No matter how intrepid we are, moving to a new country exposes us to culture shock: the disorientation and discomfort experienced when we encounter a culture that is significantly different from our own. One of the biggest hurdles we face during this tricky orientation phase is often the language barrier. After all, language is a fundamental tool for expressing ourselves, understanding others, and integrating into a new society.
Let’s talk about the five most spoken languages in the world and how to learn them – some are ubiquitous, while others are specific to a country or region.
1. Mandarin Chinese
It is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and has various regional dialects. Standard Mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, is the official language of China and is used as a lingua franca across the most populated country in the world.
Factors like its complex writing system – there are thousands of characters, with each following a specific stroke order when written – make it one of the most complex languages to learn. According to research, if you dedicate at least an hour and a half to studying each day, it takes 4-7 years – roughly 2,200 to 4,000 hours – to become fluent in every aspect of the language.
Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world in terms of native speakers, with over 485 million people using it as their first language. It is the official language of 21 countries – including Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru – making it one of the most geographically widespread languages.
A combination of its global relevance and cultural influence makes Spanish one of the most popular second languages in the world. Consequently, it is often the most commonly taught language in schools in countries where Spanish is not the native tongue. For example, in the United States, over 6.5 million students study Spanish in high schools.
With over 370 million native speakers, English is the third most spoken language in the world. Crucially, it is the most widely spoken second language, expanding its total number of speakers to over a billion.
This vast use of the language has spawned numerous dialects, such as British English, American English, Australian English, and Indian English – with these dialects often differing in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar.
English’s global influence, its adaptability, and its widespread usage in important fields like science, politics, technology, and business make it arguably the most unifying language in the modern world.
Around 585 million people worldwide speak Hindi as their mother tongue – 584.5 million of which live in India. It is spoken by the Indian diaspora in countries like Nepal, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago. It shares its roots with other languages like Sanskrit, Bengali, Gujarati, and Punjabi.
Hindi Diwas (Hindi Day) – celebrated on 14 September each year – commemorates the adoption of Hindi as one of the official languages of India. This date marks the birthday of Beohar Rajendra Simha, a prominent figure in the Hindi language movement.
If you want a fun way to test and improve your knowledge of the language, Bollywood – one of the largest film industries in the world – creates vibrant films for Hindi-language cinema.
Approximately 313 million people speak Arabic as their first language. That number swells to around 422 million when those who speak Arabic as a secondary language are included.
It is an official language in 27 countries. The Arab world comprises 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where Arabic is the predominant language and plays a pivotal role in shaping the region’s culture and history. Consequently, it has numerous dialects that vary significantly in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
Interestingly, Arabic is written from right to left – the opposite of many other languages.
Tips for learning a new language
Learning a new language as quickly as possible will help you overcome any culture shock and settle into your new home. Here are some tips to help you:
Set achievable goals
Set specific and achievable goals, such as how long it will take you to learn how to read and write in your new language. Having clear objectives and milestones will keep you motivated and focused throughout the learning process.
Surround yourself with the language and immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible. Listen to podcasts, watch movies and TV shows, and try to find language exchange partners or native speakers to practice with.
Start with the basics
Kickstart your language journey by learning essential vocabulary, common phrases, and basic grammar that you can use in everyday life. Creating a strong foundation will provide you with the foundations to build on.
Use language learning apps and resources
Explore language learning apps and online resources, such as Duolingo and language learning platforms like Rosetta Stone. These essential tools can help you practice and reinforce the basics at your convenience.
Be organised and consistent. Dedicate time each day or week for language practice. Short, frequent sessions are often more effective than infrequent, long sessions that sap your concentration and motivation.
Speak from day one
Have the confidence to start speaking the language as soon as you arrive, even if you make mistakes – the locals will appreciate it and will help you. Speaking from the outset helps you get comfortable with the language’s sounds and rhythm, and increases belief in your own ability.
Join language classes or find a tutor
Formal classes or private tutoring can provide structure and guidance, as well as opportunities to practice speaking with a qualified instructor – and your fellow students. Plus it’s a good way to meet new people if you continue your classes when you arrive.
Read and write in the language
Read books, articles, or newspapers in the local language, and try to write in it as much as you can. People often find it much easier to read or write in a new language, using it as a stepping stone to becoming fluent. There’s no pressure when it’s just you and a book or computer screen – so relax and enjoy it.
Be patient and persistent
Learning a language takes time. Like any new skill, it’s normal to encounter challenges along the way. So, be patient with yourself and stay persistent. Celebrate progress, no matter how small, and don’t be discouraged by setbacks. This will help to keep you motivated and stay committed to your language learning journey.
Remember, everyone learns at their own pace, so find what works best for you and enjoy the process of discovering a new language and the culture it celebrates.