We've all heard that there are benefits to being bilingual. They're not just physiological. "Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own," surmised German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
However, picking a language to learn can be a daunting task.
Much of the rest of the world is learning English as a second language. As globalization marches on, business requires it. In turn, the traveling businessperson gains an advantage if they know at least some of the language of the people with which they are negotiating. As Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart."
Some look at lists to figure out the best language to learn. They might look for the ten most spoken languages in the world, or may attempt to determine a language's popularity by the number of countries which speak it. Some turn to the United Nations and their list of six official languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important to the work of the organization, because these enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance. "The dictionary," said Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, tongue in cheek, "is based on the hypothesis - obviously an unproven one - that languages are made up of equivalent synonyms."
Although these lists might be helpful in picking a language, they're probably not the best way to go about it. After all, a new language is a window into a different culture. Learning a foreign language reveals how other societies think and feel, what they have experienced and value, and how they express themselves. As writer Rita Mae Brown put it, "Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going." What better way to learn than to pick a culture you're interested in?
Another interesting factor that one might keep in mind is the difference in alphabets. If the idea of learning a new alphabet seems unnerving, then Spanish, Italian, French, German, or Portuguese might be ideal. However, if you're not afraid to learn to read and write again, you might look at Russian, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese, or Arabic.
Incidentally, learning a different alphabet activates a part of the mind that can make you better at noticing small details which previously might have escaped you. To quote an old Japanese proverb - "One thousand days to learn; ten thousand days to refine."