At the gym yesterday, we were discussing which language would be the best foreign language for a native English speaker to learn first. Specifically, can you make a compelling case for any language other than Spanish or Mandarin?

I couldn’t.

I asked again today on Twitter, and those two were by far the most common answers.

Sure, some qualifiers are in order. By “foreign language,” I’m using shorthand for “language not spoken natively in the home.” If you’re born in Rhode Island, but your parents are Italian, I would hope they’re speaking Italian in the home; the best way to learn a language is from your family. So “foreign language” in this case would mean the third language after English and Italian.

And there are other special circumstances. For example, if you move to Sweden, you should really learn Swedish. If you or a family member are deaf, ASL would be the choice. If you’re from a country with two official languages (e.g. Canada), that second language may be the default.

But beyond what you pick up from your family or neighbors, your first non-English language should be Spanish or Mandarin.

My logic and biases

I was born in the U.S. I’m fluent in English. I’m competent in Spanish, less so in French. I can ask directions in German, Portuguese, Japanese and Mandarin, with declining likelihood of being able to understand the answer given. I live at the edge of Koreatown, and while I can read Hangul well enough to decipher transliterated signs, I don’t speak the language at all.

I learned Spanish starting in second grade, part of a bilingual project in my elementary school in Colorado. Obviously, part of the reason I admire the language is that it’s the first one I learned.

There is a misperception that one “needs” to speak Spanish in Southern California. In 17 years here, I can count on one hand the number of times in which my Spanish was actually necessary. But it’s certainly useful.

I think people should speak several languages, not only for the opportunities it presents for international business and travel, but the broader global and literary perspective it provides. You’re going to learn one language first. Pick wisely.

My criteria were, roughly:

  1. Number of people who speak it worldwide
  2. Usefulness in daily life
  3. Usefulness in international business or travel
  4. Availability of media in that language
  5. Applicability to future language learning
  6. Economic power of native speakers

The contenders

In the list of top languages spoken worldwide, there are several worth serious consideration.

Hindi (#3) and Arabic (#5) both have vast numbers on their side. With satellite, access to media in both languages has increased worldwide. They are clearly useful languages for business and travel. But I can’t make a compelling case for learning either of these before Spanish or Mandarin. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise; my American bias may be coming through.

Portuguese (#6), Russian (#8), Japanese (#9) are each spoken mostly in their respective economically-powerful countries, and not many other places. They’re great languages to know if you intend to do business in those countries, but it’s hard to argue that they should be general-case choices.

German (#10) shares roots with English, though that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to learn. English is widely taught in Germany, which makes learning German less essential for native English speakers than it might be otherwise.

French (#12) has a tremendous amount of literature and Western Civilization in its favor. While the total number of French speakers isn’t that high, there is fairly wide distribution given the language’s role in international diplomacy. As a romance language, it shares a lot of structure with Spanish. I found it quick to learn given what I already knew.

I’m omitting Cantonese just based on numbers. More people speak all of the languages listed above. Learning Mandarin would put an English speaker on a path towards learning Cantonese later. I’m guessing familiarity with a tonal language like Mandarin could be a help for other Asian languages in general.

I’m also omitting Esperanto and Klingon, even though each has a special place in my heart.

The case for Mandarin or Spanish

Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in the world,1 and China’s influence will only grow in the years ahead. China is an active investor worldwide, including Africa and South America, yet distribution of Mandarin speakers is relatively sparse outside of Asia. Fluency in English and Mandarin could be a tremendous asset.

Cons for Mandarin: It’s a more challenging language for native English speakers. Learning its rhythms, tones and phonemes — and writing system — would take a lot of work. But getting that practice early in life would be a boon. Currently, there are limited outlets for Mandarin media in the U.S. One’s ability to actively use the language may be limited based on location.

Spanish is the fourth most common language after English and Hindi. It’s tremendously useful in the Western hemisphere — spoken in almost all of Central and South America with the notable exception of Brazil. 2 In the U.S., one finds an abundance of both native speakers and Spanish-language media outlets. You can use Spanish on a daily basis without ever leaving the country.

While it has a daunting number of conjugations, Spanish is grammatically straightforward and remarkably consistent with pronunciation and sound rules, which makes it well-suited for school-based study. With its Latin roots, it has tremendous vocabulary overlap with English and most European languages. Learning Spanish early may increase overall English vocabulary as well.3

Cons for Spanish: While the number of Spanish speakers will probably continue to grow, there is no reason to anticipate its reach expanding beyond its current borders. It’s certainly more useful in the U.S. than in the U.K. or Australia. Fluency in Spanish is so common in the U.S. that it’s not a particularly unique or marketable asset.

Should we bother teaching other languages?

In high school, yes. In college, absolutely. You need to reward motivated students who want to learn languages. But I’d argue that in grade school and junior high, we would serve students better by offering them either Spanish or Mandarin. That’s it.

We clearly have the raw capital (i.e. native speakers) to teach Spanish. I’m not sure we have the capacity for Mandarin.

So have at it. Can you make a compelling case for something other than Spanish or Mandarin as a first foreign language for a native English speaker?

  1. The exact numbers vary based on what degree you differentiate native languages from secondary languages, and how much you assume dialects are mutually intelligible. Regardless, the big four stay on top.
  2. A competent Spanish speaker will find Portuguese easy to navigate, however.
  3. Like French, Spanish has many recognizable cognates with English. Dormir :: dormitory, blanco :: blanch. This doesn’t mean the words came from Spanish, but rather than the words reveal common roots, which is so very helpful come SAT time.