What’s the best foreign language to learn?

A few weeks ago I received an email from a friend asking which foreign language his daughter should learn. She was entering high school and had several options, including Spanish, French and Chinese. He wanted to know which language was the best.

While I specialize in language learning and work in world languages, I still found his question hard to answer.

Here’s why.

Motivation to learn a language

The best foreign language to learn is the one you’ll be most successful with. Motivation is one of the most important factors influencing success in language learning.

If you are learning a language because you want to get ahead in life, say for university applications or future job opportunities around the world, you’re being motivated by instrumental motivation.

But the kind of motivation that correlates with success in language learning is integrative. If you have a desire to communicate with native speakers, you’re more likely to use and practice that world language.

No amount of text-book reading or digital immersion can supplement real-world communication in a foreign language.

Language for school

Many students are required to elect a world language as part of their study program. What’s the best language in this case?

While some may choose languages that are considered easy, the best foreign language to learn is really the one that most overlaps with the other subjects you are learning.

French, German and Greek are all good languages for science and philosophy. If you like modern art, perhaps you’ll go with Spanish. Italian can be the best choice for students interested in music. An engineer might want to learn Japanese.

If you are interested in a language beyond its grammar and vocabulary, you’ll inadvertently learn more about its country, culture and people. Activities such as these foster integrative motivation and reinforce language learning.

Language for business

I understand why job seekers would like to know which foreign language is best for a successful career. Language can do a lot for your CV and open up international business opportunities you never knew were possible.

After English, is it French, Spanish or even Chinese that you should be learning for career advancement? Studies say any of the above will do, along with Arabic. But it also depends on your chosen career path and what language(s) you speak to begin with.

In the US, Spanish is the second most spoken language after English. If you think you’ll have Spanish speaking clients or co-workers, advanced language ability in Spanish might be right for you. But if you’re in an industry where you need to work with Brazil, then really it’s Portuguese. If you’re looking to market your product in the Middle East, it’s Arabic. In Asia, it’s Chinese.

And while it might be helpful to know these foreign languages, in today’s globalized economy, can’t you just speak English? The answer is yes. English will do. So why learn a foreign language?

Because if you speak Spanish, French or Chinese and you travel abroad to meet your future business partners, managers or customers, you can get so much more out of the experience. Understanding culture is key to success in business, and with culture comes language.

Besides, most people who end up fluent in a foreign language because of work did not initially choose to study Vietnamese or Moroccan Arabic. They learned it because their job opportunities led them to it.

So, what’s the best foreign language to learn for your career? It all depends on how and where you envision your career playing out!

Languages that are hard

When people decide to learn a foreign language for their job or studies, often they are less interested in learning a language they can use, and more in learning a world language that will change the way people perceive them.

Russian, Arabic and Chinese are often considered to be hard languages for an English speaker to learn. Electing one of these may be seen as ambitious and suggest character traits to potential employers or graduate schools.

But language difficulty is relative (see our post on what makes some languages more difficult to learn) and the more difficult languages are also the less commonly taught ones. This means students who choose these languages have a greater chance of dropping-out, as well as less access to quality materials and instructional programs.

The best foreign languages for making a strong impression may therefore also be the most dangerous to study, as instrumental motivation alone will not take you to fluency.

Languages that are easy

I’ve heard people say that the best foreign language to learn is the one that is the easiest. An easy language means you expend less effort on learning the mechanics which frees you to focus on communication and helps you reach more advanced levels of fluency.

A language might be easy because it’s a romance language like Spanish or French, so you don’t have to learn a new alphabet. It might also be because you have family members who speak that language or a religious affiliation that will bring you in contact with it.

But while choosing a language that is considered easy for English speakers will give you a greater chance at success, if you don’t love it or its speakers, you’re still doomed for failure. Dutch is the closest language to English and therefore one of the easiest for English speakers to learn. That doesn’t make it the best foreign language for everyone to study.

However, learning languages to which you’ve been exposed or come into regular contact with isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

If you’re used to listening to Spanish or you lived in France as a baby, these languages will be easier for you to learn.

Immersion in a foreign language is commonly considered one of the best ways to achieve fluency. Family that speaks a foreign language is a 2 for 1.

It means less work than going out of your way to simulate immersion and having people to speak a foreign language with at the same time. That is integrative motivation at its best!

Foreign language for your life

The best foreign language to learn is the one that makes the most sense for you and your life. What are your interests and where will your career path or studies likely take you? Do you like challenges or would you prefer a language that will be easier to study?

Thinking about why you want to learn a language in the first place is a crucial step in determining which foreign language is best. All of us are unique and there’s a different “best” world language out there for everyone!

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