It’s 1:00 on a Friday afternoon.
You’re in 7th grade sitting in one of those stiff school desks.
Both of the kids beside you are sniffling. One of them has a cold and the other allergies.
The kid behind you has his foot on the metal book holder attached to the bottom of your desk and won’t stop jiggling it around.
The bell rings and the teacher takes to the front of the class with a stack of papers that he explains are the forms to be filled out for next year’s classes. What’s one of the choices you’ll be making? Which foreign language will be your first? (Well, for those of us who didn’t grow up bilingual.)
Obviously this is hardly a great decision-making environment. And even if it had been, our minds were not so very sophisticated at that age.
But now we’re adults! We can choose what we learn and how we learn. We can make good life decisions… you know, after we’ve spent the first three-quarters of the day binging on “Game of Thrones” and a Pizza Hut Hot Dog Pizza.
And what’s the first problem most of us come up against in this adult world? Making choices. You may be asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” There are just too many options!
Just think about all the different languages you could learn: Arabic, Spanish, Lingala (spoken in central Africa), Thai, Esperanto (the most widely spoken artificial language), Japanese, and on it goes. It’s estimated that there are around 7,000 languages.
So how do you pick just one?
Thankfully, learning any one language tends to go a pretty long way, so there’s no need to stress out. All you have to do is think clearly about your priorities, about what you hope to gain out of learning a new language. Let’s take a look at some of the most common motivations for learning a second language and the criteria you can use to make your decision.
Which Second Language to Learn to Change Your Life
A lot of us get the idea of learning a second language in our head because we want to explore. And I mean really explore, not be led around by the hand by some dull witted tour guide. We want to talk to the people of the country, to hear them speak in their own language about their loves and hardships, their fears and hopes.
There are a couple of different criteria that you might use if the desire to explore is what drives you. One good metric is the sheer number of countries that speak a certain language and the diversity of those countries. For instance, thanks to the extensiveness of the former French empire there are more countries that use French than any other language besides English. Plus those countries are all scattered across the globe, from the Americas to Asia, making French a prime target.
But perhaps you’re a connoisseur of quality rather than quantity. When someone says the world “exploration” to you, it conjures up images of traveling by foot or pack animal into the areas of the world whose cultures are rarely conveyed to the world at large. In this case, your criteria for a language need simply be whether or not it’s connected to a culture that is outside the purview of the English media. In this case, good options include:
- Nahuatl, spoken in Central Mexico
- Quechua, spoken in the Andes region of South America
- Javanese, spoken in parts of the Indonesian island Java
Though if you really want a challenge, try Pirahã—a language with no numbers, spoken by a small group in the jungles of northwest Brazil.
Are you a scholar? An independent researcher? A future Ph.D. student with a burning desire to draw all the world’s knowledge into yourself? Why not take a shot at those languages which have the highest book publishing rates? Looking at things this way highlights the disproportionate amount of publishing by some countries, such as Japan publishing nearly as many books as all of India.
By knowing just one of these widely used languages, you could have access to hundreds of thousands more books every year. Or if paper’s not your thing you could just as easily take a look at which languages have the most online use. Chinese, Spanish and Arabic are all good options for an Internet language.
But just as with the desire for exploration, there is both an quantitative and qualitative way to measure the merits and demerits of each language in terms of access to knowledge. You might choose a language based on how different the information in that language is from your own. While it’s harder to measure this statistically, some choices are far from difficult to make. If politics tickles your fancy you might learn Chinese or Russian, languages attached to sovereign states with agendas often sharply at odds with those of English speaking countries. If cultural dealings are more your sort of tea, then pretty much any language connected to a non-European population will do, such as Nahuatl or Quechua as described above.
Dig into the literature of a second language just a little bit and you might be surprised at just how little you knew about the world beforehand.
Do you like the idea of people always talking about you? Do you like to see your name on things? While Trump-level name recognition may be forever out of your reach, some languages provide greater opportunities than others to see your name stamped on a foreign language edition of a book or article.
In case this is the sort of multilingualism that satisfies your deepest yearnings, MIT has produced a wealth of data for you to pick over. Their research reveals that the languages which we might tend to think would be influential—such as Chinese and Arabic, which have huge volumes of speakers—tend not to be quite so influential as their size suggests when it comes to book translations, Wikipedia articles and Twitter usage. Instead, languages like French, German and Russian serve as major hubs, along with English of course. And other languages like Dutch have a disproportionately large level influence compared to their population of native speakers.
Of course, the relationship between the desire to influence someone and the desire for knowledge is a bit like two people walking down the same street in opposite directions. One of these desires is receptive and the other is active. Naturally, then, the metrics we use for one can easily be applied to the other. You might, for instance, look at the book publishing rate for each language and decide Chinese is a good bet after all. Translations to other languages may be few, but there is perhaps a better chance of your getting published with such a large publishing industry. Of course some languages, like Russian, make a good showing by both measures.
If you’re starting to get inspired to find a language to learn, FluentU offers 9 languages to choose from— and switch between at any time!
Turning in an analysis of racial issues in modern America with “South Park” episodes making up the bulk of your “sources” probably wouldn’t turn out very well, would it? Primary sources are important, even if they’re a pain to comb over. After all, how often do most of us personally check the sources of something we read?
But learning another language allows you to do just this. You’ll be able to read about what’s happening in a country through the people living there, giving you a much better idea of what business conditions might actually be like in that country—a complete leg up on everyone else who’s reading news filtered through a foreign media outlet.
As for which specific language to choose, GDP and GDP growth rate together provide a nice measuring stick for where money is going to be pouring out of in the near future. The languages of China, India and Indonesia all stand to be sure winners with home countries that have precipitous GDP growth and that are already included in the G-20 group for major economies.
Of course, you don’t need to be a businessman to make your foreign language skills turn a profit. There are always the age-old professions of translation (the written word) and interpreting (the spoken word). The key to success here is finding a language high in demand, but with few skilled translators or interpreters. China may have a robust economy, but think of all the Chinese immigrants in the US who can speak flawless English and who will fight you for that translation job. Instead, one might try a language like Japanese where few speakers also speak English at a high level. Arabic wouldn’t be a bad choice either and, with Brazil’s rising economy, Portuguese is becoming a good option too.
This is perhaps the easiest method by which to choose a language. It’s irrational and arbitrary, but will support your language learning expedition in a way that little else ever could.
Did you grow up watching Korean dramas and listening to K-pop? Or perhaps you stuffed your face with French Nutella when all the other kids were eating Snickers bars. Whatever it may be, it’s often those little things in life that give us some emotional attachment to a culture and a language that we would otherwise have no connection to.
If you haven’t made a deep connection to any language yet, just look around your room. Where do the things you like come from? Who writes the books on your shelf? Who produces your beloved stereo system? Establishing an emotional connection like this is probably the most rewarding way one could set out to choose a language, as ridiculous as it may sometimes seem. Nothing like learning Japanese just because you wanted to be able to read the credits on an old Atari game.
For saving face
If a sense of intrinsic reward doesn’t do it for you, then maybe social shaming will. Although there’s some debate about how bilingual the average world citizen truly is, a comparison between Europe and America isn’t favorable to the States.
According to a 2001 Gallup Poll only 25% of Americans could hold a conversation in another language while another 2006 poll by the European Commission showed Europeans being able to accomplish this task at a rate of 56%.
And Europe is hardly the most multilingual part of the globe. Southern Africa, Indonesia and India are some of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world, more than twice as diverse as parts of Europe, and naturally this helps increase the likelihood of multilingualism.
So perhaps you just want to learn a language, any language, to show that the English speakers of the world aren’t so closed minded as they’re sometimes made out to be. In this case, one might simply select a language by how quickly one can learn it. Spanish is the classic “easy language” for English speakers, but other languages to consider include Norwegian, Dutch and Afrikaans, the South African descendant of Dutch.
Truly, there are as many ways to choose a language as there are people, but for most of us there are simple criteria we can apply to make our choices easier. With a little digging you’ll be able to find a language that suits your innermost pursuits, including everything from exploring the world to making money.
And One More Thing...
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With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
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You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
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