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Which language should I learn?

If you're not sure which language to study, here are some factors to consider:

Availability

Are materials and other resources available for the language you want to learn? Are there classes in your area? For the popular languages, like French, Spanish and German, this shouldn't be a issue, but it may be difficult to find resources and/or classes for the lesser-studied languages.

Usefulness

If you want to learn a language with a large number of speakers and which is spoken in many countries, the ones to choose in order of 'usefulness' are: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Japanese, Portuguese and Hindi/Urdu.

This list is based on the number of speakers, the number and population of countries where the languages are spoken, the number of major fields using the languages internationally, the economic power of countries using the languages, and their socio-literary prestige.

For a breakdown of these factors see:
http://www2.ignatius.edu/faculty/turner/languages.htm

The languages with the most speakers are:

Language L1 speakers L2 speakers Total speakers
Mandarin Chinese 850 million 180 million 1,030 million
English 340 million 510 million 840 million
Arabic 240 million 250 million 490 million
Spanish 400 million 90 million 490 million
Hindi 260 million 120 million 380 million
Russian 150 million 110 million 260 million
Portuguese 215 million 35 million 250 million
French 80 million 140 million 220 million
Bengali 190 million 20 million 210 million
Indonesian/Malay 60 million 140 million 200 million
Urdu 64 million 94 million 160 million
Japanese 130 million 11,500 130,011,500
German 78 million 8 million 86 million
Javanese 84 million 84 million
Telugu 74 million 5 million 79 million
Tamil 69 million 8 million 77 million
Korean 77 million - 77 million
Wu Chinese 77 million - 77 million
Marathi 71 million 0.3 million 71.3 million
Turkish 71 million 0.3 million 71.3 million
Vietnamese 68 million - 68 million

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers

Notes

Here's an illustration showing where the most spoken languages are spoken.

Source: Couponbox.com

Difficulty

Each language presents you with a different set of challenges. Languages might have complex inflectional systems, complex writing systems, irregular spelling systems, and/or complex phonology. Generally the more a language differs from your L1 or other languages you know, the harder it is to learn.

For lesser-studied languages it can be hard to find language learning materials and courses. In some cases you might have to learn another language first, e.g. when learning indigenous languages of Latin America it helps if you know Spanish and/or Portuguese as most materials and courses are likely to be in those languages. Many languages are undocumented and have never been written, so training in field linguistics is needed in order to acquire them.

For English speakers the least difficult languages are probably: Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.

Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese are often considered among the most challenging languages for English speakers, and speakers of other Western languages, to learn. Learning to read and write Chinese and Japanese is particulaly challenging, though the spoken languages are less difficult. Some of the indigenous languages of the Americas have complex grammar and phonology, for example Navajo verbs are all irregular.

Language Learning Difficulty for English speakers
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers

Languages in demand by employers

If you want to learn a language in order to improve your employment/promotion prospects then choose one that is in demand by employers. The list below gives you an idea of which languages are in demand and is based on job ads posted on recruitment sites. You can find links to the recruitment sites on the Careers using languages page.

Note: languages are shown more or less in order of popularity with employers.

Africa

English, French, Swahili, Arabic, Portuguese

Americas

English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Japanese

Asia-Pacific

English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Malay/Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese

Western Europe

English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Finnish, Greek, Welsh, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic

books  
Books on how to learn languages
Language courses, dictionaries, etc.

Links

MLA Language Map Data Center - information based on census data about which languages are spoken in the USA: http://www.mla.org/map_data

Most common languages spoken in the U.S.
http://www.immigrationdirect.com/languages-spoken-in-us.jsp

10 Best Languages to Learn Right Now (i.e. in 2010 in the USA)
http://www.toponlinecolleges.com/blog/2010/10-best-languages-to-learn-right-now/

BBC Voices - details of the languages spoken in the UK, with numbers of speakers.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/multilingual/

What is the best language to learn?
https://lingualift.com/blog/what-is-the-best-language-to-learn/

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