What Are the Most Studied Languages in the World?
Globalization and cross-border commerce have given rise to a greater need for cultural exchange and understanding. Learning a foreign language can give you a salary boost of up to 15%, so studying one or more language is a great way to better your career prospects. The most studied language in the world is English, with 1.5 billion foreign language learners. The second most studied language in the world is French, with 120 million global learners. This article will explore the most studied languages in the world and provide a breakdown by country or region for the US, UK, EU and Canada.
What are the most studied languages in the world?
There are around 1.2 million people around the world currently learning a foreign language. The seven most studied languages in the world are listed below by the number of global language learners:
English: 1.5 billion. English is the most popular language to learn in 116 out of 194 countries around the world. English is the international language of aviation, hospitality, banking, IT and science. Although English native speakers often get criticized for their over-reliance on English in business and travel, English is still the most popular second language to study in the world.
French: 120 million. French is the official language of 29 countries and is the second most studied language in the world. French has also been predicted to become the most widely spoken mother tongue in the world by 2050, although it will be difficult to compete with over 929 million native speakers of Mandarin Chinese currently!
Mandarin Chinese: 25 million. Mandarin Chinese is the third most studied language in the world is consistently ranked as the most in demand languages for employers. With China expected to become the world’s biggest economy by 2032, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most dominant languages in the world. Programs such as the Mandarin Excellence Programme in the UK are making Mandarin Chinese a more accessible second language to study at school level.
Spanish: 18 million. Spanish is the one of the most popular languages to learn and is the most studied language in the US and UK. It’s also the second most spoken language in the world. Spanish has also been ranked as the top ‘Language for the Future’ by the British Council due to its expected rising global influence.
German: 15 million. German is a key language in global business (think Volkswagen and BMW) and that’s why it ranks as the fifth most studied foreign language in the world. German has a reputation as one of the trickiest languages to learn, although it shares a Germanic root with English.
Japanese: 4 million. Japanese has risen in popularity in recent years as a second language study choice. Many people choose to study Japanese due to strong cultural exchange programs and work opportunities in Japan. It’s also the birthplace of anime and other popular culture trends!
Italian: 2 million. The language of art and culture, Italian continues to be a popular second language of study for many people globally. Italian is the native language of over 67 million people around the world.
Highest studied foreign languages in the world in numbers
The most studied foreign languages in the US
The most studied foreign language in the US is Spanish. The US has a Hispanic population of over 62 million, which makes Spanish a key choice for business, hospitality and travel. The second most studied language in the US is French. Less that 1% of of American adults are currently fluent in a foreign language, which makes it a key opportunity for growth.
Over 40 million people in the US speak Spanish at home and Spanish is the most widely studied second language. Over 93% of high schools in the US that offer language tuition teach Spanish. In recent years, there has also been a significant rise in Spanish immersion schools in which more than 50% of the tuition must be in Spanish. Enrolment in foreign language study of Spanish at K12 level is over 10 million students.
There are over 3,700 French K12 language programs offered across 51 states in the US. French is the second most studied foreign language in the US and accounts for 12.4% of overall foreign language enrolment, at 1.2 million students.
The most studied foreign languages in the UK
In 2019, Spanish overtook French for the first time as the most studied foreign language at A-Level in the UK. At secondary school in the UK, it is compulsory for students to study a modern foreign language (defined as languages that are still in common use in the world today). There are 18 foreign languages available for student examinations at GCSE and A-Level.
In 2019 there were over 235,000 students taking GCSE and A-Level examinations in Spanish and French. Breakdown by course:
- GCSE French: 122,803
- GCSE Spanish: 96,811
- A-Level French: 7,607
- A-Level Spanish: 7,932
The most studied foreign languages in the EU
English is the most commonly studied language in Europe, by 96% of students. Following English, the next most popular languages are French (15%), German (11%), Spanish (9%) and Russian (2%).
54% of Europeans can converse in another language, 25% in more than one and 10% in more than two. Countries where the ability to speak more than one foreign language is most common are Luxembourg (98%), Latvia (95%) and Hungary (65%). Geography plays a significant role in determining the most studied language in countries within the EU, such as a country’s proximity to the Russian federation or old Soviet bloc leading to a higher proportion of students studying Russian.
The most studied foreign languages in Canada
The most studied foreign language in Canada is French. French is also the native language of 22.8% of Canadians (primarily Quebec natives). English is the native language of 75.4% of Canadians and 1.8% other languages such as Spanish. This linguistic diversity is a key factor in determining the most studied foreign languages in Canada.
French is a mandatory foreign language of study until grade 8 in all English-speaking regions in Canada. There is a growing fear that French language is slowly disappearing in Canada, despite it still being a key language in business and daily life for so many. A new initiative by the Quebec government hopes to reintroduce French in SMEs to promote daily use of the language for business.
Spanish in Canada
Around 450,000 Canadians speak Spanish as a native language and Spanish it the second most studied language in Canada. Canada is also the second most popular destination of choice for immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico. With increased government sanctions in the US, many Spanish-speaking immigrants are looking to other countries such as Canada.
The rise of Asian languages for foreign language study
Mandarin Chinese and Japanese are the fastest growing foreign languages of study in the world. While Mandarin Chinese rises in popularity due to China’s ever-increasing influence on the world stage, other Asian languages are rise due to cultural and other factors. The global demand for Japanese cartoons (Anime) and Korean pop music (K-pop) are both prominent features in this rise. These factors mean that Asian languages are increasingly proving the most popular languages to study among young people around the world.
In future years, we can expect the popularity of historically lesser-taught languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Japanese to increase. This will be helped in large part by the accessibility to online resources such as The Chairman’s Bao for the study of Mandarin Chinese. Languages that have traditionally been considered more difficult to learn are now much accessible. Daily, engaged practice is now an achievable aim from beginner level and is not reliant on the presence of a physical teacher or print textbook as it was in the past.
Determining the most studied foreign languages around the world depends greatly on geography, linguistic diversity, as well as the target language’s perception and usefulness on the world stage. As the global economy changes, it will be interesting to track the rise and fall in the popularity of study for each foreign language.
Sean McGibney speaking to students at Beths Grammar School about his experience of learning Chinese, living in China and founding Newsdle and The Chairman’s Bao.
Sean studied Chinese and Spanish at University of Leeds and founded The Chairman’s Bao alongside Tom Reid in his final year of study in 2015. Current Managing Director of The Chairman’s Bao, he has overseen the company’s growth from university bedroom concept to an international force in the EdTech industry with over 200,000 individual users and over 400 global partner institutions. Sean also launched Newsdle alongside Tom Reid and Oliver Leach in 2021, for students and teachers of Spanish and French. In his spare time, Sean is still a keen language learner and runner. He also sits on the Board of charity Leeds Irish Health and Homes in the UK.
- United Nations
- Council on Foreign Relations
- Meticulous Research
- University of Pittsburgh
- Instituto Cervantes at FAS - Harvard University report
- British Council
- Statistics Canada
- Ontario Ministry of Education
- The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report
- ISC Market Intelligence Report