Fancy learning a new language this year? As one of the UK’s leading translation service providers, we’re in just the right place to give some tips on the most useful ones to pick. Whether you’re still a student or you’re just looking for a way to improve your career outlook, we’ve selected the top languages to learn in 2017.
The official language of China, Mandarin is already the most widely spoken language in the world. Per Wikipedia, 955 million people, 14.4% of the world’s population, claim it as their native tongue. The demand for Mandarin speakers will only grow in the years to come, as China nudges the United States out of the top spot as the nation with the world’s largest GDP. Mandarin is also the second most popular language online. In a 2013 report, the British Council ranked it as one of the top 10 most important languages for the future of the UK.
For these reasons, Mandarin is definitely one of the top languages to learn in 2017.
Difficulty level: High
Mandarin is considered a difficult language for English speakers to learn. According to the United States Foreign Service Institute, it takes an average of 2,200 classroom hours for English speakers to master. Are you up for the challenge?
Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world, and it’s an official language for many of the dynamic, growing economies in the Middle East and Africa. As TheRichest.com puts it:
Because of the fast-growing market of eager consumers in the Middle East, businesses should consider making their products easily available to Arabic speakers, and enterprising businesspeople should consider taking a few lessons.
Obviously, regional instability is a concern. But that only adds to the demand for Arabic skills in intelligence and diplomacy, so it’s still one of the top languages to learn in 2017.
Arabic also made the British Council’s list of important languages for British language learners due to the potential economic and diplomatic benefits. Whether your desired career path is public sector or private sector, the Arabic-speaking world’s complicated relationship with the west ensures bright job prospects for those who can speak this challenging language.
Difficulty Level: High
As with Mandarin, the US Foreign Service Institute classifies Arabic as a difficult language. You’ll need at least 88 weeks of class time to become proficient.
With 405 million native speakers, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language after Mandarin. Learning Spanish opens doors in Spain, Latin America and even the United States. According to the British Council, 34% of UK businesses said that Spanish was “useful to their organisation.”
Difficulty level: Easy
More good news about Spanish? It’s a fairly simple language for English speakers to manage. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it only takes around 600 hours of classroom time (less than six months) to achieve language proficiency in Spanish.
German has between 89 to 110 million native speakers. That may seem like small potatoes compared to most of the other languages on this list, but Germany is the largest economy in the European Union. As the British Council notes, it’s an incredibly important language for UK businesses:
“Germany is the UK’s most important trading partner, its second biggest export market in goods (worth £32 billion in 2012) and also its greatest source of imports. To these impressive export figures can be added those of Luxembourg and Switzerland (also in the UK’s top ten export markets) and Austria which boosts the UK’s exports by £1.5 billion.”
In fact, 45% of UK companies surveyed by the British Council rated German as “useful.”
Meanwhile, the German language is expected to benefit from Brexit alongside French. And Kiplinger notes that in 2014 there were 52,841 job postings for German speakers in Anglophone countries. Even better, these jobs tended to be well-paying.
Difficulty Level: Fairly Easy
Learning German comes fairly easily to native English speakers. That said, it’s a bit more difficult to grasp than Spanish. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, if you start today, you should be proficient after about 900 classroom hours, or a little over six months.
Portuguese is spoken by around 215 million people in Portugal (naturally), Brazil and some parts of Africa. For businesses, Brazil is the main attraction.
But is Portuguese still one of the top languages to learn? Despite a deep recession, Brazil is still a big country and a big market. It’s the largest economy in Latin America, and there are some indications that recovery is on its way in the next year or so.
The British Council listed it as one of the top ten most important languages for the UK’s future, citing potential opportunities in trade, science, education, and diplomacy. Most Brazilians speak English poorly or not at all, so if you want to do business there, you’ll need to speak the language or have an excellent Portuguese translation team.
Difficulty Level: Easy
Closely related to Spanish, Portuguese is also quite easy to learn. Expect to spend about 600 classroom hours before you’re proficient.
Why would Russian be one of the top languages to learn in 2017? First off, with 155 million native speakers it’s the eighth most common language in the world. Plus, its already formidable economy is on track to beat Germany’s by 2030. As TheRichest.com puts it,
“Russia is full of very wealthy people hungry for new arenas in which to do business. There are some great opportunities available for companies looking to expand to this affluent part of the world, but many Russian businesspeople do not speak good English. Because they don’t know much English, most may only do business with others who are Russian-speaking.”
There’s no doubt that Russia has been flexing its muscles in world affairs as of late. And while the Russian economy contracted in 2016, it’s expected to recover in 2017. Whether you consider Russia a potential friend, foe or something in between, Russian language skills are likely to remain useful and in demand.
The British Council notes that Russia contains extensive potential opportunities for British organisations in areas like trade, diplomacy, and education, but called the business climate there “difficult.” Being able to speak the language is a tremendous advantage!
Difficulty Level: Medium
Russian is quite different from English, and as such it’s more challenging for English speakers to learn. Expect to spend 44 weeks or around 1100 hours in the classroom.
French is spoken by about 74 million people in France and former French territories around the world. While it’s not as prevalent globally as it once was, there’s no question that France is and will remain one of the United Kingdom’s most important trade partners. French language skills are both necessary and important for businesses here, and it remains one of the top languages to learn.
In fact, according to the British Council, 49 percent of UK businesses are looking for employees who can speak French.
Post-Brexit, we can expect the European Union to begin using French more often, even if English remains an official EU language.
And the French-speaking world also includes Africa, which is growing rapidly and rich in natural resources. The top 5 fastest-growing African economies include Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Cote D’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. French is an official language in 3 of them.
In fact, according to Forbes.com, there will be 750 million French speakers in the world by 2050. It might even overtake English and Mandarin!
Difficulty Level: Easy
Like Spanish and Portuguese, French comes easily to native English speakers.
Japanese boasts 125 million speakers located primarily in Japan, which happens to be the third largest economy in the world. The British Council calls Japan “a significant contributor to UK prosperity – both as an export market and as a major investor” and notes that Japan provides a wealth of opportunities, especially in terms science and technology.
As TheRichest.com points out, there’s also the fact that Japan is in the process of building our future robot overlords, so maybe we all need to get with the program:
According to Wikipedia, “Japan employs over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers. In the next 15 years, Japan estimates that number to jump to over one million and they expect revenue for robotics to be near $70 billion by 2025.” Robotics or anything else, revenue of that size might be something to consider being a part of.
Difficulty Level: High
Learning Japanese takes a certain amount of persistence and time, over a year and a half or 2,200 classroom hours to be exact. However, if you can stay the course and master the language, it will definitely help you stand out from the pack.
Why would Hindi be one of the top languages to learn in 2017? Hindi is the fourth most-spoken language in the world, with 260 million native speakers. India now has the 7th largest GDP in the world, and the world’s fastest-growing big economy. And while many people in India do speak English, people often prefer to communicate in their native language when possible.
So, while learning Hindi may not be essential for doing business in India, it does give you an edge.
Difficulty Level: Medium
Hindi is not the hardest language to learn … but it’s certainly not one of the easiest. The US Foreign Service considers it to be about as hard as Russian. Expect 44 weeks in the classroom or 1100 hours to become proficient.
Of course, economic factors are only part of the story. People learn languages for all sorts of reasons, and all language learning is beneficial in one way or another.
What languages would you like to pick up? Leave us a comment below… we’d love to hear from you.
This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated with new research and information.