Top-selling Foreign Languages in the US

48053100204630The winner of Friday’s Tuttle’s Learning Chinese Characters was Janet in Eastleigh in the UK. Janet is a true linguist, a great blogger, and skilled origamist. You can catch up with her at Janet’s Notebook.

Here in the book industry, I enjoy being able to see some aggregate sales data about language books. This morning, I got to review some data about the 200 best-selling language books in the US wholesale and retail market and thought I’d share the “executive summary” here:

No surprise, Spanish is the great colossus in the US foreign-language market, and, in this survey of the top 200, Spanish materials make up 50% of the total units sold. Spanish is so far ahead that the top-selling Spanish book on the list (a paperback Merriam-Webster Spanish-English Dictionary under $7) outsells the bottom 25 books combined.

Our proximity to Latin America and sizable population of hispanohablantes in the US gives learning Spanish a real sense of utility. Studies of why US students most often choose Spanish, unfortunately, never fail to uncover a majority who admit that they perceive Spanish as the easiest foreign language to learn. The fact that US high school students pick a language based on ease says more about them (something woeful) than about Spanish—a noble language with quite a bit of grammatic nuance. But my point of view is “good riddance”. If you’re just looking for an easy grade, hasta luego.

Books in French and Italian came in at 17% and 10% of units sold. The French books tend to be grammar, while the Italian ones are travelers’ phrase books. ESL (English as a Second Language) grabs nearly 7%. German squeaks in at 4%. After that, a surprise. Lingua latina tamen mortua non est. Not dead yet! Latin is still alive at 3%.

It’s after we nearly exhaust European languages that we then see Japanese (#7) and Chinese (#8) as the highest ranking non-European languages. After them, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Korean round out the list. It’s great to see three Asian languages on the list in that order, and I’m glad to say that Asian-language high-school teachers tend to tell me they get the bright kids in school. Based on numbers in the new census, one might expect to see Tagalog or Hindi/Urdu appear on the list in the next few years.

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4 thoughts on “Top-selling Foreign Languages in the US

  1. Sadly, most schools, at least on the East Coast, don’t offer much to students with regards to language classes. They start Spanish in elementary school, and that’s it for languages! I know my own son would have preferred a different language to study, but French was the only other middle school offering, so he decided to continue with Spanish. Languages, sadly, tend to be the first to go with school budget cuts…..

    • Even more sadly, perhaps, East Coast (Northeast at least) do a much better job at foreign languages than public schools in the Southeast or Midwest. It’s a damn shame too. Study after study shows that learning a foreign language improves your mastery of your native language because learning how to say something in a different language creates the need to focus on how you say it in your own. But my observation is that if you haven’t had that experience, you just don’t get it.

  2. Japanese comes in ahead of Chinese…that’s a surprise! I’d have thought the opposite would be true.
    My daughter went to Stanford and took both Chinese and Japanese. She found that in general, the kids who were interesting in business and entrepreneurship gravitated toward Chinese, while the kids who were into anime, manga and cybercuties would take Japanese. As a Japanese teacher myself, this made me a bit sad…there is so much else that is beautiful and special about Japanese.

    • Why people study a language is such an interesting question. “Foreign Language Annals” published an article recently that identified motivating factors like “getting an easy grade” and “utility” along with family/heritage motivation, etc.

      Back in the mid-’80s, when I started studying Japanese, it was considered a smart thing to do, but not a cool thing to do. An elderly member of my family was even a little unhappy that I spent a year on exchange in Osaka. Fast-forward 25 years, and learning Japanese has lost a bit of that business/entrepreneurial shine. And yet young Americans think it’s pretty cool, especially, as you discovered, ones who’re into manga, anime, otaku culture and the like. Japanese, I think, has settled into a niche next to French as a language that confers on the speaker some cosmopolitan polish.

      I go to some anime conventions, and you’re right. I hate to see Harajuku youth culture be the beginning, middle, and end of someone’s Japan experience. Luckily, I think, when a young person sticks with it, their interest in Japanese culture seems to broaden out to include traditional culture as well.

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