In today’s article, we’ll take a trip to find out the most studied languages in the world. And yes, I said “studied.” While it’s good to know which languages are the most spoken throughout the world, this doesn’t truly show us which ones lure in the most learners. So read on as we unveil the big winners below.
Last Updated: 14/11/2018
What Are the Most Studied Languages in the World?
Tons of articles and studies name the most spoken languages in the world. We’ve even played our part with our own list of the most spoken languages in the world, and the runners up. It’s a relatively simple thing to estimate for many languages, since good demographics statistics and census data are easily accessible nowadays. The U.S. Census Bureau asks residents questions about the primary language spoken at their home, their level of English, and what other languages they speak in order to provide better education services, ensure equal opportunity, and trace how the country is changing.
But what are the most studied languages? These two things aren’t necessarily the same, since people aren’t limited to learning the language or languages that are spoken in their country or region (thankfully!).
Well, it’s hard to answer this question since so few people are interested in studying it. However, comparing different studies and sources has helped us get closer to an answer. The results?
- English — Big surprise there, right?
If I only had one comment to make, I’d daresay that European languages have the upper hand. When it comes down to it, culture is probably one of the main motivators for this. Truly understanding a country’s culture happens through learning its language and reading its most famous authors (or even their most popular cookbooks). Another reason is that many Asian languages are notoriously difficult to learn. However, they are becoming increasingly important in today’s business world, so I predict that in the next 10 to 20 years this list might see some big changes.
And What Are the Most Taught Languages in America?
Of course when it comes to the United States, we aren’t known for our strong language learning skills. However, our schools offer plenty of opportunities (and even requirements in some states) for students to learn another language. A recent report estimated that 10.6 million children within a K-12 program were learning languages other than English. Although most elementary school students learn Spanish before anything else, middle, high school and university students can choose which language they learn. So, what did they choose to learn?
It probably comes as no surprise that Spanish is by far the most studied language is the United States, both in high school or college. The United States has no official language — although most Americans speak English — and there are over 41 million native Spanish speakers living in the country. But some of the other languages on this list might surprise you.
Most Taught Languages in Higher Education
According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), the top 10 most studied languages in United States colleges and universities are***:
- Spanish is the most studied language in the US, with 50% of college students choosing to learn Spanish.
- French is next at just over 12%
- American Sign Language is studied by 7% of students
- German is studied by 5%
- Japanese has overtaken Italian, which lost 1 in 5 enrollments in the period from 2013-2016
- Italian is next at just over 4%
- Chinese is at 3.9%, but between 1990 and 2013, the number of American colleges and universities that offer this language has more than doubled!
- Arabic is steadily growing, at 2.1% in 2013
- Latin, at 1.7%, is still taught in most US universities even though it’s considered a dead language! (Although most of the people we learn about in history classes are dead, too, so I suppose it isn’t that surprising…)
- Russian is chosen by 1.4% percent of students
BONUS: Korean, another language that saw a jump in enrollment from 2013 to 2016, comes in at 11th
BONUS: Ancient Greek, at less than 1%, comes in at 12th, followed by Portuguese, Ancient Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew, respectively
Unfortunately, the Modern Language Association report that provided this data also found that enrollment in language courses across US higher education is dropping. Every language except Japanese and Korean experienced a significant decline during the time between studies (which are published periodically, here we are talking about the period from 2013 and 2016). Why is that? Inside Higher Ed points to both program cuts (due to budget constraints) and lack of student interest as big factors.
Most Studied Languages in Grade School
In primary and secondary schools, the results are more or less the same with one difference — most high schools in the United States do not offer Italian. Instead, Latin takes its place, although it is no longer used in any official contexts. Below are results for K-12**:
- Spanish: Whether it’s due to the students’ interest, their parents’ choice or the school’s offerings, Spanish is by far the most studied language in the US, with over 70% of K-12 students studying this language
- French is next up, at 15%
- German at less than 5%
- Latin, surprisingly, finds itself next at 2%
- Japanese is next with less than 1%
- And Chinese is last. However, more and more schools are offering Chinese, so expect to see this number rise in the next few years
What Languages Do Europeans Study Most?
Unlike Americans, most Europeans study at least two foreign languages during their education. According to Eurostat, the statistical office for the European Commission, 60% of middle school (~age 11-12) students learned more than one foreign language at school in 2015.
Foreign language education in the EU begins very early. The same European Commission report found that in 2015, 83.8% of elementary students were learning at least one foreign language, up from 67.3% in 2004.
Which languages are the most popular?
- English: 97.3% of middle schoolers, about 17 million students, in Europe study English! 18 EU countries have policies that make English a compulsory subject at some point in a person’s schooling.
- French (33.8%)
- German (23.1%)
- Spanish (13.6%)
- Russian (2.7%)
- Italian (1.1%)
Of course, these numbers are all focused on the most studied languages when it comes to traditional language classes. What these statistics fail to take into account is the growing population that uses self-study and other alternative methods to learn a foreign language – i.e. you!
What language(s) are you currently learning (with MosaLingua or otherwise)? Have these numbers made you want to pick up another language? Tell us about it in the comments section!
- U.S. Census Bureau
- Italian, the fourth most studied language – 2014
- American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
- Modern Language Association – 2016
- Eurobarometer – Europeans and their Languages – 2006
- European and their languages – 2012
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