loader

You are here

Interested in studying abroad?

Check out our comprehensive guides

Best Languages to Learn at University

Best Languages to Learn at University main image

TopUniversities.com looks at some of the world’s most spoken languages, and what you should consider when deciding which modern language to study.

According to the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), the world’s most spoken language, by number of native speakers, is Mandarin Chinese.

This is followed by Spanish and English, with Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and German making up the rest of the top ten.

Best for international careers

While Mandarin is the largest language by number of speakers, it has not yet caught up with English or Spanish, in terms of usage in international communication.

This applies to sectors such as business, politics, higher education and research, and also internet communication.

That said, along with Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin is certainly making headway in all of these sectors – so choosing to study Mandarin now could be a good investment for the future.

In addition, the usefulness of a particular language is likely to vary depending on which regions of the world you would like to work in – or at least communicate with.

Jane Simpson, head of the School of Languages at Australian National University, identifies Chinese and Spanish as major world languages, but Russian, Hindi, Arabic and Indonesian as the most important languages in regions that are economically and strategically important for Australia.

Choosing a modern languages degree

Of course, you don’t have to settle for just one language. Many universities allow students to study two or more modern foreign languages.

Chan Wai Meng, director of the Centre for Language Studies at the National University of Singapore, says that being fluent in at least two foreign languages is definitely an asset when it comes to finding a job – boosting your “versatility and employability”.

When choosing a modern languages course, Meng advises researching universities with a strong reputation in the subject, and also considering “the innovativeness and relevance of the curriculum”.

This could include opportunities to gain experience of professional roles such as translation, international business or international relations.

Finally, Meng says all modern foreign languages students should try to choose a degree program that includes a year abroad.

This is important in order to develop both language proficiency and cultural intelligence – or ‘CQ’.

Passport to the world

Indeed, finding a course that provides you with opportunities to experience new cultures, establish international contacts and gain practical skills may well be more important than the specific language (or languages) you study.

Simpson summarizes: “In this globalized world we need to reach out to our neighbors and trade partners who speak a language other than English. Becoming fluent in a language and understanding much about the countries where that language is spoken is a passport to working in those countries or with their citizens.”

Chan echoes this point, saying that “ability to communicate with international clients in their languages” combined with “empathy and cross-cultural understanding” makes modern languages graduates “mobile, flexible and welcome in a globalized world.”

So it seems there’s no simple answer to the question of which languages are best to study - sorry!

The most spoken languages provide a useful starting point, but – as long as a modern foreign language is in use – there will be demand for graduates who can speak it.

Tracy O, Moesha H & 1 others saved this
QS Staff Writer's profile image
Written by QS Staff Writer

Want to leave a comment?

Please login or register to post
comment above our articles

1 Comment

Yes, Mandarin is the language for one to consider, if he/she wishes to tap into the great opportunities brought out by the rising of Chinese economy.