Discover some of the most in-demand languages and which one you should start learning.
Learning a new language is often a gratifying undertaking. As well as the sense of achievement that comes with mastering a language, you can also communicate with new people and access new elements of culture. But which language should you learn?
Here, we explore some considerations to make when choosing a language. We’ll also identify some potential options based on your goals and include some courses to help you get started.
Table of Contents
Why learn a new language?
In a separate article on how to learn a language, we explored some possible motivations for learning a new language. In brief, it’s an often rewarding undertaking for many reasons, with several potential benefits. The positives of learning a language include:
- It can enhance your brain. Various studies have shown that learning a language can increase white and grey matter in your brain, and may even stave off dementia.
- It can improve your career prospects. Across all kinds of industries and job roles, employers look for those who can speak multiple languages.
- It can improve other skills. Learning a new language can help with soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving, and multitasking.
- It can help you meet new people. Being multilingual means you can meet and converse with people from all over the world, whether in person or online.
- It can boost cultural understanding. One key element of language learning is appreciating the culture that it originates from.
What is the most spoken language in the world?
There are several ways we can look at the ‘most spoken’ languages. The two main considerations are native speakers (those who have spoken the language from earliest childhood) and total speakers – there is some difference between the two.
For example, according to data from language experts Ethnologue, Mandarin Chinese is the language with the most native speakers. However, English comes at the top of the list in terms of languages with the most speakers.
Let’s look at the figures in more detail:
Language with the most native speakers
|Language||Number of native speakers|
Languages with the most total speakers
|Language||Total number of speakers|
As you can see, English has far more non-native speakers than native ones, meaning it’s far more widespread than even Mandarin Chinese (which is primarily spoken in Asia). To get a comparison, 146 countries speak English while 38 speak Mandarin.
What is the hardest language to learn?
Again, you’ll find various figures and plenty of anecdotal evidence on which are the hardest languages to learn. Of course, difficulty is a relatively subjective thing, and each individual will find certain languages or aspects harder or more difficult depending on their circumstance.
That being said, we can look at some figures from the United States Foreign Service Institute. They divided languages into four different tiers of difficulty based on how long it took US diplomats to reach a professional working proficiency.
Based on their findings, for native English speakers, the hardest languages to learn are:
- Category I languages. Those most similar to English, including French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish.
- Category II languages. These are a little less similar to English and include German, Indonesian, Malay, Haitian Creole, and Swahili.
- Category III Languages. These are significantly different from English and include Bengali, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Polish, Russian, Tamil, Thai and Vietnamese.
- Category IV Languages. The ‘super-hard’ languages are exceptionally difficult for English speakers and include Arabic, Chinese Cantonese, Chinese Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.
Many of the hardest languages have similar features (when compared to English). Some are tonal, all have very different scripts, multiple dialects, and pronunciations are very different to English.
Of course, for native speakers of other languages, the list will look very different. Much of what makes a language easy or difficult to learn relates to how similar it is in terms of root language, script, grammar etc.
What is the easiest language to learn?
As we’ve seen, the ‘Category I’ languages are some of the easier ones for English speakers to learn. The US Foreign Service Institute reckons that it takes around 24-30 weeks (or 600-750 class hours) on average to reach proficiency in these languages.
The full list of Category I languages includes:
For native English speakers, all of these languages have their potential uses. Many are taught in schools, while others are used in a host of different communities.
What is the closest language to English?
This is an often-asked question when people are wondering what language to learn. Many people will say that Frisian is the closest language to English, which can make it easy to learn.
The Frisian language is the second official language of The Netherlands after Dutch and has many similarities to English. Want to see just how close it is? Check out our Introduction to Frisian course and find out.
What is the language of the web?
Much of our everyday communication takes place on the internet. Therefore, when choosing the best language to learn, many people take this fact into consideration. But what is the language of the internet?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, English is the dominant language online. Given how many people around the world speak it, it makes sense that over 63% of the top 10 million websites on the internet are in English.
Other languages of the web include:
- Russian – 6.9%
- Turkish – 4.0%
- Spanish – 3.6%
- Persian – 3.6%
- French – 2.5%
Interestingly, other figures show that only 25.9% of internet users speak English.
What is the best language to learn?
The answer to this question depends on a wide range of factors. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer; it very much depends on your aims and ambitions.
For example, if you want to live and work in a particular country, it makes sense to learn the language they speak there. Similarly, if you have friends or relatives that speak a specific language, you may choose that one.
However, if you simply want to learn a new language for the fun of it, your options are far broader. Maybe you want to explore a particular culture, consume media in a different language, or challenge yourself to learn something unique.
The best language to learn is the one that you’re going to use, enjoy, and find enriching to your life.
What language should you learn?
So, let’s look at some specific languages and why you should consider learning them. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it can give you an idea of what your options are. We’ll look at why to learn them, what to use them for, and suggest some courses to help you get started.
Our Introduction to Norwegian course is one of the most popular courses we have on FutureLearn right now. Created by the University of Oslo, the course is suitable for those looking to work, travel or study in Norway, as well as those interested in the culture.
As a Category I language, it’s relatively easy for native English speakers to learn. What’s more, by understanding Norwegian, it’s a relatively short leap to understanding Danish and Swedish too. As such, it’s a handy language for those interested in Scandinavian language and culture.
Perfect for: Those looking to learn a trendy language or learn about Scandinavian culture.
Many people claim that Dutch is one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn. This is because the two share a similar structure and are both West Germanic languages. While The Netherlands is one of the UK’s closest neighbours, Dutch is spoken in Belgium, Suriname in South America, and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten.
With our Introduction to Dutch course, you can learn to speak, write and understand the basics of the language. So, whether you’re looking to travel or relocate to one of the regions where it’s spoken, you can grasp some of the fundamentals and learn about Dutch culture.
Perfect for: Native English speakers looking for a relatively easy challenge.
As one of the Romance Languages (those that evolved from Vulgar Latin), many people consider Italian to be a beautiful and expressive language. As well as being a global seat of culture and history, Italy is also famed for its food and architecture.
If Italian is the best language to learn for you, our introductory Italian course is a great place to get started. You’ll master some of the basics of speaking and listening while learning the fundamentals of grammar and vocabulary.
Perfect for: Culture vultures and history lovers seeking a Romance Language.
South Korea is one of the most innovative countries in the world, according to several reports. For the tech enthusiast, learning Korean could give you access to a whole new world of technology, as well as a fascinating and rich culture. What’s more, you can even learn by watching the many popular K-dramas out there.
Despite being a relatively hard language for native English speakers to learn, many aspects of the language (such as the script) make logical sense. You can get started with our Introduction to Korean course or start learning the Korean alphabet. For those with a base knowledge already, you can start exploring the language and culture in more detail.
Perfect for: Technophiles who want to explore somewhere unique.
As we’ve already explored, Mandarin Chinese is the most natively spoken language in the world, with nearly a billion speakers. China has one of the world’s biggest economies and there are many business opportunities requiring Mandarin. What’s more, it’s a country with a fascinating history and unique culture.
Although Mandarin is considered a relatively hard language to learn, it’s not as tough as you might think to get started. Our Learn Chinese ExpertTrack can build your confidence in speaking and writing Mandarin Chinese by teaching useful words and phrases, pronunciation, and grammar.
Perfect for: Those who want to connect with the biggest community of native speakers in the world.
Irish is recorded to be one of the oldest and most historic written languages in the world. Despite seeing a huge decline in the 19th Century, the language has seen a revival of late and is now an important part of Irish culture and heritage. If you’re looking for a unique and ancient language to learn, Irish is an excellent choice.
Perfect for: Those fascinated by ancient languages and vibrant cultures.
Portuguese is an official language across several countries, including Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Macau, and more. Being able to speak and understand the language opens many cultural opportunities across these diverse countries. It’s also a useful gateway language for other Romance languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian.
Perfect for: Aspiring polyglots who want to travel the world.
French is one of the most popular languages in the world to learn. It’s an official language in 29 countries and is a language of business and culture. Many native English speakers already have some level of French, as it’s commonly taught in schools worldwide.
Our microcredential on global French from King’s College London will help you learn the basics of the French language and build your confidence in speaking French for work and travel. If you already have some knowledge, our Intermediate French ExpertTrack can help you learn more.
Perfect for: Those hoping to build on existing knowledge to work or travel abroad.
There are more than 400 million native Spanish speakers across 21 countries, making it the second most spoken native language in the world. There are opportunities around the world for Spanish speakers, whether for work, study or travel. What’s more, it’s one of the easier languages for native English speakers to learn.
Get started today with our Learn Spanish for Global Communication microcredential from King’s College London. Or, if you already have some knowledge, our Intermediate Spanish ExpertTrack can help you improve.
Perfect for: World-travellers who want to chat with the locals.
If you’ve ever visited Thailand (or are one day hoping to), having an understanding of the language can be a significant aid in your travels. You’ll get to explore the culture in greater detail, chat to the locals, and even find work if you plan on staying long-term.
Learn to speak like a local with our Let’s Learn Thai Language course from Universiti Malaya.
Perfect for: Those hoping to understand the local experience when visiting Thailand.
Learning a new language is something that everyone should challenge themselves with. The opportunities to meet new people, explore new countries and improve your overall skills make it more than worthwhile.
If you’re wondering what language to learn, we’ve given you plenty of inspiration to get started. Remember, think about your reasons for studying, what you want to achieve, and how much time you can dedicate to learning. Good luck!