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Which language should I learn?

language puzzlePerhaps you've always dreamt of travel. Perhaps you're having to choose your GCSE, A-level,or IB subjects. Perhaps it's time to go to university and languages seem like a good option. Perhaps you’ve recently felt like challenging yourself and picking up a language seemed to your interest.

Whatever your motivation, situation and circumstance, modern languages ARE for you. But choosing which language to study can be a difficult decision. It’s important to consider WHY you want to learn a language in order to choose WHICH language you should learn. Read on for University of Southampton modern languages student Elizabeth Grant's guide to some of the most common modern languages, so you can pick the right one for you.


Mandarin (Chinese)










union jackEnglish

FAMILY: Germanic/ Indo-European

SPOKEN WHERE: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Southern and West Africa, India, West Indies and most places on Earth.

APPEAL: Increasingly hailed as the global lingua franca, the major language of business, tourism, trade and politics etc. English is the most studied second language in the world.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: Linguists project that in the future the entire globe will speak a hybrid of Mandarin, Spanish and English. Things such as the lack of gendered nouns make English relatively easy to learn. However, it is highly irregular in terms of grammar and spelling (having its roots in both Latin and Germanic based languages).

USEFUL FOR: Worldwide travel and jobs everywhere. Speaking English is seen as a HUGE advantage and the Teaching English as a Foreign Language industry (TEFL) is booming.

chinese flagMandarin (Chinese)

FAMILY: Sino-Tibetan

SPOKEN WHERE: China and pockets worldwide

APPEAL: The fact that China is the world's most populous country, and increasingly a contender for the title of global superpower, makes Chinese the most widely spoken first language in the world. The ability to speak Mandarin-Chinese is a valuable asset to anyone looking for career in finance, business and/or economics and it is fast becoming one of the most widely learned second languages in the world. China is also one of the oldest countries in the world, and had one of the most powerful empires of all time. Mandarin is invaluable for travelling across and learning about this great nation's history and achievement.  

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: For speakers of Latin-based languages, learning a whole new script can be daunting, but it is not impossible. It will, however, take time and probably a significant period of immersion to build up any semblance of fluency. Chinese characters represent words rather than letters, which make for a lot to remember! Chinese script is, however, extremely beautiful and poetic, which makes it a language that can also be learned for pleasure.

USEFUL FOR: Translators and interpreters. Working for the UN. Trade, finance, business, economics, world politics, tourism, travel, education, technology. Travel and living in China or Taiwan. Appreciating the arts, culture and history of China and Taiwan.

french flagFrench

FAMILY: Romance/Italic/Indo-European

SPOKEN WHERE: France, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Canada. Parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Central, West and North Africa, the Indian Ocean, South India. Pockets of the Middle East.

APPEAL: French has a reputation for sensuality and glamour. It is the language of the fashion elite, timeless literature and romance, opera and art. It is also the most widely taught second language in primary and secondary schools throughout the world. It has been the main actor in the politics of the European Union, only recently superseded by English and German.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: French is the main second language taught in schools in the UK. French is probably the most difficult Romance language to learn, with its heavily prescriptive grammar, and even heavier collection of irregularities, and almost unique vowel sounds. French is also often taught in quite a heavy, stodgy and prescriptive way, through learning the repetition of verb conjugations off by heart. However, French is a very beautiful language, spoken differently in every corner of the world and therefore very handy for travel.

USEFUL FOR: Global travel. Working in the EU or UN. Working in translation or teaching across the globe. Working in fashion or the restaurant industry, Appreciating fashion, art, literature, theatre and food etc.

german flagGerman

FAMILY: Indo-European/Germanic

SPOKEN WHERE: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Namibia and various pockets around the world.

APPEAL: German is the most common second language in Europe, and, like French and English, is essential to European politics and business. German culture also has a history of invention and innovation, and many people studying German admit to a greater appreciation for the country's contributions to the world. Germans also LOVE to travel, so German would be a must for any tourism-related job, especially in Europe.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: German is very similar to English in some ways, making pronunciation and comprehension a little easier. It’s also very grammatically prescriptive, and therefore appeals to lovers of all things linguistic.

USEFUL FOR: Travel and business in the EU and Europe. Tourism, technology and literature.

spanish flagSpanish

FAMILY: Iberian/Indo-European/Italic/Romance

SPOKEN WHERE: Spain, pockets of Europe and pockets of North Africa. Across the Americas; The US, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and the Philippines.

APPEAL: Spoken across the Americas, many are drawn to Spanish as a portal to the vast and sensational history of that side of the world. It has been described as the language of salsa, tequila,blood and fire, tapas, revolution, and passion. Hispanic culture is increasingly popular and has infiltrated almost every area of Anglo-Western society. It is also the second most spoken language after English in the US. It is one of the six official language of the UN, and the second most spoken first language worldwide. It is a very passionate, very romantic and very fervent language.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: Spanish is a VERY good language for people with dyslexia, as it is written completely phonetically. It is quite easy to learn in terms of reading and understanding, as it has very few irregularities compared with German and French. The Spanish language does vary across the Atlantic and across the Americas, but most variants are easily understood with a basic grasp on the language.

USEFUL FOR: Working for the UN, living and working in the United States or Central and South America, travelling across Europe, appreciating literature, art, history and culture, dance and cuisine.

italian flagItalian

FAMILY: Indo-European/Italic/Romance

SPOKEN WHERE: Italy, Switzerland, The Vatican, other pockets of Europe, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia

APPEAL: A rival to French in terms of Romance languages, Italian is associated with romance, passion, great food and elegance. It is also a beautiful, lilting language, essential to the world of fashion, art and fine cuisine. The language, like its country of origin, is steeped in history and culture, and speaking some Italian adds a certain something extra when visiting Italy.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: In spite of general opinion, Spanish and Italian are not that similar. Like any Romance language Italian can be deciphered with some knowledge of French or Spanish, but it is also a challenging language in its own right. Intonation seems to prove quite difficult for learners of this language. On the other hand, Italian culture (the fashion, the food, the art) has permeated that of much of the English-speaking world, so creating a context for the language is quite easy.

USEFUL FOR: Art, culture, fashion, cookery, European history studies and careers, Travel across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean.

portuguese flagPortuguese

FAMILY: Iberian/Indo-European/Italic/Romance

SPOKEN WHERE: Portugal, Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, Goa, Cape Verde, East Timor, Macau, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sao-Tome and Principe.

APPEAL: Compared to its Spanish sister language, Portuguese phonetics are a lot more varied and complex, giving the language a very distinctive sound. Most people studying Portuguese are doing so in the hope of living and working in Brazil one day. The world seems to harbour an insatiable appetite for all things Brazilian: Football, samba, Brazilian cinema, Gisele Bundchen etc. Portuguese is also the seventh most widely spoken language in the world, and is a remnant of one of the most powerful and the longest reigning of all the European empires. It is also an extremely passionate and affectionate language, and very fun to pronounce.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: As with any Romance language, having some experience of French, Italian - or particularly Spanish - generally helps when learning Portuguese. Continental European Portuguese is somewhat harder to decipher than Brazilian Portuguese, which has adopted some characteristics of Castellano (rolled 'R's; syntax etc). The subjunctive/conjunctive is quite complicated in comparison to other Romance languages, but vocabulary and syntax are fairly easy to grasp. With all things Brazilian being increasingly fashionable there are always many authentic resource materials to choose from, such as Brazilian films, music, football culture and politics.

USEFUL FOR: Working in Europe, Africa or Latin America (Brazil has one of the world's fastest growing economies). Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Working in fashion, cinema or sport. Appreciating popular culture, art, literature and music. Learning samba and various other forms of Latin American dance.


arabicFAMILY: Semitic/Afro-Asiatic

SPOKEN WHERE: The Middle East and North Africa; Algeria, Comoros, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Western Sahara and pockets of Indonesia and South East Asia

APPEAL: Arabic is the language of one of the wealthiest portions of the globe: the Middle East. It is the language of Islam, and as such is learnt in its classical form by Muslim children across the world. It is an extraordinarily romantic and poetic language, very rich in vocabulary, and Arabic speakers tend to be rather wordy compared to other languages. Arabic script is very beautiful, as is the importance of the language to all those that speak it. It is also between the third and sixth most widely spoken language on the planet, depending on your sources.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: The difficulty with learning Arabic outside of an Arabic-speaking context is that you will learn the classical form of the language, which is rarely, if ever, spoken in real life situations. Arabic is generally spoken in various dialects from region to region and country to country, some of which are unintelligible across the border! This naturally makes learning Arabic slightly tricky, as you may find yourself limited to certain dialect that is only spoken in a small pocket of the Arabic speaking world. Learning to read and write Arabic script is, however, invaluable, and not difficult for those who have some knowledge of languages such as Hebrew, for example, and so are already accustomed to reading from right to left. Once native speakers of Latin-based languages get accustomed to the differences between their mother tongues and Arabic, the language structure itself is not complicated and shares many common features with Romance languages, such as the ascribing of genders to nouns.

USEFUL FOR: Economics, business, finance, tourism and trade across the Middle East and North Africa (as well as worldwide). Working for the UN. Practicing Islam or living in an Islamic country. Appreciating art, culture, literature, dance and cuisine.

japanese flagJapanese

FAMILY: Japonic

SPOKEN WHERE: Japan, and pockets worldwide

APPEAL: Japanese is one of the most useful languages in the tourism industry - the stereotype of the Japanese tourist exists for a reason! Japan also has a booming economy and increasing demand for cultural exports: sushi, bonsai plants, origami, karaoke and manga cartoons to name but a few. Japan has also been greatly influence by China and many of the older Asian civilisations, and therefore the language is a great stepping stone into other Asian languages. Japan is also one of the most widely used languages on the internet and in the world of business. The Japanese are also amongst the healthiest people on the planet, and the Japanese lifestyle is imitated across the western world today.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: Japanese is not very complicated for a Latin-language speaker to learn. It has few tenses, very simple grammar and very few irregularities. Japanese script is very distinct, and very beautiful, looking more like artwork than writing most of the time! Many characters denote sounds rather than words, so there are fewer characters to be learned than in Mandarin, for example.

USEFUL FOR: Working in any part of Asia. Trade, travel, tourism, business, technology, fashion, education, politics. Appreciating popular culture, arts, fashion and food.

Indian flagHindi

FAMILY: Indo-Iranian/Indo-Aryan

SPOKEN WHERE: India, Indian Ocean, Fiji and pockets worldwide.

APPEAL: The language that emerged over 1,000 years ago from Sanskrit has reached every corner of the globe. The Hindi spoken in the Indian diaspora today has been strongly influenced by English, Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Portuguese. It has been described as the language of "poetry and philosophy", and is unquestionably the language of Bollywood and Indian cuisine worldwide. India is one of the oldest countries in the world and is a land steeped in history and culture. Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to this country in search of spiritual solace or cultural experience. It is just one of the hundreds of languages actually spoken in India, but it is one of the most popular.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: Hindi is a very easy language to learn, with very few irregularities and strong ties to other languages mentioned above. It is also a very logical language. English speakers also have the advantage that very often English words are inserted into Hindi speech when the speaker cannot find the appropriate word in Hindi.

USEFUL FOR: Working for the UN, Oxfam or any other NGO or international organisation. Trade, travel, tourism, law, finance, education, medicine, science. Appreciating Asian history and Indian culture, dance, food, literature and art. Practising Buddhism or Hinduism or just an interest in Yoga-type spiritual activities.


FAMILY: Indo-European, Slavic

SPOKEN WHERE: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and many other pockets of Europe, the northern Middle East and Asia.

APPEAL: Russian is usually considered the lingua franca of Eastern Europe, uniting many countries that used to be part of the USSR. Russia has also given the world a great number of its greatest creative minds: Griboyedov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Yesenin, Akhmatova and many more. Russia is also increasingly integrating into the world economy, and so its language is of significance to anyone interests in world economics, business, finance and international trade and politics.

WHAT'S BEING SAID?: Although it uses the Cyrillic script, the Russian alphabet only has 33 characters, so is not so different from Latin-based languages in terms of its word structure. Russian is one of the easier languages to learn, as its structure is logical with very few irregularities.

USEFUL FOR: Working in the UN. Interpreting and translating. Trade, economics, law, finance, business. Appreciating literature, music and dance.

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