What is the most useful language to learn besides English?

Let’s think only in terms of career development, societal influence, and money. Let’s say you and I had to choose only one second language to learn that would help us the most in all three areas–which would it be?

The most common choices are:

Mandarin Chinese

Assuming we are average Americans, which language would give us the most benefit in the long run?


The fastest growing minority group is Hispanics. Businesses in areas with large Hispanic populations already see the writing on the wall, and are advertising in Spanish, hiring Spanish speaking workers, and trying to appeal to Hispanic culture. It’s not terribly uncommon to encounter someone in a customer service position who does not speak English, even. Spanish is easily the most useful secondary language to learn in the US.

true anecdote:
an American businessman I knew met a mulitilingual European businessman, and asked which of the many languages he knew was the most important.
The answer: “my client’s”.

In the U.S., Spanish – unquestionably. Like it or not, there are millions of Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens, and the percentage is growing. Likewise, for a Canadian, French – and there, it’s required in school in most places.

In general, though: you could make a case for a number of languages. Mandarin is probably the language with the most native speakers – but how often will you use it, outside of being in China or doing work that involves translating to and from Chinese in one fashion or another.

Perhaps the best way to a non IMHO answer migth be to graph it out two-dimensionally. One axis would be number of native speakers, with a factor relative to how many nations it’s dominant in. Russian and Portuguese are big, but outside Russia and Brazil, there are few native speakers. On the other hand, Arabic and Spanish are major languages in a large number of countries – with dialectal variations, to be sure, but still widespread.

The Y axis would be number of people factoring in number of locations where it is used as a second language, a lingua franca. Very few Danes and Dutch speak English in the hume, but English is so widespread in Denmark and the Netherlands as a second language that one almost need not know Danish or Dutch. There are some odd results here – Fulani (Peul, Fulfulde), a rather small language, is spoken across a large swath of West Africa. Tamil pops up in the strangest places, from Guyana to Malaysia – of all the languages of India, it has the widest use beyond the Republic.

But the results should be informative – the languages that are not only the first, home language for the most people, but also the most widely spoken beyond their homelands. If 50 million Italians but almost nobody else speak Italian, compared to something spoken by 25 million natives and 25 million others as a second language, I’d give the nod to the second language as between the two – it’s more widely spoken, even though the numbers are comparable.

I’d be very intrigued to see what the results of such an analysis come out to.

I asked and acted on that question about 25 years ago and chose Japanese. No regrets, but if I had to ask again today at that stage of my career development, I would consider Chinese very carefully, and perhaps Hindi. If I were at an even earlier stage of my career, I would consider adding Vietnamese to that list. the others you listed, not so much, Europeans speak English at least as well as most Americans in the business world, there is little to be gained from showing off you know a little Dutch or French or Spanish for the most part. In the Asian countries I mentioned, English proficiency is not so high, plus the overall culture values you learning something local in order to build relationships on solid ground.

I say this pragmatically, having been a pioneer in creating processes for implementing software internationalization and localization worldwide. Look for imbalances and supply and demand, coupled with likely high growth economies and very different cultural norms.

French is an official language of Canada, but unless you are working in Quebec, or for the federal government, it may not be the best choice. Here in Vancouver Cantonese or Mandarin/Beijing dialect would be very good choices.

Toss up between Spanish and Arabic

Knowing Arabic gives all sorts of job opportunities. Spanish would be the most useful by far if you’re just trying to interact with people around the US. Polish would be great for my hometown, but less so elsewhere.

The truth is you never know what language turns out to actually be the most useful for you in your life.

I speak French reasonably well, and that has proved useful from time to time.

But the language I really wish I knew is German. In my work I deal with Germans a LOT, and a travel to Germany on business often, so being able to speak the language would be big advantage. But that’s my unique situation.


I agree- there is no one answer for this. If you know what you want to do with your life, you probably have an idea of what language is useful to learn. If you don’t know what you are going to do with your life, you have no way to predict what will be useful. There are just too many “possibly useful” second languages and no clear “certainly useful” second languages to say one is surely better than the other.

Gaming the system (like learning Chinese or Arabic because you think they will be more useful) doesn’t seem to do well, either. Look at all the people who learned Japanese in the 80s. All you can do is look at your career and your interests. Furthermore, these languages are in demand exactly because they are so difficult to learn. Unless this becomes one of the focuses of your life, you probably won’t learn enough to give you an advantage in the job market.

Anyway, if forced, I’d recommend a romance language- Probably Spanish or possible French (useful in Africa.) They are easy enough that you stand a good chance of actually learning it enough to get a job based on your skills, and they will help you get a basic understanding of the whole spectrum of romance languages- which are useful on several continents.

I have to surmise that you are not from the Americas, as few people here would typically suppose one learns Spanish to speak to Spaniards (although, one could speak to them as well, of course).

Spanish would be nice, but not very useful because the socio-economics of Spanish is the lower classes. And even then most of the Spanish speaking people can get by in English.

It would be useful to know Spanish so you could watch three more TV stations but other than that.

I would choose Arabic simply because there aren’t enough speakers. There are tens of thousands of Spanish speakers and there is no market for that. But the governement needs Arabic translators.

Even though Spanish is now the third most spoken tongue, behind Chinese and Hindi, there are no major economic powers that speak Spanish. The closest you get is Venezuala (with Oil) and Spain.

Africa is virtually totally Spanish free as is Asia. South America’s superpower is Brazil not Argentina.

So while Chinese and Hindi are spoken by more people they are very concentrated while Spanish is too widespread but over countries that, for lack of a better phrase, don’t count for much.

I think in the following decades you will see a reverse in English with phrases now spoken incorrectly by Indians and Chinese learning English, will become incorporated into standard English.

Arabic will always be important because of Islam and Oil. In the coming century when Islam passes Christianity you will find Arabic more widespread, because unlike Christianity which allows for different languages with the Bible, Islam presses learning the Koran in Arabic

Frankly, I think people should learn whatever language has the most appeal to them. Even in term of career development, I don’t think it really matters. You’ll have more opportunities to use a widespread language, but tons of other people will know it too. A rare language will rarely be required, but when it will be, you’ll be one of the very few people able to fill the slot.

And of course, you’ll learn way more easily a language if you’re actually interested in it, in the country where it is used, etc… and will be much more likely to actually learn it to a significant level of fluency. Plus, your interest in said language/country/culture might very well bring opportunities you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or you might create them yourself because, say, you want to live for some time in this country.
Finally, as other said, you can’t predict the future. Mandarin is gaining ground in Asia, and might well do so too in the rest of the world in a not so distant future, given the growing wealth/power/development of China. Or it might not. But even if it does, it’s not like you’re going to be the only one who had considered this and decided to learn Mandarin for this reason.
So, my opinion will always be : go with whatever language you’d actually like to learn.

That’s true, but outside Russia there are a lot of people that speak Russian as a second language, or whose native language is close enough to Russian to enable communication with them if you can speak it. It’s not going to be a concern for most Americans, but if you happen to be in a situation where you interact with a lot of Eastern Europeans then Russian would be extremely useful.

Such as what? Translator for the DoD or perhaps a career as an analyst in the spying services or as a diplomat? That is about it on the career path I think. Any business done between US firms and Arabic firms is conducted in English for the most part.

This is not really true. As someone who was one of those who learned Japanese in the 80s, I don’t see the problem with that. The US still does an enormous amount of business with Japan - we are the 2 latest economies in the world after all. And there is still a shortage of US folks who not only understand Japanese language but culture too. the truth is that most jobs that require more language skills and less management skills go increasingly to native speakers who are easily available and translators with professional degrees.

So if you want to look to the future, either move to another country to learn the language and plan to use your English intensively, or plan to learn a language the best you can here and aim for a management position.

If you want a career that lasts, then be flexible over time and recognize that management skills in some industries can adapt to other countries and aim for those industries.

I say this having had a career of over 10 years in international software and language related material. Maybe the OP is not as clear as it could be - is the idea to acquire a language to assure an international career, or is s/he looking for advice on the best way to have an international career? Devoting oneself to learning a language is not the solution to the latter question. The real solution is to identify one’s own skills and interests and align themselves with existing and likely gaps among native and immigrant populations. I would suggest aiming towards management positions where managing “diversity” is valued is an excellent approach.

Russian is actually pretty useful because there are a lot of people who have studied in Russia. In addition to using it in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I have used it in Greece, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mandarin obviously.

probably followed by Spanish and Arabic.

Oh gimme a break. The demand for Spanish-speakers in the workforce here is huge. One of the richest people in the world now is Mexican. Hispanics are already coming into their own in the US and will be skyrocketing into the middle and upper classes within the next few decades. For an American, now, Spanish is unquestionably useful.