistani/Indian muslim. They think differently.

    If you think you know a bit about the bible and Christianity…

    and watch the rest. please. dont just ignore it. educate urself-all knowledge is wealth and sometimes power.

  6. Not so sure abut Arabic being that high on the list… correct me if I am wrong but there are loads of dialects and to conversate on the streets you will need some knowledge of these too. But it still is for sure a very important language!

    Italian is useless unless you are in awe of Italy’s culture or some kind of businessman…
    The same for Portuguese imo… Although Brazil is a great coutry.

    I’d also rate Japanese higher considering Japan has worlds second economy.

    Maybe I am too economy-minded ;), but languages such as Mandarin which are spoken by 800 million people… please do not forget that the VAST majority of these people are people who are mainly peasants or laborers, you will rarely meet in praxis. Also there are dialects throughout China too…

    Also felt like pointing out two largely underestimated languages, very important for businessmen :

    Dutch and Swedish

    Dutch because of it’s 8th economy, open minded society, and lots of important coorporations (Rotterdam is the largest port on this planet!).

    Swedish because first of all the laguage is beautiful. Also because of it’s economy and because it opens a door to Scandinavia with countries such as Denmark (Danes and Swedes understand eachother). Denmark for instance is one of the leading countries when it comes to green technologies, such as windmills (Vestas and Dong) or containershiment (Maersk).

    And you can understand any Dutchman or Swede since even ”dialects” are easy to comprehend.

    Please reply to my opinions 🙂

  7. IF the criteria is “no of speakers” alone, HINDI ranks way higher than mandarin chinese

    Hindi is spoken by 95% of the indian population which is 1 billion. Add to that the population of pakistan, bangladesh and burma.

    1.5 billion folks easyyy!

  8. except for that in all of india/pakistan/bangladesh every educated person is fluent in english…and english is the official language in all trade/documentation

  9. According to most research Spanish is the most useful for Americans and German for Britons.
    English is the most useful internationally- we know that- French and German are the other two that are used most beyond their native speaker base.

  10. the list seems to be based on a western point of view, i.e. what are the top ten languages for an english speaker to learn. i dont think the author meant to tier the languages so much by worldly importance/popularity but rather by application, depth, and relation to english, hence the presence of romance languages over those such as hindustani and korean.

  11. My Grandfather was English and spoke Hindi and some other Indian dialects, he believed that India one day would be powerful so I think too that Hindi should be on the list! He also spoke Persian (Farsi) and Arabic which he also maintained would be very useful to learn in the future. I think Italian, German, Swedish and Dutch are a waste of time to learn unless you live in those countries as their English is excellent!

  12. English is the most widely known even in China and muslim countries. pretty much every country in Africa has english as an official language or primary language. it is the second language of most people in Africa. When two business people meet who speak different languages say Japanese and Arabic most of the time they converse in english since neither understands the others native language. English has more words than any other language it is the most adaptive it barrows from nearly every language concepts that only make the language more efficient. if you know english you don’t need to know another language.

  13. I speak portuguese, spanish, mandarin, cantonese and english. In my opinion, even if english is consider the most useful language, it is still far from being a global lingua franca, due to the fact, that anglophone nation aren’t exactly getting along well with other language group. Learning spanish or portuguese is an asset because leanring one of them can easily help you to accuqire the other in a short period of time. Portuguese, spanish and Mandarin should be taught more. French is not exactly useful as most of the french speaking country do not exactly have high economic statues.

  14. @zooz: Sorry, but muslims in general don’t know much Arabic. Go to America, Indonesia, or any non-Arab country and the muslims that you meet will be able to say a few greetings and that is it. And I say this as a muslim. Also, the diglossia of Arabic is a strike against it; the varieties of Arabic aren’t so far apart as the romance languages, but they are pretty far apart.

  15. i am confused which language should i learn
    arabic,german,french,russian,spanish or chinese,japanese
    i am a commerce graduate student, guide me the best language to learn and that can help to my future

  16. some people here think that India speaks only hindi.India has 29 states and 7 territories in which the gdp is maximum in southern states where dravidian languages rule(tamil,telungu,malayalamkannadam).So please dont ever spread rumours that india speaks hindi.I wonder why telungu and tamil not in the list. It is the 15th and 16th most spoken language with 76 and 75 million speakers.

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