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Considerations When Choosing a Foreign Language to Learn

Culture, Foreign Language, Lifelong Learning1 min read

There are global factors that affect everyone's choice of what foreign language to learn. Ultimately the choice depends most on individual circumstances, but the less gravitational pull someone has to any particular foreign language, the more relevant these factors are. Below is data to consider on the effort level each language requires, the population it has, and its international relevance.

Effort (for Native English Speakers)

The Foreign Service Institue of the U.S. Department of State has seventy years of experience training American diplomats for international assignments. They have put in place a language teaching system designed for their students to achieve a minimum proficiency level that is the same across all their languages. What is significantly different about each of the language programs, though, is the time it takes for the students of each language program to achieve that level of proficiency.


How much speaking opportunity a language will enable is of primary importance for most people when committing to a foreign language. What matters most to any language learner is how prevalent the language is close to their life, but here's a global look:

Source: Population of Native Speakers, Wikipedia

Depending on how active you are online, this may be a factor as well.

Source: Internet Users By Language, Wikipedia

Modern Relevance

Typically, the larger the economy behind a language, the more professional opportunity there will be. As both a Mandarin and Spanish speaker, though, who has worked in (US-based) Chinese, Nepali, and Latin American companies, I would say English is by far the most consequential language for excelling in most of the hot industries. Innovation happens in relatively free countries and the good majority of them are Western. Speaking other languages has been more of a suplementary factor for me.

Sources: These numbers were determined by cross-referencing the 2019 national GDP (as determined by the World Bank - or the IMF or UN if the World Bank did not have the GDP data) of every nation and their primary spoken language. Since English is the lingua franca of international business, countries that secondarily speak English were also included in the English totals. These are not precise numbers, but the GDP totals accounted for English may still be low considering the disproportionate amount of commerce done between nations in English.

The most influential breakthroughs in thought are written down. Influential thought leaders write books with at least some differentiation from others. They may garnor followings in other mediums, but they refine their messages through writing. The amount a culture writes is a very strong indication for how much cultural development it accounts for. The more culture, the more their international influence and relevance. Here is current data on the top languages ranked by the amount of new thought they account for.

Sources: The book totals were determined by cross-referencing books published per year per country with the primary and secondary language spoken of each country. Since English is the world's lingua franca, a significant percentage of authors in countries that secondarily speak English typically publish their books in English to capture a much larger international language.

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