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The general principle of this question is "If you could only speak n languages, which languages would those be to maximize the number of people that you could speak to?"

For example, if n = 1, then the best language would be whatever language was spoken by the most people: Mandarin Chinese.

If n = 2, it gets a little more interesting because now you need to account for the overlap between speakers of different languages. The 2nd most spoken language is Spanish but there are some people in the world who speak both Chinese and Spanish and so learning Spanish wouldn't allow you to speak with them. My guess is that the number of Spanish-Chinese speakers is relatively low and so for n = 2 your best bet is going to be Chinese and Spanish.

You get the idea by now, if I was going to speak 3 languages, it probably still follows the most spoken language trend, but at some point it will stop. Is anyone aware of a similar list of languages that takes into account the number of people that knowing that language allows you to speak to and not just the number of people that speak that language?

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  • Quite related: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/questions/4302/…
    – Tommi
    Nov 27 '20 at 15:51
  • @Tommi Thanks yeah, that is very similar
    – Jack
    Nov 27 '20 at 17:24
  • Your first paragraph's goal contradicts your second paragraph's conclusion. Do you want to be able to communicate with people, or specifically communicate in their native language ? May 5 at 15:31
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I think it may be necessary to design a path that takes into account the development of language acquisition skills. There might be two different approaches to doing this the most efficient way. If the person seeking to follow such a path is naturally talented in language learning, it is probably best for them to learn a non-Indo-European language (assuming L1 or dominant English) as their L2 so as to develop their language acquisition skills quickly and to a high degree and diversify their phoneme bank early. This could be thought of as some sort of shock therapy.

If the person is not so fortunate as to be endowed with preternatural word-sponging abilities, then it may be wiser to take a gentler path toward language acquisition skill development, starting with those languages which share structural similarities or common roots with the L1, and gradually introducing more and more difficult languages until the learner is comfortable with the process of acquiring languages.

Of course, the original post's principle still stands, but this additional parameter is a consideration that could greatly benefit the learner.

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Judging languages and the opportunities they give by the number of speakers is rather misleading. For example, it is true that Chinese is the most spoken language in terms of the number of speakers. However, unless you plan to spend a lot of time in a country where it is one of the principal languages, you are quite unlikely to encounter monolingual chinese speakers. Moreover, if you do go to a Chinese-speaking country, you will have to deal with the fact that Chinese is a general name for a group of similar but not necessarily mutually comprehensible languages/dialects.

My point is that there is no a universal prescription for choosing n languages - it is very much dependent on the learner's personal situation: ability to travel, professional interests, family connections, circle of friends. If you live in North America, Spanish will open many doors, although it might be more helpful in California than in Quebec. Similarly, Russian is still a good vehicle for travelling around the Former Soviet Union, and the countries that used to belong to the Soviet bloc, as well as some far away communist satellites - like Cuba. In Baden-Württemberg, if you don't speak German, you may find French a lot more helpful than English... if people you deal with professionally or as friends are not too young.

Thus, I would suggest to base the choice on personal criteria:

  • What is the second or third most spoken language in the region where you live? Does it has substantial number of speakers? (That is, if only .1% of population speak this language, it is not such a good choice, even if it is techncially the second most spoken language.)
  • What countries are you most likely to travel for professional reasons or studying?
  • What langauges are spoken among your friends and family, and will these friends or relatives willing to use their langauge with you?
  • What country/culture interests you? E.g., what was the language in which your favorite books were written? Which region's political news interest you? It is important, if you are to take your language to the advanced level - in terms of keeping motivation and practicing.
  • What langauge do you find cool and/or more fitting to your linguistic abilities? It is crucial for keeping motivation, which is probably the most valuable commodity when it comes to langauge learning.

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