The three most useful languages to learn after English are Spanish, French, and German.
If you already speak English as your first or second language, you already know the most widely spoken language in the world. But while English is by far the most useful language, there at least a few other languages that may be worth studying, either for travel, work, or pleasure.
If you’re wondering what is the most useful language to learn after English, in this article I’ll give you my thoughts as a speaker of three languages:
- Polish (my mother tongue),
- English (my second language),
- Spanish (my third language).
Over my life, I also dabbled in French, German, Portuguese, Gulf Arabic, Russian, and Kyrgyz (that’s a weird story for another time). I traveled to over 30 countries and lived in 4. I’m always interested in learning at least the basics of a local language.
In this article I’m going to talk about the most spoken languages and describe how to determine which ones are most useful globally. By the end of the article I won’t give you a useless list of 10-15 languages. Instead, I’ll narrow it down to three top options for the most useful languages to learn.
What Is the Most Used Language After English?
There are several ways we can identify the most used language after English and pick a new language to study.
The first method is to look at the number of countries where a given language is an official language.
The second way is to look at the number of native speakers of a given language.
The third way is to look at the number of total speakers of a given language (including those who may not speak it well).
For comparison purposes, I’ll give data for English as well so for each section, I’ll list 6 languages with English included.
Top Languages by the Number of Countries Where They’re an Official Language
The list includes countries with the language being de jure or de facto official.
1. English – 59 countries
Other languages don’t even come close to the geographical distribution of the English language. English speakers can be found everywhere in the world.
2. French – 29 countries
It’s important to note that most French speakers live in African countries, with 20 of the nations being very poor countries (plus Haiti in the Caribbean).
3. Arabic – 25 countries
While Arabic seems to be widely spoken, it has dialects that are often mutually unintelligible. Some linguists even consider them distinct languages. For example, Egyptian speakers will not understand Moroccan Arabic.
4. Spanish – 21 countries
Spanish has local varieties both in Europe and in Latin America. But apart from pronunciation and some different words, people who speak Spanish don’t have trouble understanding each other even if they’re from completely different corners of the world.
5. Portuguese – 10 countries
The European version of Portuguese is different from Brazilian Portuguese to the point most language learning courses discern between them. 7 countries where Portuguese is recognized as an official language are poor African nations.
6. German – 6 countries
Despite geographical proximity, some dialects may be harder to understand. But overall, those who speak German can always understand each other if they resort to Hochdeutsch (“standard” German).
Top Languages by the Number of Native Speakers
The list ranks the language by those who use a given language as their first language.
1. Mandarin Chinese – 929 million speakers
There are almost a billion Mandarin Chinese speakers. But the language’s reach is mostly limited to just one country which doesn’t make it such a common language to learn.
2. Spanish – 474.7 million speakers
There are Spanish-speaking countries in Europe, North America, and South America. Because of its widespread geographic distribution over three continents it’s one of the most useful languages to learn even if we focus only on the number of people who speak it as their first language.
3. English – 372.9 million speakers
Yes, despite English being the most spoken language in the world, native English speakers are vastly outnumbered by those who don’t speak it as their native language.
4. Hindi – 343.9 million speakers
Despite being the most commonly spoken language in India, it isn’t even used by 50% of the Indian population. Its geographic reach is mostly limited to the so-called Hindi Belt in northern, central, eastern, and western India.
5. Bengali – 233.7 million speakers
Bengali is most widely spoken language of Bangladesh and the second most widely spoken language in India. Despite the high total number of people who speak Bengali as their first language, it’s one of the least useful languages to learn unless you live in the region.
6. Portuguese – 232.4 million speakers
Brazil, with its population of over 215 million people, accounts for the vast majority of people who speak Portuguese. The Portuguese language is the only example of a language that people speak on three continents (Europe, South America, and Africa) that has a limited global use due to most Portuguese speakers living in just one country.
As you can clearly see, judging the usefulness of a language by the number of native speakers isn’t a good idea. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who will tell you that Bengali is such an important language that you should learn it after English.
Top Languages by the Number of Total Speakers
This list all speakers of a given language, even those who don’t speak it well.
1. English – 1.452 billion
The number of speakers of the English language is by far the highest in the world, even though most don’t speak it as their first language.
2. Mandarin Chinese – 1.118 billion
According to these numbers, it makes it the second most spoken language in the world. But as we’ll explore in the next section, what’s more important is how widely the language is spoken around the world.
3. Hindi – 602.2 million
The number of speakers of Hindi is very high. But as we explored in the previous section, it’s mostly concentrated in one undeveloped region of the world.
4. Spanish – 548.3 million
Spanish is the most global Romance language, with the most speakers speaking it as their mother tongue. While it originated in Europe and is one of the major official languages of the European Union, it’s actually much more useful in the Americas.
5. French – 247.1 million
There are many countries where French is a co-official language. Consequently, the number of native speakers of French is much lower than the number of people who speak French as their second or third language.
6. Modern Standard Arabic (excluding dialects) – 274 million
The issue with Modern Standard Arabic is that it’s primarily a formal language used in reading and writing, with little everyday use. Moreover, there are no native speakers of this language and it’s only known by well-educated people living in Arab countries.
The Most Widely Spoken Languages Are Most Useful
We’ve explored three ways to determine the most used languages. The biggest lesson when deciding which foreign language to study is that you should prioritize its global distribution over the number of speakers.
While China, India, and Brazil are or may soon become world’s newest economic powerhouses, for the time being I don’t see much use in learning these languages over the more internationally widespread languages.
China may be a global superpower and have the largest population online. But its largely closed economy and restricting the majority of Internet users to Chinese websites doesn’t make it a particularly useful language globally.
Hindi may be the third most spoken language in the world by the number of total speakers. But it’s unlikely you’ll find Hindi to be useful in your everyday life if it’s largely limited to one region of India.
Brazil may have over 200 million inhabitants but its language doesn’t have much significance outside of it.
The languages of these countries aren’t distributed globally enough to be an efficient use of time. The only exception is when you have special circumstances, for example you work in a business importing from China, have a Brazilian spouse, or often travel to India.
If you don’t have any personal or business ties with these countries, I’d focus on languages either spoken in more countries or in more developed and influential globally countries (even despite its much smaller size as is the case with Germany).
This leads us to the most important section of this article.
Top Three Most Useful Languages to Learn After English
So after all this data, what new language should you learn if you already speak English? Here are the top three choices for the most useful foreign language to master.
The Spanish speaking population is enormous, particularly in the Americas. It makes it by far the best target language after English.
Spanish is also a useful language to help understand to a small extent other Romance languages. For example, many Italian words are similar to Spanish words. The same applies to Portuguese, though its pronunciation makes it harder to understand.
If you live in the United States, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice your language skills, particularly in states such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York.
Becoming one of the Spanish speakers will also prove to be very useful on trips to such world-class destinations as Mexico, Costa Rica, or Spain (one of the most desired tourist and retirement destinations due to its great climate).
French is considered by some linguists as the second most useful language after English, ahead of Spanish.
If you work in diplomacy, international non-profits, love the French music industry, or frequently travel to Africa, learn French before you learn Spanish.
Learning French is a particularly good idea if you live in the United Kingdom where it’s much more useful in everyday life than Spanish.
And if you live in Canada, the Quebec variation of French could be one of the most important languages you can learn after English.
German is a bit of an exception on this list. Apart from Europe, it’s not that common globally, except for Namibia, the states of North Dakota and South Dakota as well as several Brazilian states.
What made me choose German is its impact on the world economy, with many large corporations operating from Germany or German-speaking countries.
Another factor is the language’s significance in science, literature (10% of books are published in German), philosophy, and technology.
Germany is an economic powerhouse of the European Union. Along with its well-developed and rich neighbors, it’s a useful language for international business, education, as well as travel.
The grammar and sentence structure of German may take some time getting used to but there’s still a lot it shares with English due to English being a Germanic language.
Frequently Asked Questions
Spanish is the easiest language to learn after English. It shares thousands of words and has similar grammar rules which for (motivated) learners who speak English may make it a surprisingly easy language to learn.
By the number of total speakers, it’s Mandarin Chinese, followed by Hindi, Spanish, and French.
German leads the way, with French second, Russian third (many people speak Russian in Eastern Europe), and Spanish fourth.
An average English-speaking language learner will find it most difficult to learn to speak Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and other languages with different writing systems and/or complicated pronunciation.
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