There are many benefits to learning a foreign language. It may help your job prospects and expand your cultural horizons. It may also boost your social life and be a rewarding intellectual challenge. What’s more, in many cases it is clear which foreign language will be most beneficial to you. Perhaps you want to talk to your partner in his or her native language. Or perhaps you already have an interest in the history or culture of a foreign country. In these cases, your choice of foreign language is made for you. But it is often difficult to decide which foreign language to learn.
In this article, I discuss some of the criteria you can use to make this decision. I discuss (i) number of speakers, (ii) job prospects, (iii) difficulty, (iv) access to resources, (v) academic considerations.
1. Number of speakers
There are about 6000 languages in the world. Many languages have millions of speakers, while many others have only dozens. The number of speakers includes (i) the number of native mainland speakers, (ii) the number of native speakers in overseas communities and (iii) non-native speakers who nevertheless use the language on a daily basis. Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic have the most speakers. You should consider learning one of these languages if the number of speakers criterion is important to you.
2. Job prospects
The languages with the most speakers are not necessarily the languages that will offer you more job prospects. You should ensure that your chosen language is spoken in a country with some sort of relationship with your home country. Not all major languages are all that useful for the UK job market. For example, Spanish is a popular foreign language, but it is not as useful as French or German. This is because the UK has more trade links with France and Germany than it does with Spain. You should consider learning French or German if the job prospects criterion is important to you.
It is a misconception that some languages are intrinsically more difficult than others. English is related to most other European languages. For this reason, a native speaker of English will find most of these languages relatively straightforward. But English is not related to most languages that are spoken outside of Europe, like Chinese and Arabic. These languages will require more time to learn, but only because they are different from what we are used to. English is a Germanic language and so other Germanic languages will appear easier to you. You should consider learning German, Dutch, Norwegian and the like if the difficulty criterion is important to you.
4. Access to resources
The languages with the most speakers are often the same languages for which you will find lots of resources. You can also find many resources for languages that offer you the most job opportunities in your area. And this also depends on your location: you will be able to find language resources for more unusual languages if that language is a heritage or community language in your area. For example, you will be able to find resources for Hindi and Polish because these are important community languages in the UK. You should consider learning a major world language or a community/heritage language if the access to resources criterion is important to you.
5. Academic considerations
Perhaps you are a student and you hope that your foreign language will complement your studies. Or perhaps you are a researcher who would like to conduct fieldwork on a particular linguistic community and/or cultural practice. The major world languages are already well-understood by linguists and there are many resources available for them (e.g. dictionaries). Fewer resources are available for dialects of major world languages. And even fewer resources are available for minority or endangered languages. You may find the prospect of learning an unusual language exciting. You are free to consider minority and/or endangered languages if the academic considerations criterion is important to you.