The languages ​​of the future: What second foreign language to study?


A foreign language is one, different from the mother tongue, which is learned in an academic (formal) context within a community in which that language is not used as a means of communication.

Unlike a foreign language, a second language can be learned in a formal or informal context, and is used as a means of communication by all or part of the members of the community in which you learn.

For example, English learned in Spain would be a foreign language, whereas if this language is learned in an English-speaking country, it would be considered a second language.

During the last two decades, more obviously, there has been a boom in the study of foreign languages . Globalization in both social and economic terms, together with the enormous development of information and communication technologies (ICT), has led to an increase in interest in teaching and learning foreign languages, since international communication is a practical daily

Learn more than one

Governments and international organizations promote the learning of languages, with special emphasis on English as a lingua franca. The Council of Europe, within its Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), promotes the learning of more than one foreign language in order to facilitate educational, cultural, scientific and commercial mobility among the member countries of the Union European (and beyond the borders of these).

A foreign language can be learned for various reasons, from purely cultural ones (the taste for the knowledge of another language and its culture) to the more pragmatic ones (to get a better job). These last practical reasons are those that ask parents and students what second foreign language will be more useful to learn (understanding that the first is English, because of its supremacy as a vehicular language).

The most talked about in the world

You can find reliable data and statistics about the different languages ​​that are spoken around the world in the Ethnologue database, public through its website . According to Ethnologue, English is the third most spoken by number of speakers.

Currently, there are more than one billion English speakers, of which about four hundred million would be native speakers and a little over seven hundred million use English as a second language or foreign language.

The first five languages ​​in the Ethnologue classification (according to number of native speakers) are, in this order:

  1. Chinese.
  2. Spanish.
  3. English.
  4. Hindi.
  5. Arab.

– Followed by Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda -.

Neither German nor French

Foreign languages ​​as common in Spanish classrooms as French or German are ranked 16 and 17, with just over 77 and 76 million native speakers respectively.

These data about the most spoken languages ​​in the world give us a first possible answer to the question about which second foreign language to learn from a practical point of view. However, this classification according to the number of speakers does not give us all the information necessary to make a decision.

The most powerful in the world

It is necessary to take into account other factors, besides the strictly linguistic one, to analyze the power (and, therefore, the practical utility) worldwide of a language.

The Power Language Index (PLI) presents a classification of the most powerful languages ​​in the world based on the opportunities offered by the mastery of these languages ​​in relation to tourism, economy, communication, knowledge and its dissemination and diplomatic relations.

According to the PLI, these are the most powerful languages ​​in the world:

  1. English.
  2. Mandarin.
  3. French.
  4. Spanish.
  5. Arab.
  6. Russian.
  7. German.
  8. Japanese.
  9. Portuguese.
  10. Hindi.

These data provide more light to answer the question “What second foreign language to study?”.

If we assume that English will be, in most cases, the first foreign language of Spanish children and adolescents, the most advantageous, at least from a functional point of view, will be that they opt for Mandarin Chinese, French or Arabic as a second foreign language, although any of the PLI ranking languages are a beneficial option.

Suggestions according to the purpose of learning

The learning of foreign languages, whatever they may be, is always culturally enriching. However, if our interests are merely practical, understanding these as labor and economic, then we must select the language we want to learn based on its global projection.

The last Flash Eurobarometer was published in mid-2018 , a questionnaire on mobility experiences and language knowledge of more than 8,000 young people aged 15 to 30 years. According to the data collected, and understanding that English is the first foreign language, young Spaniards choose French (22%) as a second foreign language they would like to improve, and as a foreign language they would like to learn from scratch, German (35 %).

These preferences are in line with the PIL. However, the languages ​​that are in the two classifications, both in the ten languages ​​with the largest number of speakers and in the ten most powerful languages ​​in the world, are: English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic , Russian, Japanese, Portuguese and Hindi.

The usefulness of Mandarin and Arabic

Precisely, French and German (along with Bengali and Lahnda) are the only languages ​​that do not coincide in both lists. Therefore, we could conclude that two of the candidate languages ​​to be the most useful as second foreign languages ​​(apart from English) for Spanish speakers are Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.

In commercial exchanges it is not enough to know a lingua franca with which to communicate (English), but it is also important to master the native language and, by extension, know its culture, which can mean a substantial difference in negotiations.

In addition, knowing the native language will be considered a gesture of deference and respect, which will increase the chances of reaching an agreement.

If the purpose is not to carry out a commercial exchange, but to develop the professional activity in a foreign country, then a lingua franca is not the solution as, in most cases, it will be necessary to know the native language to be hired and fully develop the functions of the job.

The sooner the better

In relation to what is the best time to start learning a foreign language, the answer is that the sooner the better, to achieve an efficient communicative competence, especially in those cases in which a different writing system will involve more years of study of the language.

Author Bio: Marta Garrote Salazar is Professor Contratada Doctor at Autonomous University of Madrid