Know Thyself: Asking the Right Questions to Decide Which Language You Should Learn
Wish you had a map and compass to guide you to the perfect language?
It’s one of the most momentous and exciting decisions of your newly multilingual life: what language should you learn?
Choosing a language is a deeply personal process because there’s no one absolute best.
To decide on which language to learn, the first step is to tune out all the conflicting advice on “the best” language, and take a look within.
- What Are the Right Questions to Decide Which Language You Should Learn?
- What’s my mother language, and what other languages do I already know?
- What kind of access do I have to resources like websites, classes and native speakers?
- What’s my learning style?
- What parts of the world intrigue me?
- What professional fields are you interested in working in?
- Why do you want to learn it?
- Which Language Should I Learn? How to Follow Your Heart to Your Next Tongue
- Communicate with More People: Learn the World’s Largest Languages
- Expand Your Horizons: Learn a Language Known for Its Arts and Culture
- Start Quickly and Easily: Learn a Language That’s Easy for English Speakers
- Get Paid: Learn a Language That’ll Land You a Job
- Stay Ahead of the Global Curve: Learn the Languages of the Future
- Travel the World: Learn a Language That’s Spoken Far and Wide
- Preserve Our Linguistic Heritage: Learn a Minority or Endangered Language
- The Means Is the End
What Are the Right Questions to Decide Which Language You Should Learn?
Since there’s no one objective outright winner in the linguistic derby, how do you decide which foreign language is best for you?
Browsing a list of the world’s 7,000 languages will quickly become overwhelming, but limiting yourself to the shortest cut-and-dried listicles doling out wisdom on the web is too constricting.
Why don’t you just ask yourself?
Language is more than a line on a resume. It mediates your personal life, livens your inner life and, in the end, can often influence your biggest life decisions like where you live, how you develop yourself professionally, who you fall in love with and what ideas you expose yourself to.
Ask yourself the following questions to start thinking about which language you should learn.
What’s my mother language, and what other languages do I already know?
This has a huge impact on your learning experience, and it’s one of the reasons there’s no single best language for everyone.
If you’re a native English speaker who’s learning a new language for the first time, you might want to start by thinking about which languages are most similar to English in their sound, structure and vocabulary. If you already speak English and Spanish, then a Germanic or Romance language might be the easiest pick for you.
On the other hand, a very similar language might confuse your Spanish, or you might end up filling your attempts at Portuguese with clumsy literal Spanishisms.
Consider your current linguistic array and how strong you feel in any other languages you’ve learned. If Spanish is one of your native languages—or if you’ve been fluent for many years—then picking up a similar language like Portuguese might be very easy and invite no confusion whatsoever. If you’ve only reached the intermediate level of Spanish or still feel shaky with it, then learning Portuguese might end up getting mixed up with your Spanish.
What kind of access do I have to resources like websites, classes and native speakers?
Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find resources for most languages.
A simple search can lead you to thousands of educational material, either free or available at affordable prices. These can work brilliantly for the self-study learner who enjoys sifting through their options.
For the digital-based learner, there are also online language learning programs that enable you to study straight from your phone or computer. You can hop on iTalki for a one-on-one tutoring session or absorb tons of vocabulary words with Anki. There’s also FluentU for watching authentic videos equipped with tools like interactive subtitles, multimedia flashcards and personalized quizzes.
Still, sometimes your ethnographic interests pull you toward a more obscure language like Aymara or Saami. There’s plenty to be said for learning less commonly studied languages, but consider the availability of resources for doing so:
- Are there courses available online?
- Any Wikipedia pages in the language?
- Will you have to commit to a summer or a year abroad to get access to native speakers, and if so, are you willing to do that?
What’s my learning style?
Individual learning style can impact how easy or difficult a language is for any given person to learn. If you’ve got an ear for music and a knack for impersonating accents, you might find it easier to learn tonal languages or navigate the phonological complexities of Polish.
If patterns and rules aren’t your thing, grammatically simpler creoles and languages like Malay or Mandarin with few grammatical categories might be your path of least resistance.
What parts of the world intrigue me?
It’s impossible to separate languages from the people who speak them and the places they live. If you’re planning a career as an ambassador or an expert on Middle Eastern politics, Arabic or Farsi might be the language for you. If West African history, Vietnamese cuisine or the beauty of the Himalayas infect you with excitement, let these geographic interests lead you to learning Hausa, Vietnamese or Tibetan.
What professional fields are you interested in working in?
Learning a language “to get a job” doesn’t work. This is because you first have to ask yourself, which job do you want to get?
Universities and language schools in North America love to push Mandarin and Spanish as the jobs most in-demand by employers, but that’s not necessarily the case if your ideal employer is an NGO, a media company or a marketing firm.
Read some publications in your field and find out if it’s Chinese manufacturing, Costa Rican solar panels, consulting for Kazakh firms or Angolan oil that’s driving growth, and then follow the money to your ideal language.
Why do you want to learn it?
This one is most important of all.
To figure out which language you should learn right now, start with a little introspection on your motivation for learning a language.
Do you want to learn a language to meet nice people, to expand your international friend circle, to challenge yourself by learning a new writing system, to access the ideas of artists and intellectuals in their own language, because you met a special guy or gal, because you’re obsessed with the food or just because you like the way a particular language sounds?
There are no good or bad, right or wrong reasons for learning a language. If you follow your passion, learning will be easy, enjoyable and enriching every step of the way.
These are just some big-picture questions to get you started. After enough thoughtful introspection, hopefully you’ll arrive at a sense of knowing what you want out of your language learning experience, and then it’s time to start surveying the options.
Which Language Should I Learn? How to Follow Your Heart to Your Next Tongue
There are almost as many languages in the world as there are reasons to learn one. Maybe your motivation isn’t one of the seven we’ll list here, but it’s probably similar to one of these reasons—just a little more nuanced and attuned to yourself and your life.
Communicate with More People: Learn the World’s Largest Languages
There’s something to be said for raw numbers.
The world’s most commonly spoken languages are spoken by hundreds of millions of people, and learning one of them will allow you to expand your potential social network by six digits. Here are a few of the world’s biggest languages by total speakers.
Its 900 million total speakers worldwide are just one of the reasons to learn Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese official language isn’t as geographically spread out as some of the other major world languages, but it’s still growing and not likely to be evicted from its number one spot any time soon.
With around half a billion speakers worldwide, Spanish is a giant in its own right. What’s more, it’ll unlock a lot more of the map for you than Mandarin with half the total number of speakers, as it’s an official or major language in twenty-ish countries around the world.
By most counts the fourth or fifth largest world language, about 300 million people speak Modern Standard Arabic and the many regional dialects that exist around the world. Like Spanish, it’s got the geographic advantage over Chinese with its status as an official language in 28 countries.
Expand Your Horizons: Learn a Language Known for Its Arts and Culture
If your true love is the arts, you may want to opt for a language with a strong body of art and cultural products, whether it be in the form of writing, performance, music or another language-infused form of cultural expression. Here are a few languages with well-established traditions you can get your hands, eyes and ears on.
If you’re already watching anime with the subtitles on, learning Japanese by watching anime is only a small step further. Japanese films will give you plenty of fodder for couch-based language learning with movies.
Speaking of movies, Italian cinema is reason enough by itself to enroll in Italian classes right away. Sit back, sip wine and let Academy Award-winning Italian productions whisk you off to language learning land.
Amharic is the main language of Ethiopia, arguably the country with the most distinctive set of cultures on the African continent, and it’s impossible to learn their language without learning a bit about Amharic culture. Let Ethiopian food guide you through learning your first words about cooking and eating.
The language that brought the world bossa nova and samba is an excellent choice for language learners with an ear for music and a feel for rhythm. If learning a language through singing and dancing sounds like it’s up your alley, turn on some Brazilian music and start learning Portuguese with songs.
Start Quickly and Easily: Learn a Language That’s Easy for English Speakers
It’s hard to make a blanket statement about the easiest language to learn, because it depends on a lot of factors, one of which is your mother tongue.
Neurologically speaking, your first language actually hard-wires your brain for languages in general.
Meanwhile, other languages you speak well could cause confusion and other quirky polyglot problems. But if you’re reading this blog post in your mother tongue, here are some of the easiest languages for English speakers to get started with.
Derived from the same Germanic vocabulary as English, Dutch is one of the closest living languages to English on the Germanic language family tree. Learn a few basic rules of pronunciation and spelling and you’ll already have a basic vocabulary of a few hundred words as an English speaker.
The influence of French on English goes far beyond fashionable French loanwords. For four hundred years the French-speaking Normans ruled England, and they left their mark on the language. Today English and French, despite their sonorant differences, share up to 45% of the same vocabulary, largely in the form of loanwords historically borrowed from French or technical words both languages derived from Latin.
While not as close to English as Dutch or French, English speakers will recognize a great deal of Latin-derived Spanish vocabulary from the start. Moreover, Spanish is a highly but regularly structured language with simple phonetics and a grammar that’s nowhere near as intimidating as it looks in Spanish class. Just get down the basic differences between Spanish and English and you’ll be set.
Get Paid: Learn a Language That’ll Land You a Job
One of the many benefits of multilingualism is the one that hits you right in the wallet: People who speak more than one language can generally expect not only a pay raise but a wider range of jobs and careers available to them.
Some people earn a living off their language skills, while others use them to advance through different careers, and still other jobs are tailor-made for language majors.
Whether your language skills are a career in themselves or a tool for climbing the corporate ladder, here are some of the most lucrative you can get started with.
The near billion speakers of the Chinese state language mean that learning Mandarin Chinese is a smart business investment. There’s hardly an industry left in the world that’s not looking for people with the requisite language skills to help them break into or increase their presence in the Chinese market.
Another Chinese language, it’s the one with even more tones than Mandarin and that’s spoken in the wealthy financial centers like Guangdong and Hong Kong. What’s more, it’s the Chinese dialect spoken in most Chinatowns around the world, making it another important language for global commerce.
South Korea is one of the Asian economies that’s churning out the jobs in tech, telecommunications and manufacturing, as well as being one of the largest employers of foreign English teachers. Whether transferring within your company or striking out on your own overseas, learning Korean is likely to give you a leg up in the application process no matter what field you’ll be working in, and it’s certain to deepen your cultural experience during your stay.
The European Union’s economic engine speaks German, and people throughout Europe learn the language in the hopes of getting hired. Things might look uncertain elsewhere in Europe, but German is a good investment for any job-seeker interested in the continent.
Stay Ahead of the Global Curve: Learn the Languages of the Future
The best languages for business are those that are investing in the future of our always growing and changing world. Groups like the International Monetary Fund and Goldman Sachs are constantly forecasting the languages that are growing and developing most rapidly and are most likely to be world leaders in trade and commerce in our lifetime. Here are a few of them.
Although its regional dialects are called Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan, most linguists think of Hindustani as one language with multiple national varieties.
Nit-picky details aside, learning either variant of the language is enough to have conversations and make yourself understood across a large swath of the Indian subcontinent, putting you in contact with nearly half a billion people in one of the world’s fastest-growing economic regions.
With 200 million speakers in giant Brazil alone, Portuguese is a global language in its own right. Across the world, Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries and regions like Angola and Macau are prospering in fields like oil and gas and financial services, making Portuguese one of the most mobile languages for following the money.
In addition to being a language of evergreen importance in international trade and politics, Arabic is also one of the fastest-growing languages on the web, making it a definite up-and-coming language for our digital future.
Travel the World: Learn a Language That’s Spoken Far and Wide
If you’ve got itchy feet and a stamp-happy passport, learning a language is one of the best ways to open up entire new parts of the world to you. The best languages for travelers are those that are spoken across multiple countries and an extensive geographic area, as well as those that’ll bring you closer in contact with local communities you’d be otherwise unable to truly communicate with.
Stretching from the American southwest to Tierra del Fuego, brushing up on your Spanish travel phrases is the best way to explore the Western Hemisphere.
While many educated urbanites in East Africa speak English, the local lingua franca Swahili is an excellent way for culturally curious travelers to learn about the peoples and cultures of the African Great Lakes region.
While English will get you through most of Western Europe okay, somewhere east of Germany Russian becomes the language with the widest geographic range. From the Balkans to Siberia, you’ll encounter Russian speakers and other Slavic languages that your Russian will give you initial insight into.
While its range is limited inside Europe, French is one of the most useful travel languages outside the continent. Still the official language of many countries throughout North and Central Africa and a popularly learned language across much of the world, French travel phrases spoken to the right people can be of use as far and wide as Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Atlantic coast of the United States.
Preserve Our Linguistic Heritage: Learn a Minority or Endangered Language
When most of us consider learning a new language, we limit ourselves to the usual suspects, but in some ways it’s even more important for passionate language learners to pay a bit of attention to the world’s obscure languages.
Of the world’s 7,000 languages, about half of them are expected to die out by 2050 as younger generations of speakers opt to learn bigger and more economically-promising national languages. Finding resources for studying endangered languages can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. Here are a few examples of languages that are dying for new learners.
One of the largest living Native American languages, Dakota and the related Lakota language are spoken in the Upper Midwest of the US and parts of Canada. Efforts at revitalizing the language are vibrant, and you can even study it at several universities in Minnesota.
The collective name for the famous group of “click” languages spoken in southern Africa, the Khoi-San languages spoken by people groups like the San of Namibia are rapidly dying out under the forces of development and urbanization, and along with them vital information about not only these peoples and their cultures but a truly unique group of languages.
The language isolate spoken in Northern Spain has long puzzled linguists with its lack of known ties to any other world language, and if more learners don’t pick up the language, it may not be around long enough to find the answers we seek about the world’s cultural heritage.
Basque is only considered “vulnerable” today and is currently enjoying a “Basque language renaissance,” but sandwiched between big global languages like Spanish and French, its future looks shaky without an influx of motivated language learners.
The Means Is the End
Hopefully as you read through this list, you realized not only that there’s no one language that you should learn, but also that there’s no one reason for you to learn it.
Languages touch on so many other areas of our lives, from jobs and friends to the food we eat and the way we see the world around us, that we should never think of them just as tools or means to an end.
Learning a language is for life, and the means is the end.