The 5 Best Languages to Learn in College

The 5 Best Languages to Learn in College

By Hannah Muniz

Published on January 4, 2021

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English may be the lingua franca, but it's still just one of thousands of languages spoken around the globe. Despite its popularity, not everyone speaks English or is comfortable using it to conduct business or negotiate.

This is what makes learning a foreign language so valuable for college students. Knowing a language other than English allows you to not only travel abroad and communicate with people who don't speak English, but it also makes you a more competitive applicant for jobs — especially positions in government, trade, and international relations.

A 2019 survey conducted by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages revealed that 90% of U.S. employers depend on employees with language skills. Additionally, a quarter of employers said they lost business because their workers lacked critical foreign-language skills.

According to a 2019 survey, 90% of U.S. employers depend on employees with foreign-language skills.

Other research found that college graduates who speak a second language earn 2-3% more, on average, than those who only speak English.

Mastering a language isn't just helpful for careers, though. Studies show that learning a foreign language can reduce biases in your decision-making process and help your brain process information more efficiently.

Regardless of which language you choose to learn, you'll enrich your life in several key ways. But picking a language can be hard — after all, you'll likely be dedicating years, if not the rest of your life, to mastering this language.

Here, we introduce our picks for the five best languages to learn in college based on factors like global demand, job opportunities, and time required to achieve proficiency.

The 5 Most Useful Languages to Learn in College

Spanish

It's likely no surprise Spanish tops this list. The primary language of Mexico, Spain, and many Latin American countries — and the second-most widely spoken language in the U.S. — Spanish remains the most popular choice for U.S. college students.

This Romance language is far and away one of the most useful for domestic jobs, especially if you plan to work in a city with a large Spanish-speaking population, such as Houston or Los Angeles.

Spanish continues to be the No. 1 choice for U.S. college students.

Industries like sales, customer service, healthcare, law, finance, and IT all look favorably upon candidates who possess strong Spanish skills. On the job site Indeed, nearly 200,000 positions pop up when you search for the keyword "Spanish."

One downside of learning this language to boost your career is that Spanish-speaking jobs tend to be fairly competitive, so you'll likely need to be fluent or near-fluent to stand out.

Spanish is considered one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn due to its similarities to English. According to research conducted by the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State, learners can expect to reach Spanish proficiency in six months, or around 600-750 total class hours.

Popular Industries That Use Spanish

Education Finance Healthcare Law Marketing

Chinese

If you want to go into business, knowing Chinese — specifically Mandarin — can help make your resume stand out. Bloomberg calls Chinese the "most useful business language after English." And students seem to agree: The number of Chinese-language learners at U.S. colleges and universities increased a whopping 115% between 1998 and 2013.

Part of this Chinese-language boom stems from China's growing role in the global economy. "Today, China is the second-largest economy in the world. Within five to 10 years, I think, it's going to surpass the United States to become the largest economy in the world," says Cornelius Kubler, the Stanfield professor of Asian studies at Williams College.

“There are many economic opportunities … if you know the [Chinese] language, if you understand the society and culture, and if you have some background in economics, business, and commerce.”. Source: — Cornelius Kubler, Stanfield Professor of Asian Studies at Williams College

Chinese is even useful for those planning to conduct business in the U.S. According to Business Insider, Chinese is the most commonly spoken language after English and Spanish in seven states — Delaware, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wyoming — making these places strong contenders for Chinese speakers to live and work.

Data from PayScale indicates that Chinese majors earn an average salary of around $67,000, which is higher than the averages for many other language majors, like Spanish and French. Arguably the biggest drawback of learning Chinese is how difficult it is. To become proficient, you must memorize thousands of characters and learn to differentiate tones.

Popular Industries That Use Chinese

Global Marketing Government Law Manufacturing Transportation

Japanese

Although Japanese is mainly spoken in just one country, it's an extremely practical language to know, particularly if you hope to establish a career in the technology or automotive sectors.

Japan is home to globally renowned companies such as Sony and Toyota.

Japan boasts one of the most thriving economies in the world, ranking below only the U.S. and China in terms of GDP. The country is home to globally renowned companies such as Sony, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Honda, Nissan, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Nintendo, many of which maintain branches across the U.S.

Japanese has around 130 million native speakers and is the fifth-most commonly studied language among U.S. college students. It's also one of just two languages (the other being Korean) whose number of learners at U.S. colleges has increased, rather than fallen, in recent years.

While Japanese is often considered tricky to master — it has three alphabets after all — some students may find it less intimidating than languages like Chinese and Spanish due to its relatively simple pronunciation and lack of gendered vocabulary.

Popular Industries That Use Japanese

Automotive Finance Games and Electronics Science Technology

Arabic

Arabic has garnered increased attention in recent years due to geopolitical shifts and the burgeoning economies of several Arab countries. In 2016, the World Economic Forum ranked Arabic the fifth-most powerful language in the world — after English, Mandarin, French, and Spanish — based on factors like geography, economy, and diplomacy.

One of six official languages of the U.N., Arabic is spoken by more than 300 million people and is an official language in over two dozen countries, including economic powerhouse Saudi Arabia, whose GDP ranks 18th in the world — the highest of any Middle Eastern or North African country.

Arabic holds the key to understanding the history and legacy of Muslim civilizations.

Because the U.S. relies heavily on the Middle East for oil and other natural resources, learning Arabic can open the door to unique opportunities in international business, trade, and commerce. Arabic is listed as one of the U.S. government's critical languages, along with other major languages like Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, and Turkish.

Aside from business, Arabic holds the key to understanding the history and legacy of Muslim civilizations. Currently practiced by around 1.8 billion people, Islam is the world's fastest-growing organized religion.

Popular Industries That Use Arabic

Finance Journalism National Security Nonprofit Sector Trade

French

The former lingua franca (which has since been replaced by English), French continues to be one of the most widely spoken and studied languages, with around 300 million global speakers.

French is an official language of several international organizations, including NATO and the U.N.

In addition to being the default language of France — which boasts the seventh-largest economy in the world — French is officially recognized in nearly 30 countries, including Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, and many countries throughout West and Central Africa, where it is the fastest-growing language on the continent.

French is also an official language of several international organizations, such as NATO, the U.N., the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty International. This makes French ideal for government and nonprofit positions.

Research shows that French is relatively easy for native English speakers to learn, which makes sense considering that approximately 30% of English words come from French. What's more, knowing the language of love can help you more easily pick up other Romance languages, like Italian and Spanish.

Popular Industries That Use French

Education Energy Hospitality and Tourism Manufacturing Pharmaceuticals

Learning Any Language Can Open Doors

While Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and French are some of the most useful languages to learn, it's ultimately up to you to decide which language you want to study. In reality, any language can be considered useful — it all comes down to your interests, goals, and resources.

Other factors you might take into consideration when choosing a language to learn include where you live (or hope to live), whether you want to use the language mainly for travel or work, and how fast you want to become proficient in it.

Even if you decide to study a language not on this list, that doesn't mean it's not useful or worth learning. What's most important is pursuing what you want to study and being able to enrich your life through the learning process.


Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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