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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