The Five Most Useful Languages to Learn

Zach Crawley, a language blogger I recently discovered, posted an article about the five most useful languages to learn. I don’t agree with all his choices (lists like this are a matter of opinion), so I thought I’d make my own.

Defining ‘Useful’

Of course, it would be prudent to define what we mean by ‘useful’ in this context. Knowing a widely-spoken language is useful because there are so many people who speak it. But knowing a less commonly spoken language could also be useful if you establish yourself as an authoritative translator of that language.

That being said, I think widely-spoken languages will win out over less commonly spoken ones due to their sheer numbers of speakers, especially if these speakers don’t know English. So as much as I like Serbian, I don’t think it’s going to win any medals for usefulness anytime soon.

So without further ado, here are the languages.

English

English is world’s unofficial lingua franca. Some people don’t like it when people say this – I’m not sure why. Maybe they think it gives native English speakers an excuse to not learn other languages. Regular readers of this blog should know I’m a huge proponent of foreign language learning (I think everybody should learn at least one in their lifetime), so I’m hoping no one will criticize me for writing on the importance of English.

If you don’t speak English already, start learning it. There are English speakers everywhere. It’s the language of international business and finance and will give you more opportunities in life. It’s hard to learn, but not as difficult as some languages are.

Spanish

There are so many speakers of Spanish, it’s crazy. I really wish I knew Spanish because I’d be able to travel all over South America and be understood. Due to our proximity to many Spanish-speaking countries, Spanish is quite important to Americans. Though it may not be as useful if you want a translating job (since Spanish is so well-known, there’s a lot of competition in the market), Spanish is still a great language to know. Best of all, it’s not too difficult, at least for native English speakers.

Russian

If you didn’t think Russian would make the list, you probably don’t know me very well! Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian still remains the lingua franca in many post-Soviet countries. (I’m currently listening to a radio series on Echo of Moscow about the status of the Russian language outside of Russia, in the post-Soviet space.) Not only is Russian spoken in many Eastern European and Central Asian countries, it is also spoken in a vibrant diaspora abroad. (In fact, I would argue that the diaspora is one of the reasons to learn Russian – wherever you go, you’ll probably be able to find a Russian speaker.)

French

I agonized about whether to include French on this list. Obviously, you can see that I did ultimately include it. French is not as useful as it once was (it used to be the language of diplomacy and the international lingua franca), but it still has a wide range of speakers ranging across Europe, North America, and Africa.

Korean

This list has been very Euro-centric so far, so I’m happy to include Korean here. My theory is that Korea has a lot of economic growth potential, which is why it edged out Japanese off this list. (Okay, I haven’t done any real research on this point, so forgive me if I am completely off on this point.) There’s also the problem of North Korea – I assume that Korean speakers are in demand at intelligence agencies due to North Korea.

Why didn’t ___ make the list and why?

I’m actually not satisfied with this list. It’s hard to pick only five languages. I agree that German is an important language, as is Japanese. Hindi is a language with many speakers, but from what I know, English is widely known in India, so I am skeptical about how useful it would be. Finally, I deliberately did not include Mandarin Chinese for two reasons: 1) Considering how different this language is from Indo-European languages, the time invested to learn it is immense and I remain skeptical whether this investment will pay off and, 2) I am very bearish on China in the long run, so economically I do not think there will be good reasons to know Mandarin Chinese in coming years.

Final Words: Don’t Learn a Language for its usefulness!

Yes, it may seem strange to say this, considering I just wrote a list of most useful languages to learn, but a language’s usefulness is only one aspect that should be taken into consideration when you’re deciding to learn it. (Also consider that usefulness is subjective – ask five people what the most useful languages are and you’ll probably get five different answers.) If you decide to learn a language solely because it’s useful, you probably will not be successful. Learning a language to fluency requires much more than that. You need a very strong motivation to learn the language – for me, that was a deep emotional connection with Russian that I feel even today. So if you want to learn Chinese, or Hindi, or Polish, or the Ainu language, go for it.

Mainly, this post was just a fun little exercise – a little thought experiment I conceived after seeing Zach’s blog entry.

What do you think? Which languages would you have included on the list?

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5 thoughts on “The Five Most Useful Languages to Learn

  1. Well, I studied Mandrin Chinese in school but I still suck at it. It is a useful language in Asia–where you find Chinese immigrants, you’ll find Chinese speakers (and likely Mandrin speakers).

    But meanwhile, Russian still refuses to let go of my heart.

  2. Hey Natalie, thanks for the mention. 🙂

    I totally agree with you on not learning a language just for usefulness.

    I think you should only learn a language if it really interests you or you particularly like the culture that surrounds the language (my reason for learning Spanish)

    I mainly just wanted to give a list of languages to people who didn’t know what they wanted to learn yet.

    Basically, give them an idea of what might be the best to look into if they couldn’t decide, and see if it interests them from there.

    1. Yep, I definitely agree – usefulness won’t get you very far. Loving the culture is a much better reason to learn a language.

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