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What’s the best second language to learn?

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A trip to a far away country may not be on the cards for most of us in the near future, but the benefits of getting to grips with a new language stretch way beyond just being able to order a coffee on vacation. 

It’s actually never been easier to learn a second language – you can pick up plenty of different languages via the best online learning platforms, or even try watching TV to improve your Spanish. But with so many ways to upskill, choosing which one of the world’s 6,500 languages to study presents something of a challenge.

Which one you choose will depend on everything from what you hope to gain and how much time you have. Here we take a look at what second languages could suit you best.  

What languages can help me communicate with more people?

A bit of number-crunching can help here. Break down the stats and almost half the world speaks one of just 10 languages as their native tongue. 

Mandarin Chinese is the most common language in the world, with 1.3 billion native speakers. That’s a staggering 16% of the world’s population. It may be the official language of only five countries, but it’s ranked as the second most common language on the internet after English – no wonder it is a popular choice. As a tonal and pictorial language though, it’s one of the hardest for anglophones to grasp.

Alternatively, you could consider Spanish. There are 471 million Spanish speakers who are spread out across the world. There’s 20 countries that count Español as an official language and in the United States, there’s an impressive 41 million people who’d wish you a ‘buenos dias’. It's relatively easy to access lessons for this language, too, as a lot of the best learn Spanish online courses have free or low-cost options. 

Young Spanish people talking on street

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If communication is one of your biggest motivations, you may want to consider if there are any different languages spoken in your local community. Being able to use a language in everyday situations such as in shops and casual conversation can strengthen your skills. Putting what you’re learning into practice can give you a great confidence boost.

American Sign Language could be another option. It’s classed as a ‘natural language’, meaning it has evolved in the same way and follows the same linguistic rules as a spoken language. ASL is used natively across anglophone communities in North America, as well as pockets of West Africa, and parts of South East Asia. It’s often picked up as a second language and acts as a lingua franca across many communities by both deaf and hearing people. Like Spanish, there are plenty of ways to learn this from the comfort of your own home. You could start learning this language through some of the best ASL online courses, before practicing it with others.

What are the best languages to benefit my career?

Career progression can be a huge motivation to go bi-lingual. Studies suggest that using a foreign language can help you make wiser decisions, improve memory and even enhance creativity. Combine that with being able to secure that new contract with overseas clients, and what employer isn’t going to want a bilingual boost to their team?

In addition to showing off your determination and intelligence to an employer, a second language can also help fill a skills gap. But choosing a second language to learn for business reasons can still be tricky.

Suzanne Ekpenyong, who runs language agency Bilingual Solutions, says, “I feel that the actual language really depends on the individual companies and the countries with which they do business. 

“It's always beneficial to speak your clients’ or suppliers’ language and being able to communicate with a broader range of people will always be beneficial for your careers.”

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While Spanish and Chinese often top the charts of in-demand languages, as we’ve seen they’re some of the most common languages spoken too. To increase your desirability to employers, it might be wise to carve out a niche by picking something a little rarer among jobseekers. Japanese, for instance, was found to be the sixth most needed language in the US, but doesn’t even scrape the top 10 of languages spoken in the country.

Japanese is one of many Asian languages gaining ground. It’s the most popular Asian language on education app Duolingo, coming sixth most popular language studied ahead of Korean, which is seventh. As Japanese is not tonal, it’s one of the few Asian language that doesn’t require a mastery of changing your pitch when you speak, yet will still give you a grounding in reading written Chinese characters, known as Kanji. 

When it comes to earning potential though, German speakers tend to make the most in their positions – $109,000 US, according to the same research. Germany itself is the largest economy in Europe, and its language holds official status in Switzerland, Austria and more. 

The World Economic Forum classes it among the top 10 most powerful languages in the world, ranking especially high for its role in business and the economy. Saying ‘jawhol!’ to German isn’t easy though. Unusual word order and its use of cases will be new to English speakers.

What languages are best for my own self-improvement?

This really depends on what you want to achieve. There are more benefits to language learning than just the acquisition itself. Sometimes people are simply interested in the history and culture, want to gain news skills or even just keep their brain healthy.  

If you want to make these gains without too much effort, Scandinavian languages such as Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are classed as among the easiest for anglophones to learn, thanks to their similar vocabulary. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, they only require about 600 hours of work to reach a decent level of proficiency. 

Those that relish a challenge and want the boast of mastering a trickier tongue could investigate languages with different alphabets such as Arabic or Russian. Arabic especially can be challenge as it is written right to left and misses out most vowels. It’s also very difficult to speak, as it uses sounds that simply don’t exist in English and has very different grammatical rules too. Only the brainiest need apply for this one!

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Some people like to learn minority or 'endangered’ languages, maybe because they have personal links or cultural roots in them. On Duolingo, Navajo and Hawaiian are more popular in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Having a personal tie to the language your learning will help spur you on, as well as appreciating the cultural subtitles of words and their meanings. Taking on a so-called ‘endangered’ language can contribute to its survival. 

So what second language should I learn?

Unsurprisingly, the best second language for you to learn may be very different to that of the next person. When choosing what to go for, you’ll want to consider your overall aim, motivation, what resources are available to you and even how much time you have. 

What is encouraging is that once you’ve got a relative proficiency in one additional tongue, it becomes even easier to learn a third - so there’s no better time than the present to start picking up a new foreign language, whichever one you choose. 

Esther Beadle is a freelance journalist and university lecturer. She regularly reviews platforms for the online learning section of Top Ten Reviews, testing out new courses and tutoring services.