You might only speak your native tongue, maybe you speak a few languages from your country, or perhaps you’re an experienced language learner. Whatever your experience with language learning, you’ve decided now is the time to pick up a new language. But, which language to learn?
Often people have a romantic idea of learning the language and being able to converse fluently with the locals in just a few months. Quick reality check for you here; that ain’t gonna happen.
But, here’s the good news. Learning a new language is great fun, can help you make lots of new friends and isn’t actually as hard or as terrifying as you might think it is.
So, with that out of the way, which language should you learn?
Your language learning reasons
Now before we come to the list of which language you will find most useful to learn, or which is the easiest, it’s good to ask yourself why you want to learn a new language.
Is it because you want to travel in a particular part of the world? Or, perhaps it’s for work. Many people learn a language simply as a hobby. Maybe you just think it’s time to stop idly scrolling Instagram and put that time to good use.
If it’s for travel, this will likely answer your question for you.
Travelling in Europe?
English is almost certainly going to be the most useful. But, you won’t find many English speakers away from popular tourist areas. And as Europe has a lot of languages, it’s good to pick the one where you’re aiming to spend the most time.
German: Used in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, parts of Northern Italy and Lichtenstein.
French: Used in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Andorra, Luxembourg.
Italian: Used in mainland Italy but also useful in neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Malta, Albania and even France.
Dutch: Used in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as in some parts of Germany and France.
Spanish: Used in Spain and Andorra. Bear in mind though that Spain has many local languages such as Catalan, Galician and Basque. However, Spanish is universally understood and used across the nation.
Slavic language such as Polish, Russian or Czech: These languages have some similarities but are not mutually intelligible. So it’s best to pick one for where you’re expecting to spend the most amount of time.
Travelling in Africa?
As a vast and varied continent, it can be hard to know which language is best to use.
Central African Republic
If you’re travelling around Africa, a mixture of French and English will get you far. English will probably suffice in most of the popular tourist destinations in Africa such as Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Tunisia.
If you’re planning to travel extensively in North Africa, consider brushing up your French and even getting a bit of Arabic into your vocab.
Travelling in South America?
For almost all of South America, Spanish is going to be indispensable. Yes, you can make do with the basic tourist Spanish and English if you’re in the main tourist centres. But, if you want to really feel comfortable, get to grips with Spanish.
Of course if you’re heading to Brazil, your Spanish won’t be so useful as this the world’s largest Portuguese speaking nation.
Travelling in Asia?
When it comes to Asia, the mix of languages makes it very hard to pick one. As a tourist, English will be fine in most situations. But picking another local language will depend on where you’re planning on spending time, how long for, and what your travel goals are.
Popular languages to learn in Asia include:
- Bahasa Malay/Indonesian
Of all of those, the ones that are technically the easiest for English speakers to learn (and speakers of other European languages not used to all those inflections) are Japanese, Bahasa Malay/Indonesian and Korean.
If you’re up for a challenge, Mandarin, Arabic and Thai are going to be a lot trickier, but definitely doable.
Travelling in the Middle East will mean that Arabic is high on your list of languages to learn.
Language learning for fun
Let’s assume that you’re not actually learning a language for travel, but just because you want to speak another language. In this case, finding the easiest language to learn comes down to one thing…
Your interest in the language and culture.
If you’re not genuinely interested in something, what are your chances of sticking with it? Pretty low, right?
If you are obsessed with K-pop and Korean dramas, learn Korean.
If you’re always wanted to learn French, well… Learn French.
Like most things in life, you have to actually want to learn it to see it though.
How long does it take to learn a language?
This is pretty much a how long is a piece of string type of question. It depends on the language, on you, on your native tongue and other languages you might have in your arsenal.
Lets assume you spend one hour a day on your target language, and you currently speak only English as your mother tongue.
The US Foreign Services Institute classifies languages into categories based on how easy they are for English speakers to learn. Category one being easiest. These languages are estimated to take 24-30 weeks (around 700 hours) to learn to a level of ‘professional working fluency’, which means you could converse easily.
|Danish (24 weeks)||Dutch (24 weeks)||French (30 weeks)|
|Italian (24 weeks)||Norwegian (24 weeks)||Portuguese (24 weeks)|
|Romanian (24 weeks)||Spanish (24 weeks)||Swedish (24 weeks)|
Category two languages are not as easy for English speakers, with an estimated 36 weeks, or 900 hours, to learn to a confident level.
With category three languages, you come to those that are ‘hard’ to learn with significant differences from English. The US FSI estimates 44 weeks of consistent study, or 1100 hours, to reach proficiency in these languages.
And then there are the really hard languages that are estimated to take 88 weeks, or 2200 hours, to reach a confident level of speaking and comprehension.
|Arabic||Chinese – Cantonese||Chinese – Mandarin|
How to learn a language?
If you’ve never learned a language before it can be daunting making a start. There are a lot of options and people have so many opinions. But like anything else in life, everyone is different when it comes to learning.
Some prefer to follow YouTube videos or read a self study book, some need to go to classes, and some are happy to download an app. It will depend on a lot of things such as your budget, your free time and your determination to learn the language.
Having learned three languages (French, Spanish and Italian), I recommend using a mixture of online courses with a bit of self study from books or videos. Once I am past the beginner stage, I will then hire a teacher to help me progress to the next stage.
My favourite resources:
- Languagepod101 (online courses, good prices and very good lessons inc. free options)
- DuoLingo (Great free app that has loads of languages. Good for reinforcing what you’ve learned)
- Memrise (similar to Duolingo, but with some handy videos too)
- Teach Yourself books – excellent and very useful for reference
To level up
Once you’re at a semi-confident level (or before that ideally), you should either hire a tutor or start speaking to native speakers to help you improve.
- Tandem (great free app that allows you to make language buddies all around the world)
- iTalki (another free app for language buddies, plus professional tutors)
If you’re reading this outside of the pandemic, then attending meetups is a great way to improve your speaking and comprehension. Find language exchanges near you on Facebook and Meetup.com.
And… That is how you learn a language!
The best language to learn? Well, that’s up to you…
Sounds like a lot of hard work? You could also check out the Pocket Talk?