What Are the Most Learned Languages in the World?

When choosing which language to learn, it is often interesting and valuable to ask:

What are the most popular languages in the world?

Though your personal reasons for learning a language will be the ultimate factors in deciding your language of study, looking around to see what languages others are learning can provide some helpful information, such as:

  • Size of Learner Community – If a language is more commonly studied, then it will naturally have a larger learner community built around it. Access to a robust community of people following the same learning path can help you find friends, expert coaches and tutors, accountability partners, accountability groups, and others who will help you succeed along with them.
  • Access to Quality Resources – If a language is in higher demand among language learners, there will likely be a larger amount of language learning resources available for it than there are for other languages. Additionally, resources for high-demand languages may generally be of a higher quality, though this is not always the case.
  • Access to Native Speakers – If there is a large number of people who wish to learn a specific language, then there will also be a large number of native speakers available to help teach that language to you.

If you’re in the process of choosing your next language, and you feel that the presence or absence of the above factors may play an important role in your decision-making, then read on, as we examine:

  • The Most Learned Languages in the World
  • The Most Learned Languages in Europe
  • The Most Learned Languages in the United States of America

Let’s get to it, shall we?

The Most Learned Languages in the World

For most of human history, statistics on exactly which languages were studied by how many people were only kept on extremely local scales, if they were kept at all. This data was exclusively the domain of public and private schools, colleges and universities, and national governments.

With the advent of the Internet, we are beginning to see inexpensive language learning platforms with a global reach. Such a reach means that these platforms support large number of users from all over the world, learning a variety of languages. Duolingo is perhaps the most well-known of these platforms.

In May 2016, Duolingo published a blog post sharing the results of three consecutive months of language popularity statistics taken from its user base. As of the writing of that post, Duolingo had 120 million users learning 19 of the world’s most popular languages. These users span all the countries in the world (cited by Duolingo at 194 separate countries, but today quoted at 195 or 196, depending on the source).

The following is Duolingo’s list of “the most popular language studied on Duolingo in each country.

  1. English – Most popular language of study in 116 out of 194 countries
  2. French – 35/194
  3. Spanish – 32/194
  4. German –  9/194
  5. Swedish, Italian, Turkish – (Three-way tie) – 1/194 each.

Duolingo also offers a list of “the second most popular language studied on Duolingo in each country.” The data is as follows:

  1. French – Second most popular language of study in 77 out of 194 countries
  2. Spanish – 57/194
  3. German – 29/194
  4. English – 13/194
  5. Portuguese – 10/194
  6. Italian – 5/194
  7. Swedish – 1/194
  8. Norwegian – 1/194
  9. Dutch – 1/194

The Most Learned Languages in Europe

Statistics on foreign language learning in Europe come from Eurostat, the official statistical office of the European Union (EU). They cover the percentages of students learning specific languages in general lower secondary education and upper secondary education, respectively.

The Most Learned Languages in EU Lower Secondary Education

Note that this data was collected by Eurostat in 2015, and covers the 27 non-UK member states of the European Union. It is a survey of 17 million lower secondary students, organized by percentage of students studying a given language at that level of education:

      1. English – Studied by 97.3% of lower secondary students
      2. French – 33.8%
      3. German – 23.1%
      4. Spanish – 13.6%
      5. Russian – 2.7%
      6. Italian – 1.1%

The Most Learned Languages in EU Upper Secondary Education

According to Eurostat’s 2014 survey of upper-secondary students in all 28 EU member states (exact number unknown, was approximately 21 million students in 2013), these are the most commonly learned languages, organized by percentage of students studying the language:

      1. English – Studied by 94% of upper secondary students
      2. French – 23%
      3. Spanish -19%
      4. German – 19%
      5. Italian – 3%
      6. Russian – 3%

The Most Learned Languages in the United States of America

Statistics on foreign language learning in the United States of America come from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) at the K-12 public school level, and the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) at the level of higher education (i.e. colleges and universities).

The Most Learned Languages in US K-12 Public Schools

According to a 2011 ACTFL report, these are the most commonly studied foreign languages (excluding “Other” category and extinct languages) in US K-12 Public Schools in the 2007-2008 academic year organized by number of enrollments (out of 8,907,201 total).

  1. Spanish – 6,418,331 enrollments
  2. French – 1,254,243
  3. German – 395,019
  4. Japanese – 72,845
  5. Chinese – 59,860
  6. Russian – 12,389

Note that this data specifically excludes English, which is not considered a foreign language in the US, despite there being no official language in the country.

English language learners, which numbered anywhere from 4.2 million-4.4 million students during the ACTFL survey period, would occupy the number two spot in the above list.

The Most Learned Languages in US Higher Education

In the autumn of 2013, the Modern Language Association published a survey titled Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education.

From that data, these are the top 10 most learned non-English languages in US higher education in 2013, organized by number of enrollments (out of 1,562,179 total). Extinct languages (like Latin or Ancient Greek), have not been included.

  1. Spanish 790,756 enrollments
  2. French – 197,757
  3. ASL – 109,577
  4. German – 86,700
  5. Italian – 71,285
  6. Japanese – 66,740 
  7. Chinese – 61,055 
  8. Arabic – 32,286 
  9. Russian – 21,962 
  10. Portuguese – 12,415 

Again, this data excludes English learners.

However, the Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that there were a total of 886,052 international students entering US Higher Education in the 2013-2014 academic year (concurrent to the 2013 MLA data), 847,557 of which were not from a majority native-English-speaking country.

Combined with the data from the MLA survey, we can conclude that English would occupy the number one spot on the above list, displacing Spanish to number two.

Conclusion

A comprehensive survey of language learners across all countries of the world and all living languages does not yet exist.

Until such a survey is conducted, a definitive determination of the most commonly studied languages on the Earth will be out of our reach.

In the meantime, we can use the above data, taken from a variety of international-, national-, and local-level sources, to infer that the most studied languages in the world are as follows:

  1. English
  2. French or Spanish
  3. German

Beyond these, evidence shows that languages like Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese (Mandarin) all enjoy a vast amount of popularity worldwide.

Personal tastes and individual motivations towards a particular language will always differ greatly from one person to the next. Whether you choose a popular language or not, make sure that your ultimate choice of language is meaningful and motivating for you, and you alone. That way, you can ensure that your commitment to language learning is a personal one that will stand the test of time.