The top 10 languages to study

May 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm 4 comments

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The top 10 languages to study

You’ll be surprised at the languages that will be most useful to you in the future.

By John F. Copper/Next Step Magazine, February 2004

Almost weekly, I encounter students who ask what languages they should study and why. What languages are going to be important in the future? Because studying a foreign language is a major commitment in time and energy, you should consider your choices carefully.  Some important factors to consider include whether the language has an increasing number of speakers; and which are the languages of nations that are advancing in science and technology. Here is my list of the top 10 languages to consider studying. Chinese Mandarin Chinese is my number-one pick because the language has more speakers than any other language. Plus, China is booming economically, more than any other important nation, and this will probably continue to be true for many years.


Japan is the second largest nation in the world in economic size, and its language is in the top 10 by number of speakers.  The country is first in foreign investment and economic assistance and, with China, is the leader of the most economically dynamic part of the world.  And the Japanese are innovative—the country accounts for a greater share of the world’s patents than any other nation, except for the United States (and in some years it has passed the U.S.).


It’s spoken in most countries in the Middle East, making it one of the top languages in the world in number of speakers. It’s also the language of Islam—the fastest growing religion in the world, which will have more adherents than any other by 2023 if current trends continue.  Arabic speakers are also in demand by U.S. intelligence agencies. Bahasa or Malay It’s spoken in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.  These three countries are oil exporters, and Indonesia and Malaysia control the world’s supply of tin and natural rubber.  All three are booming economically, and no doubt will continue to do so. Very few American students study Bahasa, making knowledge of the language all the more valuable. Russian Russia is the largest country in the world by land size and sixth in population.  The country is blessed with natural resources, and many speculate that its oil production could make it the world’s largest energy exporter, surpassing Saudi Arabia.


It’s one of the top languages spoken throughout the world and throughout the United States.  Most countries that speak Spanish have growing populations.  Why, then, does it only rank sixth? Because it’s the most popular language to study in the U.S., making the supply-demand ratio unfavorable for students.


South Korea is one of the economic miracle countries of the past 40 years, and it will continue to be one of the fastest growing commercially. Because so few students study the language, the supply-demand ratio favors any American who knows Korean.


It’s spoken in the largest Latin American country, Brazil, which is also the fifth largest nation in the world in size and population.  It could be the dominant nation in South America in the future.  Fewer Americans study Portuguese than Spanish and other European languages.


It’s the second-largest language in the world in number of speakers, after Mandarin Chinese.  It’s the dominant language of India, which is the world’s second largest nation by population and is doing well economically.  However, it’s not a universal language in India, and most Hindi speakers also speak English.


This is an important language in Southeast Asia, and a top 10 language in number of speakers.

You might be asking where’s French? German? Astonishing to some, I suppose, but the reason these don’t place in the top 10 are that both countries have small or declining populations.  Neither country is growing very fast economically, either.  And many people there also speak English.  Lastly, there are too many American students studying these languages already, so the supply is much bigger than the demand.  One final thought to consider: Each year, more than 200 languages become extinct, and even some formerly important ones are falling into disuse. Ultimately, it’s likely that only English and Mandarin Chinese will survive in terms of commonly spoken languages or languages of the scientist and scholar. So choose well!

John F. Copper is a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.


Entry filed under: language.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bribarker  |  May 2, 2009 at 2:33 am

    Can I put in a word for the International Language, Esperanto.

    Apparently President Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Hindi, out of the equation.

    It’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations.

    I would prefer Esperanto

    Can I ask you to check

    Detail can be seen at

    • 2. Huang  |  September 9, 2010 at 7:22 pm

      But, Esperanto is based on the Indo-European languages, it’s not easy for Asians to learn it, it’s not real neutral

  • 3. Liliana  |  May 4, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I agree I think Spanish should be one of the languages to learn. With recession and sometimes fear to travel because of all this swine flu thing, I learn with podcast. Like and
    Try it out!

  • 4. jim browsky  |  April 18, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Japanese is the thrid largest economy now, and India is about to pass them, so I dont think its that hot anymore?!


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