Which Language Should I Learn?

img ©srhabay.wikispaces.com

img ©srhabay.wikispaces.com

So you have decided that you want to learn a new language. This is big. This will change your life. If you are wondering which language to learn, here is a little bit of help. Here are a few thoughts that you might find useful:

1) Ignore Thoughts of “Easy” and “Difficult”

Here are some common reasons why you might hold back from learning a difficult language:

The New Alphabet

You might know that my current language learning journey is learning Russian. But this is my 7th foreign language. Until I was 28, I never even considered learning Russian. I thought it was difficult. But then came my first business trip to Kazakhstan: A country where street signs look like this:

Kazakhstan street sign

No English! No Western script! I had to find my way around the streets, and it showed me just how quickly learning a new alphabet can be done. I had been scared of this all my life, and it turned out to be a really small problem.

The New Systems

Now, what about the fact that some languages are just naturally difficult or easy? This is partly true if you measure languages by how similar they are to English. You may find that the ideas listed in this graphic are going to work for you:

But if you have an understanding of the English grammar, you already have a basic understanding of language and you will very quickly find that your existing knowledge makes learning easier. Any langauge makes more sense once you know grammar.

The Bad Experience

Many people tell me that they are not interested in learning German or French because they had to study at school and they were bad at it. It is almost as if a bad grade in school was a message to these people, telling them that they are not allowed to try again.

If you have similar thoughts, please adjust. Language learning is not about how you did in school, or about what you found difficult when you were 13. Most adult learners now look at languages from a different point of view, and as a teacher I have often experienced that even the most basic knowledge of a language will be reactivated when you come back to it after many years. So in other words, if it was difficult at school you must not expect it to be difficult after school.

2) 1000 Speakers Is Enough

Many people decide that they want to learn a popular language spoken by many people everywhere. But did you know that even minority languages like Irish Gaelic or Maltese are spoken by over 100,000 people around the world? This means there are more people than you could speak to in a lifetime.

When you decide to learn a new language, choosing the popular language can help you find more native speakers makes it easier to find materials and fellow learners. But there are also advantages to learning the rare language. For example, native speakers will appreciate your effort so much more. Plus, rare languages can actually boost your career! My friend Mike is a native English speaker and found that his skill in Finnish helped him start his translation business in a smaller market and attract bigger clients a lot more easily. This would be a lot harder if you were working in a language spoken by millions.

3) Your Interest is The Best Guide

The first and strongest bit of advice I can give you is to choose a language that truly interests you. This matters more than the number of speakers, the career prospects, the difficulty or anything else. If you are fascinated by the desert palaces of Rajasthan in India, you should not be looking at learning Spanish!

Every expert will tell you that learning a language just gets so much better when you can make it come alive. Obviously, this means speaking in most cases. But even if a language is hardly used in modern times, you can still become extremely passionate about it. Latin learners will enjoy reading the smart (sometimes really funny) writings of Ovid, and if you are in Europe it will give you a new perspective on your own country. This can be fascinating and rewarding, and we haven’t even started to talk about how useful Latin is for learning Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian and so many more.

So, Which Language Should You Learn?

In my life, I have so far studied 7 languages. It never felt like a waste of time. Now that I am studying Russian I know that each and every one of the other 6 is making it easier for me. But the important thing was that I stuck with those languages, and I didn’t start more than one at the same time. My best advice would be to just make a decision and start learning. Stick with your language. If you become interested in a different one in the future, you have not wasted your time because language study is connected, and teaches you a new way of looking at the world.

Stop wasting your time choosing the easiest language, instead choose the most interesting one.

There is just one thing to think about when you want to learn a new language: You will learn nothing if you stay lazy. New languages are always a lot of work, and the only way to keep going is to motivate yourself all the time. This can be because of cultural reasons, but the interest in your own achievement is just as powerful. For example, I never learnt French because I wanted to move to France. But at the same time, I never gave up on French and I committed my time and effort. Now I am fluent in French, and still have never lived in France. French culture is not my passion, but being able to speak French has always been such a strong goal that I just kept going. The formula I would share with you is a bit like this:

Interest * (Commitment + Engagement) * Time = Fluency

If one of these is zero, you will not achieve fluency.

I hope this article helped you make up your mind. Which language do you dream of? What’s holding you back from studying it?

Further Reading:

This cool map makes me want to learn all the languages (except Estonian maybe)

Looky! I got quite excited looking at this map last night (NERD, I know). Remember how we have previously covered how languages are easier or harder for you as an English speaker?

If yes, you will know that shared vocabulary is one of the most important things to consider in language choice.

Shared vocabulary - a language shortcut

Shared Vocab, or "vocabularly divergence" for linguists, means how many words in languages are shared or used to be the same hundreds of years ago. Languages come in families, they are related and they share common roots - a bit like real families.

Knowing more about the relations between different languages is not just interesting, but also extremely helpful. If you choose to study a language which belongs to your native language family, you can have an easier time learning new words. This is because you already know them. The grammar will also feel a little more familiar, and so on. In short, many people consider closely related languages easier to learn.


Let's take a look

So, above you see a few families of languages. English sits at the centre, but this one is much cooler than just looking at how easy it is to learn German or French.

Just look at how many languages there are in the world!! And think of

  • how half of Wales is learning Welsh even though that's not even a particularly related language for English speakers?

  • how Greek and English apparently have nothing in common?

  • how brave I am for attempting Russian?

  • why no one is learning Swedish when it looks like it'd be so easy?

Even if there is hardly any link on this chart, that doesn't mean you don't find a few words that are familiar.

Like, in Russian "office" is kabinyet (кабинет) - sounds like cabinet to me, which sort of means cupboard...there we go, shared vocab!

What remains to say that a map like this is really just an excellent thing to geek out about, and then remember there's so much choice and every language has a merit.

Many thanks to the talented Chris Workman for finding this image and sharing it on Facebook.

The world's 5 most influential languages

Are you studying one of the world's most influential languages?

The following quote from this video seemed particularly noteworthy:

> Every language is the most important language in the world - to its speakers. (George Weber)

Read on to find out which languages are named the most influential:

3 criteria of influential languages

The video lists the following criteria as the most influential:

  • Demographics

How many people speak this language? Where do they all live?

  • Ease of Learning

How long can it take to acquire this language?

  • Economic Impact

How rich are the countries where this language is spoken? Can it help you get a job?

According to the way these three criteria, the most influential languages in the world are English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. Bang. Are you learning one of those? Do you speak one?

Is this all true?

I don't want to subscribe to any ranking that will list languages according to how "easy" or "hard" they are to learn. There are many ways of looking at this, and I believe all of them can be trumped by mindset. After all, even minority languages like Swedish or Guarani still have enough speakers to make it hard for you to talk to every one of them.

Furthermore, the quote at the top will make it clear to us that all languages are worthwhile to learn, and that this can be considered more independent from demographics than expected.

Which leaves economic impact, and I consider this the single most influential factor of all language learning motivations. People learn languages to make money, right? It is proven to make you a more attractive job candidate and an obvious bonus for international business leaders. When we disregard the other main criteria, the most influential languages actually are German and Chinese.

Of course a list like this is ruled by numbers, and numbers could never contain all the rewards you gain from learning a language. So why do you learn? Is it for money? Because it's easy? Because you want to talk to as many people as possible?

Is too much choice the reason you're failing to learn a new language?

Yesterday I spoke to a lovely new group of people about what I do. I talk to people about how I am a language tutor because I believe in languages as a fab thing to learn. I want them to shake off the myths, and any mediocre experiences they may remember from school.

And after being confronted with the common "we Brits are just so rubbish at language learning" and "well, it's really quite hard and we're lazy", I encountered a new and really interesting perspective on why so few people in this country get involved in languages.

English is too popular

"Don't take this the wrong way", my conversation partner started, "but you see...in Germany, everyone's first foreign language is English. It's the same in France, in Greece, in Brazil, no matter where you go. But here in the UK, what would we learn that's as widely spoken?"

I had never heard this particular perspecitve before - the global dominance of English is obviously old news, but the lack of a second world-dominating language as a discouraging factor? "We're too popular, we don't know which one of the second bests to pick!" That's something really interesting.

img by Lauren Macdonald (CC)

img by Lauren Macdonald (CC)

Which language is as big as English?

Newspapers often love looking for the next big thing, and in language learning this is often considered to be Mandarin Chinese. Employers love it because China is such a big market, and it has the fresh untainted factor that German and French often lack. But is it the obvious choice? No. I agree that I couldn't see a real obvious choice for English learners. Statistics tell us that the most commonly studied foreign languages in the USA today are modern European ones, and it is no different in the UK.

Choice as a motivator

My response to the comment, after thinking about this particular predicament, was that the particular dominance of English can serve the English native speaker extremely well. You get to pick your second language, free from the pressure of what's popular around the globe. You can make it your own choice and use that as a motivator! So you might not be learning a language learnt by as many speakers, but if you want a world dominating one, I'm pretty sure we can find an alternative.

What's your advice? 

I would love to hear your perspectives. Did you ever have the agony of choice, and did it ever put you off learning a language? Or is this kind of problem just a bit of a #firstworldproblem? 

Which language would you recommend to a native English speaker?