Importance of foreign language programs
According to Ethnologue: Languages of the World, English is spoken as an official or national language in a total of 63 countries. That may be a far greater number of nations than the second most common official language -- French, which is official or national in 39 world nations - but still only covers about seven percent of the world's population.
In contrast, Mandarin Chinese may only be spoken as an official language in three countries, but Ethnologue reports 1.051 billion native and acquired speakers. That's about as many speakers as English, Spanish and French combined, in case you're keeping score.
English may still be considered by many to be the language of wider communication in international business, but the global communications climate is changing rapidly. First-language speakers of English are beginning to learn the value of acquiring at least a conversational or business-focused fluency in other languages -- particularly Chinese, with the amount of manufacturing capacity having emerged in China -- and our rapidly globalizing culture certainly makes it expedient, if not essential, to capture some basic concepts of languages other than the one spoken in the houses of one's local government.
As of 2013, however, English is still the most widely used language on the Internet, and online foreign language programs are growing more sophisticated every year. The trends seem to show that there's never been a better time than now to learn a language online, and it's highly likely that a bit of dedicated research can help you find a program that suits both your learning style and your budget.
Types of language classes
Depending on your first language, some languages can be easier to learn online than others. Native English speakers may have the easiest time learning other languages in the Germanic language family, which includes Dutch, Norwegian, German and Afrikaans, or Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese which also use the Latin alphabet.
Here's a rundown of the ten most widely used languages on Earth, according to Ethnologue data:
# total speakers
# native speakers
# acquired speakers
% of world
Most services that help you learn a language online offer well-rounded programs. Reading and writing instruction can be accomplished through text lessons, bulletin boards and email communication, while asynchronous video lessons, audio clips and synchronous Skype chats can help you improve your speaking and listening skills. Communicating with your fellow students and instructors is an important part of all foreign language programs, particularly in that they give you the opportunity to practice your skills with native speakers of the language.
Native English speakers may find the initial learning curve somewhat steep when branching out into languages with non-Latin alphabets, like Russian, Greek, Hindi, Bengali and Korean, or those with non-alphabetic writing systems, like Chinese and Japanese, but never fear. High-quality foreign language programs can help you get past those early difficulties and move on to the real nuts and bolts of speaking, writing and understanding your new language before you know it.
ESL and TOEFL
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a standardized English proficiency test for non-native speakers. A wide majority of universities in the United States include a passing score on the TOEFL among their admissions requirements for international students, and some stateside employers will give more serious consideration to international applicants who submit their TOEFL results along with their resume.
TOEFL test-takers get a 270-minute time limit and must use a standard English-language QWERTY keyboard to enter in their answers, so it's advisable to practice on a similar keyboard before taking the official examination. Cellular phones and other electronic devices aren't allowed during the test -- even during breaks -- and the fee for the TOEFL ranges between U.S. $160 and U.S. $250, depending on the country where the test is taken.
There are plenty of students looking to learn English, as well, and training in English as a Second Language (ESL) is widely available to help them. Online ESL classes can be found to serve learners at all levels of fluency.
Welcome, willkommen, bienvenidos
If you're doing business internationally or just taking a holiday tour of another country, learning a new foreign language or expanding your current language skills can enhance your experiences and open many doors that may otherwise have been closed. Knowing even a few key phrases in the local language, whether you're traveling on business or pleasure, can be such an improvement over the monolingual experience that you'll wonder how you ever lived with just one language.
"Top 30 Languages of the World, World Languages and Cultures," December 11, 2014 Vistawide, www.vistawide.com/languages/top_30_languages.htm
"Current World Population," December 11, 2014, Worldometers, http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
"Internet World Users by Language, Top 10 Languages," December 11, 2014, Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm
"Statistical Summaries," December 11, 2014, Ethnologue, http://www.ethnologue.com/statistics
"About the TOEFL iBT Test," December 11, 2014, Educational Testing Service, https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/about?WT.ac=toeflhome_ibtabout2_121127
"What to Expect," December 11, 2014, Educational Testing Service, https://www.ets.org/toefl/ibt/test_day/expect/