Learning a new language is one of the hardest yet most satisfying challenges one can take. Technology, globalization and transportation have revolutionized the way cultures interact and have impacted many aspects of our lives. In an effort to join the global community, to enrich cultural experience, and to stay marketable in an increasingly competitive economy, many people would like learn a new language. Before committing to the massive investment in time and money to do so, it is important to know which language will provide the most benefit to new speakers over the next few decades.
How to tell which language is the best?
Quantifying the value of learning a new language is a complex task, but a good place to begin is with the most popular new languages being learned today. Traditionally, Romance languages have dominated college enrollment and to a certain extent this is still true today. Languages such as Italian, French and German are popular. Enrollment in Spanish classes is rising and accounts for roughly half of American students. Not surprisingly, as the geopolitical landscape has changed, so have the demands on language departments; the number of students learning Chinese has grown by over fifty percent in the last decade and Arabic classes have more than doubled in response to a growing demand for speakers.
Number of Speakers
In addition to academic popularity, it is interesting to look at the number of speakers worldwide when choosing to study a foreign language. German and French have been academically popular for years but only boast around 100 million speakers each. In the west, the Japanese and Russian languages are not often studied but are actually more common with around 125 and 250 million speakers respectively. The widespread use of these languages pales in comparison with Spanish, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic languages that each come in at around 500 million native and non native speakers. The most widely spoken language in the world though, with the possible exception of English, is Mandarin. This fact is not surprising when one considers that China is by far the world’s most populous country. Many estimates place the Chinese language at over one billion speakers worldwide even after accounting for several different Chinese languages and dialects.
How hard is it to learn?
Another factor that affects decisions to learn a language is the ease of acquisition. Some languages are easier to learn than others, but this variable is not as easy to quantify as one might think. It turns out that the difficulty of learning a particular language is related to which language the learner speaks first. The more closely related the native tongue is to a new language, the easier the process tends to be. Romance languages are closely related and share many words and have very similar sounds. A native Spanish speaker would have an easier time learning French than they would Japanese. For native English speakers, languages like Spanish, French and German are considered easier to learn than less closely related languages like Russian or Arabic. Even more distant cousins, such as Mandarin and Japanese, are considered quite difficult. One reason that learning distantly related languages is so challenging is that often, the new language requires learners to incorporate brand new phonemes, or sounds, into their speech. Children are flexible with languages, but as adults this skill does not usually come easily.
Futurists are constantly trying to predict trends about fashion, technology, economics and even language use. Which language stands the best chance of being most useful 20 years from now? Linguists will tell you that trying to predict trends in language even a few years away is frighteningly complicated; just like the weather, there are so many variable that small, unpredictable changes can have huge consequences later. The most useful language then for most people will be the one they will use. This depends on where they live, what they want to do professionally and where they might like to go. Spanish speakers in the United States are on the rise and job opportunities for bilingual speakers are also on the rise although an economic study by Albert Saiz shows only a 1.7% wage increase for bilingual Spanish speakers. (See here: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/SmallBiz/story?id=4349200&page=1) When considering economic benefit, the Saiz study gives easy answers: German, Italian, Russian and Chinese yield closer to a 4% wage increase. Considering the languages in highest demand from employers and colleges right now (Chinese and Arabic), Chinese appears to come out on top of the equation for savvy linguistic investors over the next few decades.