Revealed: the best language for English speakers to learn

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Elle Griffiths
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Words: Elle Griffiths

While New Year’s resolutions such as diet overhauls and new exercise regimes often fall by the wayside by spring, learning a new language is one life improvement that is always viable and relatively easy to keep up.

Following continued decline in language learning at both school and university levels across the UK, we Brits are now seriously lagging in the linguistic stakes.

And we’re missing out because the rewards of learning a new language, at any age, are abundant.

According to Vick Gogh at the British council, “the benefits of learning one are huge – from boosting job prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with another culture.”

But with thousands of different languages spoken around the globe today, how do you know which one is for you?

Do you stick with a European tongue; French, Spanish? Or something more difficult but increasingly useful such as Arabic or Mandarin?

Well, an expert has answered that often asked question.  

Emily Oster, an associate professor of economics at Brown University, has given her opinion as to the most ‘useful’ second language for a native English speaker to learn in 2017.

Oster herself concedes that ‘useful’ is a difficult concept to define, saying: “Making the optimal choice requires thinking about both benefits and costs. I’d argue there may be very different costs to acquiring proficiency in different languages.

“It is a lot harder for most English-speakers to learn Japanese than to learn Spanish.”

She then narrows the choice down between Mandarin and Spanish, the two top spots in terms of number of speakers in the world, respectively- although Mandarin leads by a large margin.

Oster then adds that it is wise to “consider how influential a given language is likely to be in the future, based on an area’s anticipated economic growth. Mandarin retains an advantage here, given that China is both (a) important economically now and (b) likely to be even more so in the future.

“Spanish has the advantage of being spoken in a larger number of countries, although the total GDP of these countries is less than half that of China alone.

But don’t rush out to buy your beginners guide to Mandarin just yet. Oster eventually comes down in favour of Spanish, arguing that Mandarin’s difficulty level means Spanish gives you a better return on your investment, financial or otherwise.

“Spanish is considerably easier for native English speakers, and it’s a lot more likely you’ll reach some level of mastery. In the end, I’d say unless you are a truly gifted linguist, Spanish is the most practical choice.”

So there you have it- not only will Spanish lessons help you order a vino tinto on holiday this Summer, it may improve your career prospects in an competitive market.

But if you just like the way Italian sounds, want to improve your GCSE German or master Cambodian before you jet off backpacking, we say go with your gut. Enjoying the language is half the fun of learning. 

Images: Rex Features and Getty


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Elle Griffiths

Elle Griffiths is a freelance writer living in Brighton. She divides her time pretty evenly between despairing about American Politics, watching Mad Men re-runs and complaining about Southern Rail delays.