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What Is the Best Second Language for Nursing Students To Learn?

Charmaine Robinson, MSN-Ed, BSN, RN
Updated June 30, 2023
    Having fluency in another language can be beneficial to both you and your patients. Explore the best second languages for nursing students.
    Nurse talking to patientCredit: Getty Images
    • Language barriers between patients and nurses can compromise patient safety and outcomes.
    • Having fluency in another language can be a valuable asset to your nursing career.
    • The best second language to learn depends on the most commonly spoken languages in the areas you serve.

    What comes to mind when you hear “effective patient communication”? Perhaps it’s keeping patients up to date with the plan of care, providing good patient education, or remaining professional when speaking to patients.

    While effective communication involves making sure that patients understand the plan of care, it’s more than the style and tone in which you convey information.

    Language is the most basic way we communicate. You may be direct, clear, and considerate in your communication with patients, but if there is a language barrier, the outcome will likely be ineffective. Explore the best second languages for nursing students and discover the many benefits of being bilingual.

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    How Language Barriers Impact Patient Care

    The patient population is growing increasingly diverse, and the healthcare industry must ensure that patients receive culturally sensitive care. Workplace cultural competency is imperative in nursing practice, and linguistic competency follows closely behind.

    In a 2020 systematic review in the Oman Medical Journal, researchers compiled data from 14 studies that highlighted the impact language barriers had on healthcare workers and patients from several countries.

    Results revealed that language barriers negatively impacted patient safety, the quality of healthcare delivery, and both parties’ satisfaction. Some studies showed that patients who faced language barriers had poorer health outcomes than those who spoke the local language. One study even revealed that adverse events occurred more often in patients who spoke limited English than in those who were fluent.

    These poor outcomes may be less likely when nurses have fluency in other languages. This is particularly the case for nurses who speak a language commonly spoken in their communities.

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    Second Languages for Nursing Students to Learn

    As a nursing student, learning a second language may be a smart move for your career. Not only can you gain more confidence while interacting with patients who speak the language, but your new skill can also lead to better health outcomes.

    You may wonder which second language you should learn. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the most frequently spoken non-English language was Spanish (or Spanish Creole) in 2019. Other common languages include Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese dialects), Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic.

    Here are several second languages you might consider learning and why they may be beneficial. Keep in mind that the best second language to learn depends on the most commonly spoken languages in the areas in which you plan to serve.


    Learning Spanish can be beneficial as it is the most common second language in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

    In 2019, approximately 41 million people in the U.S. spoke Spanish in their homes. Furthermore, according to a 2021 report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Spanish was the most common language after English in all but four U.S. states (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont).


    Learning Chinese may be helpful as it is the third most common language in the U.S. (after English and Spanish).

    According to a 2021 Pew Research report, the Asian American population is expected to quadruple by 2060. Chinese is the most common language spoken among this group. Learning Chinese might also be beneficial if you work in California or New York, as most Chinese immigrants reside in these states, according to 2023 MPI data.


    Learning Vietnamese could be beneficial as it is the top five most common languages in the U.S.

    According to the Pew Research report, Vietnamese Americans are the fourth largest growing Asian American group (after Chinese, Indian, and Filipino). Learning this language may be a smart move as Vietnamese immigrants are more likely to have limited English proficiency than other immigrant groups in the U.S, according to 2018 MPI data.

    The Benefits to Learning a Second Language for Nurses

    While learning a second language benefits patients who speak that particular language, acquiring this skill can also have professional benefits.

    Opportunity to Practice Abroad

    Bilingual nurses may have more opportunities to work in non-English speaking countries. You can serve as an international travel nurse and even take on crisis assignments abroad.

    More Local Opportunities

    Learning a second language can create opportunities for career expansion or advancement in the U.S. Many employers seek bilingual nurses to fill both bedside and remote positions (e.g., telephonic triage or virtual health coaching).

    Increased Pay Potential

    Bilingual nurses can be very helpful to the healthcare team by serving as translators. Some employers even offer incentives for bilingual services, but you may have to take a language proficiency test first.

    Bilingual RNs in the U.S. make an average of $8 more per hour than RNs without bilingual specification, according to ZipRecruiter data from June 2023.

    Your fluency in another language can be highly beneficial to patients, the healthcare team, and your professional growth. Are you up for the challenge? Consider starting your linguistic journey today.