April 16, 2016

Which language should you learn?

In one word: English

If you speak English well already, then: Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic or Russian

If you need to learn a language for work, then: learn the language of the country where you will be working, or the country at which your work will be aimed at.

If you'd just like to learn a language because you like learning languages, then: pick whichever language you are attracted to emotionally.

Learning languages has always been very popular. At least in countries where learning foreign languages is necessary. The most important language from where I come from to learn is English and if you would ask me, which language should you learn or work on for economic or career reasons, I would not hesitate one moment and say, you should learn English. The languages you should choose to learn however often do not depend on how much money you can make knowing them or by how much better your career prospects will be. Many factors are very individual and greatly depend on the reason why you'd might want to learn the language more than anything (obviously).

The reason

There are several reasons why you might want to learn a foreign language and usually it's one of the following:

  • interest
  • curiosity
  • career
  • hobby
  • relocation
  • studies
  • future prospects
  • self-cultivation
  • partner or family member
In some of these you don't have a choice (your new French monolingual mother-in law is a fact that cannot be changed) in some however you have quite a few options.

What should your choice be based on? These are a few questions you should be asking yourself:

Which language do you love?
Which language sounds nice to you?
Which culture are you driven to naturally?
Which country will you live in?
Do people there speak your native language or English well?
Will you need the language in order to exist/work/study in that country or can you survive with English?
How much time do you have to learn it?
Do you learn languages easily or do you struggle?
Do you have enough resources to learn the language you want to learn?
How hard is the language you want to learn?
Do you have an idea about how long it will take you to learn it to be functional in it?
Do you have that time?
Do you have enough opportunities to practice the language?
Will your partner learn English (or your native language) faster than you will learn their native language?
Is it even important that you learn that language?
What will the most important language in the near future be?

The answers to most of the above questions are very individual except for the following:

Which is the most important language for the future?

For the near future, on an international level, without a doubt English. If you are deciding about which language you should learn as an investment into your personal future and your English is still not fluent, I would invest all the time into perfecting your English. 

On a local level, there are languages which surpass English in importance (such as Russian in the post-Soviet area, Spanish in South America, French in the French-speaking part of Africa, Mandarin Chinese in China and so on), but globally, there is no language which can rival the importance of English at this moment and for the near future to come. I would not bet all of my money that it will remain that way in my lifetime, but in the following 20 years it surely will. 

The interesting question thus is, which is the second language you should learn in addition to your fluent English. Here the most important factors are:
  • Do you have a specific reason why you want to learn your second foreign language? Work? Partner? Hobby?
  • Or do you just want to learn a language, because it might come in handy in the future? 
In the first case, the answer is very obvious. Learn the language of the country where you will work, the language your partner speaks and if its your hobby, then which ever language you feel like learning at the moment. 

There are several things that need to be considered in the second case scenario:

Disregarding the fact, that in the coming 20 years, more and more people in the world will be proficient in English (learning an additional second foreign language will thus be less and less important), knowing a second additional language will be strongly tied to the type of work you will be doing and the country that work will be carried out in or aimed at. In other words, you learn the language you will use for your work. Since this is reverse engineering in a way and it's impossible to tell what work you might do, again we are left with the question what the safest top 5 languages to learn will be (having future development in mind).

In this case, very generally, you either pick a total niche language of a country where relatively fewer people speak English and become "the only person on the block" who speaks that language raising your market value and look for a company which needs you, or you choose one of the top 5 next best bets after English and become very proficient in that language and look for a company which needs you.

You have chances to land a good job in both cases. Logically, if you're the only one who speaks a rare language (or even better, a language combination), even if there are not many companies or governmental agencies that can employ you, you will be one of the very few who can be employed. On the other hand if you learn one of the top 5 next most reasonable languages to learn after English, there will be a lot of people who will speak that language, but also more companies and governmental agencies offering jobs.

The 5 best options after English in my opinion (taking into account the number of speakers, economic strength, number of countries in which the languages are lingua franca, the possibility that you will work in a country where the language is spoken and enjoy your life there, or work with customers from that country etc.) would be:

Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and Russian

These languages pretty much cover the whole world. Notice that 3 out of 5 of these languages (Mandarin, Arabic and Russian) are languages considered to be extremely hard to master for western language speakers and in order to reach functional fluency you will need anywhere from 2-6 years of intensive studies depending on several factors (talent, conditions, time etc.).

Ultimately, as mentioned at the beginning of this post it all comes down to simple logic. The most important language to learn today is English. The next 5 most reasonable languages are Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and Russian. If you need to learn a language to get a job, learn the language that job requires. If you want to learn a language for fun, learn whichever language you are attracted to emotionally.

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  1. it's a great thing
    thank you Mr.Vladimir

  2. Very helpful article! I speak fluently Polish and English, ein bisschen auf Deutsch and I also learn Chinese and Russian. In september I'll start learning Spanish. I know that is a lot and my friends & family say that I'm a little crazy because it's impossible to learn that many languages well at the same time. What's your opinion? Do you think that is better to focus only on one language for some time? Do you think that learning few different languages at the same time is an good idea?

    1. Hello. I think it's better if you learn one language, learn how to speak it reasonably well and then start learning another language. It is more effective and takes less time than learning 2 or more languages at the same time.

  3. For me it's a weird thing. Spanish is my native language and English came in out of serendipity.
    Despite I learned French and German later, I felt like something was lacking and that was covered when I finally decided to learn Polish (which wasn't an easy decision, considering different geographical/cultural factors, yet... it was the country I ended up doing a reasonable amount of work about during my studies and I became interested after meeting people and visiting the country). Curiously, I've ended up using Polish at work several times.

    Many people would try to use the "Political Imperialism" card (and say "why learn the language of the oppressors?") regarding that and despite many of these languages are spoken in places with governments people might agree or not with its policies, it is quite important to look beyond that as you've pointed out in the past (constant motivation and many other things can probably reinterpret that negative perception towards a positive one).

    1. Hello Cristobal. Thank you for the comment.

  4. What about Japanese? I have a feeling that one day Japan will simply transform itself into a spaceship and take off to the stars.

    1. Well, the thing is that Japanese is spoken only in Japan (not taking into consideration Japanese diaspora). Even though economically strong with a very large population of native speakers and speakers who only speak Japanese, it's more of a niche language.

    2. I'd also like to add that they don't lack educated professionals in Japan, but manual workers. And they cannot employ foreigners as foreigners most commonly cannot speak Japanese. In addition, Japanese people are massively learning English, and many of them have told me not to learn Japanese unless I want to live there.

  5. That's an awesome article, Vladimir! Thanks a lot for sharing your experience with us. I think Portuguese might be quite useful as well. There's an opinion that Brazil is going to be the next energy superpower in years to come :)

    1. Hi Elijah. Thank you. I was thinking of adding Portuguese as well, but there is a huge gap between English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French on one hand and Portuguese on the other. Portuguese is in it's own category with languages like Swahili or Hindi in my opinion.

    2. Great article! What category are you describing when you mentioned swahili, Portuguese and hindi, and why they are their own separate category? Because I have been learning Swahili for a few years and am curious

    3. Hello. I think mainly because they are not 'global' or 'regional' as the ones mentioned before, but still they are very strong in all factors I was talking about.

  6. You say that English is the most important language in these times. My friend has learnt English for 10 years but he isn't good at it. Instead of learning English He still starts learning new languages but He isn't good at them. I think that if He doesn't learn English He won't be able to learn other languages. He thinks that I'm wrong. Who's right?

    1. I think it's too early to tell:) Maybe he's just approaching foreign languages from a wrong direction. He has learned at least one language very well (his native language). He should be able to learn another one too.

  7. Hi Vlad, many thanks for the article, I particularly like the list of questions to ask yourself when choosing a language, it helps to really eliminate languages that are maybe more 'spur of the moment' interest!

    My question is to do with working in a language. I was curious what the difference is between the level needed to work in the country of interest (e.g. as an academic for example), and to work as a translator and intepreter?

    And I was curious as to when you felt ready in Chinese to move into translation and intepreting, because I've seen you mention many times in your video that you still aren't happy with your level :)

  8. Hi Rom,

    Thank you for the comment.

    When it comes to needing a language for work Vs. working as a translator/interpreter, it depends on many things but in short, I think the difference is huge. You need to speak and know the language and your own language much better in order to work as an interpreter/translator than when using the language as a tool in your work. In addition, interpretation is a skill that needs to be learned. You cannot just start interpreting, even if you are bilingual, without having learned at least the basics of interpretation, especially on an official level, so it requires more effort and more time.

    To your second question, I would say after about 6-7 years :) I guess you can feel at one point that you just understand well what people are saying on many levels and know how to say everything you need to say at least in one way.


  9. Replies
    1. Most Germans speak English already. In the future their number and the number of proficient speakers will only grow. I think unless you plan to live and work in Germany, there are better investments for the future than learning German.

  10. Absolute best article on this topic I've ever read. Succinct, accurate, well argued.

  11. Hey Vlad,

    When choosing your next language, have you ever had a problem with not being able to choose between two?

    I learn purely for pleasure, and I am in love with Russian and French. One day I couldn't love French more, and the next day Russian is suddenly the best thing ever. This has been happening for months, and doesn't seem to ending anytime soon lol

    1. Hello:) I didn't have this problem personally, but I would say, if you feel in love with French on Monday, learn French, if you have a change of heart on Tuesday and you want to learn Russian, learn Russian.

    2. haha, such a simple but pretty useful suggestion lol! cheers, have fun in Taiwan!

  12. Hi Vladimir,

    You got the talent in language, Congratulation!

    Can I ask a educational questions to you?

    You are sent by your parents to study Hungarian when you were very young. Assume you will be the Father, will you send your child aboard just to study a second native language? For example, send your child to Spain to study Spanish cause the Spanish is quite important for next 20 years.

    1. Hello and thank you for your comment. Yes, if possible, I will do it.

    2. Thanks Vladimir,

      Sorry for reply lately, because I think the system will inform me when you reply me, so I forgot that I asked you the question until I visited your website again today.

      Your answer really make me review my answer again because my answer of my question is "I will NOT send my child to English speaking country, for example, even I think English is more important in Future".

      Anyway, thanks for your reply! Hope you post more language article!

  13. The question is: Why not Greek? Or Turkish you Turkophobe :) I'm just kidding. I don't know why people insist that you learn their languages like some trained monkey. Anyway I think it depends on what language one likes. Yes Mandarin is spoken by 900 mill people, but I doubt anybody would talk to billions of people in their life. So it's much up to personal preference. :) I mean unless it's something endangered like Osage with only 20 L2 speakers, one shouldn't always take in account number of speaker only. For example Cantonese or Taishanese are probably much more useful in places like Vancouver or San Francisco. So the factors are a) do you love the language? B) are there any resources pertaining to your language of choice and c) usefulness and radius (like you said , useless to learn Greek if the travel plans don't include Greece)

    Dr. H