Sunday June 24th 2018

Which Foreign Language Should I Learn?

Spanish language teacher in Buenos Aires writing on a whiteboard.
Photo courtesy of Amazing Travel Photos

Dear Marco Polo:

I am an American thinking of traveling abroad and perhaps living there as an expatriate. I’ve traveled overseas before and noticed that many Europeans speak four or five different languages. I am English-only. I did take a foreign-language in high school, but it didn’t stick. Which foreign language should I study?

Monoglot from Brooklyn

Dear Monoglot,

Sadly, many Americans speak only one language, English, and even that not so well. Fortunately, for Americans, English is the lingua franca of the world. For example, air traffic control is all in English. And if a traveling Japanese and Chinese want to converse, it will most likely be in English. Or if someone from Brazil (Portugese) is visiting Germany (Duetsch), they will probably hope to find someone that speaks English.

But still, many people you meet speak no English, so knowing the local language is always useful. Besides, it is fun and rewarding to learn another language. So which language to choose?

First of all, you should decide where you will be traveling and living abroad. If you are going to be living permanently in one country, that will probably determine your language. It may even be a requirement to study the local language. For example, if you emmigrate to Germany, you must study and learn to speak German.

Next consider what language you studied in high school or college, which ought to give you a head start in studying a foreign language. Also, consider your interest in a particular culture. Learning their language will greatly increase your knowledge and understanding of that culture.

Finally, consider the total number of speakers of that language in the world. The more native speakers, the more people you can talk to. Native speakers include the native population an also the diasporo around the world. For instance, you’ll find a lot of Russian speakers in Brooklyn, New York and Polish speakers in Chicago.

Indo-European Languages
Most European languages are in the Indo European language family. Several hundred related languages and dialects fall under this family. Three of the major classifications are Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages. (There are other classifications as well, like Celtic languages and Indo-Iranian.)

Romance Languages
The most common languages studied by Americans during high school, French, Italian and Spanish, are Romance languages. These languages all trace their ancestry to Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.

Table 1. Indo-European/Romance Language Speakers
Language Native
Spanish 329 390 Spain, Mexico, much of South America, USA
Portuguese 178 193 Portugal, Brazil
French 68 120 France, much of Africa, Haiti
Italian 62 Italy
Romanian 23 Romania
Catalan 11.5 15 Spain/France
Sicilian 4.8 Sicily, Italy

Data from List of languages by number of native speakers

As far as the total number of speakers, Spanish wins hands down out of the Romance languages with 390 million total speakers. Spanish is also useful right here in the good old USA with many Spanish speakers from Mexico, Central and South America. On the other hand, if you wanted to converse with Don Corleone, Sicilian may not be a bad choice.

Germanic Languages
It may surprise you that English is classified as a Germanic language. In fact, sometimes you can translate to German just by speaking English with a German accent! Das ist gut!

Table 2. Indo-European/Germanic Language Speakers
Language Native
English 328 USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand
German 90 118 Germany, Austria, Switzerland
Dutch 22 32 Netherlands, South Africa
Swedish 8.3 Sweden
Danish 5.6 Danish
Afrikaans 4.9 15.2 South Africa
Norwegian 4.6 Norway
Yiddish 13 New York

As far as the total number of speakers, the best Germanic language to study is German. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian have too few speakers to make it worth your while, unless  you plan on emmigrating to one of those countries. As far as learning Yiddish goes, if you have a lot chutzpah, goyim need only learn a few Yiddish words for it to be effective. Don’t be a shlemiel or a shlimazel. Oy veh! (Short for Oy vey iz mir which means Oh woe is to me.

Slavic Languages
Slavic languages are a group of languages that are mostly spoken in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and parts of Asia. They are all derived from Old Slavonic. There are three main branches of the Slavic languages. Eastern Slavic languages include Russian, Ukrianian and Belarusian. Western Slavik languages include Polish, Czech and Slovak. Sourthern Slavic languages include Bulgarian and Macedonian in the east, and Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian in the west.

Eastern Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet and Western Slavic languages use the Latin alphabet.

Table 2. Indo-European/Slavic Language Speakers
Language Native
Russian 114 250 Russia, Ukraine, former USSR States
Polish 40 Poland, Chicago, Greenpoint
Ukrainian 37 Ukraine
Serbo-Croatian 16 Serbia, Croatia, former Yugoslavia
Bulgarian-Macedonian 11.2 Bulgaria, Macedonia
Czech 9.5 15 Czech Republic
Belarussian 8.6 Belarus
Slovak 5.0 Slovakia

As far as the total number of speakers, the best Slavic language to study is Russian with 250 million speakers. Polish and Ukrainian are second with about 40 million speakers. There are many older Russian speakers in most former communist countries of Eastern Europe because they had to learn Russian back then. Younger people rarely know Russian. But if you speak Russian in places, you may not get treated politely. I was once refused service at a restaurant in Krakow, Poland for asking to see the menu in Russian! Some animosity lingers.

Other Languages
There are plenty of other languages besides the Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. But you would need to have a special interest to study some of these languages. A language like Hungarian would be useful in Hungary and Transylvania (western Romania) but of little use elsewhere.

Table 2. Other Language Speakers
Family/Class Language Native
Sino-Tibetan/Chinese Mandarin 845 1025 China
I-E/Indic Hindustani 240 405 India
Afro-Asian/Semitic Arabic 206 452 Arab countries
I-E/Indic Bengali 181 250 India
Japanonic Japanese 122 123 Japan
I-E/Indic Punjabi 109 India
Austro-Asiatic/Viet-Muong Vietnamese 69 Vietnam
Turkic Turkish 51 Turkey
Korean Korean 66 South Korea, North Korea
I-E/Iranian Pashto 50 Iran, Afghanistan
I-E/Iranian Persian 39 Iran
Kradai/Tai Thai 60 Thailand
Austronesian/Malayo-Ploynesian Tagalog 24 Philipines
Uralic/Ugric Hungarian 12.5 Hungary, Transylvania
Afro-Asiatic/Semic Hebrew 5.3 Israel, Williamsburg
Uralic/Finnic Finnish 5.1 Finland

Mandarin Chinese is the most popular language in the world. Hindustani and Arabic also have many speakers. But both China and India have many other languages as well.

Six Official Languages of the United Nations
There are six languages that the U.N. has selected as their official languages. An argument can certainly be made for learning one of the official U.N. languages.

Table 2. Official U.N. Language Speakers
Language Native
Chinese (Mandarin) 845 1025 northern and southwest China
Spanish 329 390 Spain, Mexico, south and central America
English 328 English-speaking countries
Arabic 232 452 Islamic countries
Russian 144 250 Russia, former USSR
French 68 120 France, former French colonies

Of the Official U.N. languages, Mandarin Chinese has the most native and total speakers with over one billion total speakers. Spanish and English tie for second with probably up to half a million speakers each. Then Arabic (452 million), Russian (250 million) and French (120 million). English is probably the most common second language.

It would behoove every citizen of the world to know at least one of the official U.N. languages. You are already fluent in one, English. But it could not hurt to know more than one of the official languages.

Therefore, my recommendation is to make your choice for foreign language study from one of the official U.N. languages based on the part of the world you will be traveling to. If you are going to Asia, study Mandarin Chinese; if Central or South America, study Spanish. Headed to the Middle East? Study Arabic. If Eastern Europe or the former Soviet countries are your destination, study Russian. France or Africa? study French.

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