Learning a second language can enrich your life and cultural understanding and even advance your career. With perks to both your professional and personal live, you may be wondering, what is the best second language to learn?
The best second language for most English speakers in the United States is Spanish. Other great options for English speakers are French, German, Portuguese, and Norwegian. Good options for non English speakers are Chinese, Arabic, or Russian.
With 90% of language learners choosing one of 8 languages (out of 7,000 worldwide), there are three good questions to ask yourself when evaluating which language to learn.
- How hard is it going to be?
- What is available to you to improve your proficiency?
- What about the language’s culture interests you?
Therefore, this article will discuss the best second languages to learn in terms of difficulty, opportunity, and cultural intrigue.
- 1 Spanish
- 2 French
- 3 Chinese
- 4 Arabic
- 5 Portuguese
- 6 Russian
- 7 German
- 8 Norwegian
- 9 The Final Talking Point for Best Choices for a Second Language to Learn
Best Second Language Pick For U.S. English Speakers
Spoken by around 460 million native speakers, the Spanish language covers Spain, much of South America, the whole of Latin America, and an increasing amount of the United States.
It is the second most spoken language in the world, so it is no brainer to choose to learn it, especially if you are a native English speaker.
For American English speakers, in particular, Spanish likely presents opportunities for you to use it right in your hometown, increasingly so if you live in the border states. The language is also a window into a vibrant neighboring culture, so what does it take to learn Spanish?
One of the biggest pluses to learning another language is the unique view into another culture that it offers. If you would like to get a ‘taste’ of cultures around the world another way, Universal Yums is a company that will send you a gift box of snacks every month from different countries. We love it, and I would highly recommend checking out their site.
Spanish is one of what are called the Romance languages. There are actually a lot of languages in this category, and while all of them are very different sounding, they are all a part of the same language family. Some of the highlights of Romance languages, in addition to Spanish, include:
What does this mean practically speaking? For one thing, the Romance languages share the same alphabet as English.
They also have a similar syntax, which means the languages structure sentences in a similar way. Because English and Spanish are rubbing shoulders in America, they have an increasing number of words in common.
The upshot is that, for English speakers, Spanish is not as “foreign” as other languages. Instead of learning a whole new alphabet, you are only learning some different pronunciations for the one you already know. And apart from a couple of consonant sounds, the differences lie mostly in the vowels.
Because the sentence construction bears similarities with English, the English speaker will have an easier time thinking through the language. As an ESL teacher, I often used stories to teach vocabulary. Spanish Short Stories for Beginners available at Amazon is an example of the kinds of stories to learn Spanish.
For all of these reasons, the Foreign Services Institute has rated Spanish as one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.
One source believes that 13% of homes already speak Spanish in the United States. This statistic means the opportunity for bilingual English/Spanish speakers is increasing in both government and private services. (I’ve written more about learning Spanish here, if you’d like to check that out, too.)
It is common to think of learning a second language in terms of going abroad, but it is equally important to think of opportunities that are in your own backyard. The availability of Spanish speakers means that, depending on your community, you may have the ability to practice the language with native speakers.
It also means that learning resources for Spanish are going to be more readily available. No doubt, as you consider what language to learn, you are also considering what program to buy. But resources go beyond a program into tutoring services. Because Spanish is often taught at the local high schools, tutors will be available.
If you want to go abroad, Spanish is very useful in getting you access to a large part of the world. Of course, Spain is the obvious choice, but 20 other countries have Spanish as the official language. As the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world, it is a good chance you will run into a Spanish speaker wherever you are.
Cultural motivation is going to be one of the best motivations for learning a second language, and culture gives you many points of interest. While some may seem trivial, they are not. In fact, recent research in The Modern Language Journal has proven that motivation is key for adults to learn anything, similar to the effect motivation has on children.
Food, for example. Latin American cuisine is big in much of the United States and can give you a readily available focal point for your studies. You can expand your growth in the language by learning more about the food and how it differs across places like:
- Latin America
- South American
Music is another cultural connection with Spanish radio stations being available in many parts of America. This gives you a chance to listen to the language unfiltered, as it is for native speakers. And while it may seem bewildering at first, it is a great opportunity to absorb the sound of it and expand your musical interest. To learn about how fun it is to learn Spanish, I’ve addressed that here.
One of the most successful language learners and teachers in the world is Benny ‘The Irish Polyglot’ Lewis. His Fluent In 3 Months system has shaken the language learning community worldwide.
He has a system for learning Spanish that hacks the way we normally think of language learning. If you would like to start speaking Spanish from day one, I recommend following this link and checking out his Spanish is Easy guide.
Another one of the Romance languages is French, and it often seems relegated to France and Eastern Canada. If you stay out of those areas, it seems likely that you could avoid French altogether. But that is not so.
Thanks to French colonialism, a much larger part of the world speaks the language than you would expect. It can also get you through Switzerland and Belgium, so French is a useful language to learn.
In some ways, French seems more difficult than Spanish, even though it too shares the same alphabet. The differences have to do with pronunciation and syntax. I’ve written about learning Spanish and French at the same time here; read to learn more.
English speakers tend to create meaning through vocally stressing certain words in the sentence. If you stress the personal pronoun, for example, you can use that to differentiate yourself from someone else in the room or mentioned previously in the conversation. The same goes for other things.
In French, this kind of emphasis comes through word order, making it syntactically a little different. Also, the pronunciation of French sounds drastically different from English.
While French and English are not of the same family, they share similar Latin roots to many words. French itself is also a root of English. After all, it was medieval French rubbing shoulders with Old English (not Shakespearean English, but Saxon) that created, in the following order:
- Middle English
- The King’s or Shakespearean English
- Modern English
The French language is a good choice if you are going to move to Eastern Canada, where French-Canadian is spoken readily. Obviously, it is also a good choice for that summer trip to see the sights in Paris.
It might surprise you, though, that French is the official language in much of Western and Central Africa, as well as Haiti and Madagascar. Furthermore, French continues to be spoken by communities in:
French is a valuable language for any business or travel ventures in these localities. While French learning opportunities may be less here in the US than for Spanish, it is still taught in many high schools, so tutoring resources will be available more for French than for some other languages.
For many, French still represents a language of art and culture. A trip to Paris is a trip to see art available in museums that cannot be found in other parts of the world. This is to say nothing of the city’s rich history of French and American artists and writers.
Learning French can open up a door to this kind of cultural experience that English might only be able to crack. But as you have seen already, the French language is a gateway to many other cultures as well.
For whatever else the French may have done in the colonial period, the language left its stamp on much of Africa. Learning French is a chance to communicate, if not in the native languages of different people groups, then certainly in the national, common language. This also is a rich cultural opportunity that should not be overlooked.
Here again, you can’t go wrong with the language learning strategies of Benny Lewis and his proven Fluent in 3 Months language hacks. These are more than simple tricks, these are proven methods that turn the way everyone has learned French in the past on its head. I recommend his French is Easy guide for anyone serious about learning.
Chinese is one of the most spoken languages in the world. Babel estimates that the language has well over a billion native speakers, almost 1/7th of the world’s population. Learning Chinese as a second language represents a chance to communicate with a huge population of people both in the US and in Asia.
The Chinese language has many different dialects but the same written language, so even if the dialect sounds different from what you have learned, you still have the chance to communicate.
Chinese is also one of the hardest languages to learn for several reasons. Not only is Chinese not a Romance language, but it is not even in the same ballpark. Chinese has the following difficulties:
- Characters, not an alphabet
- 50,000 characters in total
- A bare minimum of 2,000 characters needed to speak Chinese
- Four major tones
The 50,000 characters is not a typo. Of course, the bare minimum is only 1,974 more than our measly 26 letter alphabet. And if that is not enough, the four major “tones” can change in meaning. And you have to master all the different vowel and consonant sounds!
Chinese is difficult, but just because it is hard does not mean it is impossible. People speak it every day, and you can too.
The Chinese language presents huge opportunities, beginning here in the US. The urban areas have large centers of Chinese populations, and many universities have Chinese students as well. Chinese tutoring services may not be as available as Spanish, but they are in urban areas.
With the Chinese language being spoken so broadly, this means learning the language has business and career opportunities as well. If you know Chinese well, you could get a job as an instructor, a researcher, or a financial analyst.
With the continuing expansion of a global economy, getting a job in marketing research could be another valuable opportunity if Chinese is your second language. With such a job, you may even end up living in China.
The Chinese language is a superhighway into one of the oldest continuous cultures on earth. The mysticism surrounding Chinese philosophies has gained a strong appeal in Western culture.
Popular philosophies and practices that have originated in China include:
The ancient and mysterious looking geography and the long history of the country, which includes such incredible artifacts as the Great Wall of China, present a strong appeal to learn the language.
Then there is the food. Mandarin cooking can be among the spiciest cuisine in the world, and much of the foods have been popular in Western cultures for a long time. What better motivation to learn a language than to enjoy breaking bread with native speakers?
If you are interested in actually learning to speak Chinese and not just learning about the language of Chinese, I highly recommend getting Benny Lewis’ Chinese is Easy guide. It will make a monumental task much more achievable.
Once again, if there is a language that is more on the difficult side, Arabic is that language. This is especially true given the fact that dialects in Arabic range so widely that one is not easily understood by the other and vice versa.
Nevertheless, it is a widely spoken language. There are over 300 million native speakers, and language programs teach Modern Standard Arabic, which should give you the ability to communicate in any of the 20 countries where Arabic is the official language. Still, you may want to choose which dialect you want to focus on.
Arabic has a variety of challenges for the learner to overcome. Like Chinese, Arabic does not rely on the English alphabet. But unlike Chinese, it does have an alphabet (not characters), and it only has 28 letters (not thousands), which is a much more manageable number to learn. But there are other difficulties, such as:
- Reading and writing
When reading and writing Arabic, the English learner has to get used to the lack of the majority of vowels in words and writing from right to left (not the English left to right).
Speaking Arabic can also be difficult to pick up with its variety of unfamiliar sounds, including ones that come from the back of the throat. The syntax is also different with the verb being at the beginning of a sentence, and you have to understand different word forms that we do not have in English.
Understanding Arabic provides a lot of opportunities for both business and travel. Arabic is spoken across North Africa and throughout the Middle East. Any travel through these exotic areas is going to be aided by knowing the language, although it may be hindered by different dialects.
With many Arab nations beginning to compete in the global economy and a GDP of 600 billion dollars in the Arab region, there are many career opportunities for speakers of Arabic. Understanding Arabic can also be an opening to similar languages such as Farsi, Turkish, and Persian.
The Arab culture reaches far back into world history, and at the heart of the Middle East is the fertile crescent, long thought to be the birthplace of civilization. The reach of this ancient language also extends to Egypt, which is more accessible to westerners.
Needless to say, the Arabic language is vital to understanding the world’s second-largest religion, Islam. Knowing Arabic can also be a gateway into ancient Egypt, another ancient civilization whose mysteries of the pyramids and other archeological findings still intrigue us to this day.
To learn Arabic with its complexities for English speakers, I recommend a one on one instructor. You can find a ton of Arabic teachers to choose from at inexpensive prices on italki.com.
Not all great second language opportunities have to be super hard. Portuguese is a lot closer to home than the languages of Arabic and Chinese.
But it also has one of the largest groups of native speakers. You would not expect that given the size of the country, but Portuguese is spoken in more than just Portugal. It is the official language of quite a few places, including:
- East Timor
- Cape Verde
Portuguese is in the Romance language family, which means it uses the same alphabet as the English language. In fact, Portuguese is very similar to Spanish, so if you decide to learn Spanish, you could move to Portuguese after.
In some ways, the Portuguese language may be easier. It is easier for English speakers to pronounce Portuguese, and while the grammar and syntax are different from English, they are also simpler.
Portuguese is not often heard within the United States, but because the language covers broad areas of South America, there are opportunities to use it abroad. There are more opportunities for Portuguese speakers than you would think, including translation and interpretation.
However, because it is not as common a language here in the United States, resources for tutoring and opportunities for immersion are going to be fewer.
In terms of the Portuguese language, Brazil steals the show by attracting tourists with its:
- Cultural zest for life
Portugal is also home to the Amazon Basin, which happens to be the world’s largest rainforest.
Portugal, however, tends to fly under the radar when you think of popular destinations in Europe. Interestingly, Portugal is the oldest country in Europe, and the city of Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, is older than Rome. With all this antiquity, including one of the oldest Universities, Portugal also happens to be one of the world’s top surfing destinations.
If you would like a fast track to fluency in Portuguese, I recommend a private, online, one on one teacher. You can find the perfect one for your schedule, learning style, and personality at surprisingly affordable rates. Just go to italki and you could be learning Portuguese as early as today.
Here is another difficult but rewarding and useful language that you can learn. Russian is still spoken in many former Eastern Bloc countries, and, except English, Russian is the most common language used on the internet.
As one of the six languages officially used by the United Nations, Russian is spoken by more than 150 million native speakers. It sits at number eight of the most spoken languages in the world.
Learning the Russian language means a commitment to learning a nearly impenetrable grammar and the Cyrillic alphabet. At least there are only 33 characters that you have to memorize.
Russian can also be very hard to pronounce for the English speaker. Although some of this may have to do with the way it is taught. Imitation is always the best way to learn a language – that and immersion.
On the flip side, though, there are a surprising number of cognates with English, which is a word that sounds similar in two languages, sometimes sharing a similar root or mother language. Russian shares more cognates with English than any other language outside of Europe.
The US government recognizes Russian as an important language, so if you’re looking for government employment opportunities, there may be some available with this language. Between Russia and the former republics of the Soviet Union, there are a lot of travel destinations that may intrigue you.
Resources for learning Russian may be scarce in person, though there are Russian immigrant communities in some urban centers in the US. But the good news is that, with it being so commonly used on the internet, online resources will be plentiful.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that Russian is one of the most spoken Slavic languages. That means that if you can conquer Russian, you are that much closer to learning:
Russia has produced some of the true giants of music and literature. Russian writers who have written some of the best epics in the world are:
- Leo Tolstoy
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
In Music, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky were indomitable composers. If that is not enough to intrigue you, Russia has also made incredible contributions to:
- Olympic sports
Russian folklore is colorful, and the culture places a high value on family. So, if you are looking for a reason, explore this one.
Would you like to learn Russian, but think you need one on one instruction. Then you are looking for one of the best ways to find your language guide: italki. I recommend italki for anyone wanting a private tutor for Russian.
Now we come to German, one of the Germanic languages in the same branch as English (other branches include the Scandinavian languages). While English and German are from the same family, it is often said that German is hard for English speakers to learn, though that is debatable. Again, your motivation and connection can overcome challenges.
When my husband learned of his German heritage, he was instantly motivated to learn the language. Over the years, he and my daughter have become quite fluent and trips to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have ensued!
In addition to being spoken in Germany, German will also enable you to communicate in Austria and Switzerland (in case you could not learn French). Also, Germany’s rich culture makes it a fun language to learn.
English speakers may have a harder time learning German than one of the Romantic languages (I address this in detail here), but it certainly is not as difficult as some of the languages, such as:
For one thing, the two languages share a lot of cognates. In fact, just shy of half of the German vocabulary is similar to English words.
German shares the English alphabet. It may sound intimidating at first, but the language may actually be easier to pronounce than English. In English, letters can often change sounds at a moment’s notice (thanks largely to the melting pot of languages that have made up modern English).
German, on the other hand, is more phonetically true than English. Once you learn the way the alphabet is pronounced in German, that is the way it stays. And for those who love rigid grammar, German can be a relief compared to English grammar with its multitude of exception clauses.
German is still taught in high school in America, which means tutoring could be more available than some languages. Online resources are plenty for teaching you the language.
If you are looking to use German as a career move, one possibility you should not overlook is working for an airline as a flight attendant or a pilot. All such personnel are required to speak English no matter who they work for, but if you work for a German airline, you will need to be able to speak German.
Diplomacy is another possibility. Working for a US embassy in Germany would be one way to use German or even being a diplomat, though admittedly, it takes a long time to reach that profession.
While German is not as popular as some of the other languages we looked at, there are jobs in America that require German proficiency for reviewing content, translation, or interpretation. You would not think of it at first, but these opportunities are even available in tech companies.
Like Russia, Germany has a prominent place in the arts. Some of those contributions include:
- The music of Johann Sebastian Bach
- The paintings of Albrecht Dürer
- The poems of Rainer Maria Rilke
Germany has produced a wide array of artists over the centuries. Germany has also been home to the world’s most influential philosophers.
Germany was also home to the former Catholic monk Martin Luther. It was due to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses outlining his break with the Catholic Church that what some call the Protestant Revolution occurred. With half of Germany still Catholic, it is clear that German culture has had a profound impact on Western civilization.
If that impact is not always felt, Germany makes a popular visitation on the world at least once every year around the end of September or the beginning of October. Oktoberfest is the beer lover’s Christmas and is celebrated worldwide. In addition to beer, it is a celebration of German cuisine.
For the way my husband Mat learned German and the way he showed my daughter Alexis to learn German, I recommend highly the German is Easy course from Benny ‘The Irish Polyglot’. It is how to learn to speak a language the right way.
Norwegian is our final language to consider. The language has a small scope in terms of how many native Norwegian speakers there are, but it has the advantage of being remarkably similar to Swedish and Danish.
The chance to get more bang for your buck can be a big motivator. It is nice to know that your hard work and study can pay more dividends than you expected.
Difficulty and Opportunity
Norwegian uses the same alphabet as English. Because Scandinavian languages influenced the formation of English long ago, Norwegian shares many cognates with English.
If you go to Norway to study, you may not find the immersive experience you would like. Scandinavians tend to have excellent English! But being in the culture, you are bound to get a lot of practice with the language if you ask for it.
Norwegian culture is at least partly influenced by the austere landscape that surrounds it. Hard climates (or at least hard winters) can be a leveler, and this may be part of the reason for the egalitarian nature of the culture.
It is often described as the Law of Jante. No one is to think more highly of him or herself than others by being loud and bragging about accomplishments. It provides a refreshing contrast to America.
The Final Talking Point for Best Choices for a Second Language to Learn
So, again, what is the best choice for a language to learn?
Many people look to learn a language because of a personal connection, so if that’s the case, then choose whatever works for you. After all, your motivation should guide you well.
However, if you live the in the U.S., it is best to learn Spanish as a second/additional language. You’ll find plenty of opportunity to use it in your personal life, and the professional benefits are there for all careers.
If you live outside of the U.S., then French or German are your best bets. French is already the official language of many countries outside of the U.S. and Forbes recently reported it the language of the future. German is already known as the world business language, and with its popular Oktoberfest celebrated yearly worldwide, it makes sense to Deutsch sprechen.
No matter your decision, you can’t go wrong with a choice to become bilingual/multilingual!