How to Decide Which Foreign Language to Learn
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So, you want to learn a new language? Excellent decision. Learning a second (or third, or fourth) language offers a range of benefits, such as new job opportunities, better cultural awareness, and improved memory. Plus, it’s a really fun hobby!
But now for the big question…
Which foreign language should you learn?
Do you see yourself ordering coffee and croissants in perfect French in a quaint Parisian coffee shop?
Or learning Mandarin Chinese to better communicate with your business partner in Beijing?
Or perhaps you want to join your next Star Trek convention with Klingon under your belt (Qapla’!)
With more than 7,100 languages spoken in the world today, it can be difficult to decide which language to learn. The truth is, there really is no “best” language to learn. There are many factors that you can take into consideration before making your final decision, but ultimately choosing which language to learn is a personal decision.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when deciding which foreign language to study.
Which languages do you already know?
If you are new to language learning, a good starting point may be to consider learning a language that has a similar sentence structure, alphabet and vocabulary to your native language.
For example, if your native language is English you may have an easier time with another Germanic language, like German, Dutch or Afrikaans, or certain Romance languages, like Spanish, French and Portuguese.
The Foreign Service Institute has a handy guide to languages classified by how easy they are for English speakers to learn. You can check it out here.
There is some debate around whether learning a language too similar to your own may result in confusion. From experience, I can say that I am constantly mixing up words in Afrikaans and Dutch (as well as falling hard for false friends).
But then again, I also sometimes mix up English and Mandarin. Whatever language you choose, know that making mistakes is inevitable. It’s all part of the language learning journey.
What languages are spoken in your country or region?
There is a whole world of unique languages out there to consider, but the answer may be right on your doorstep.
Learning a language that is widely spoken where you live can be a great way to connect with your community and learn more about its culture and history. For example, if you are living in the United States, learning Spanish may come in handy.
One of the advantages of keeping your language search closer to home is that you can find more opportunities to practise the language in everyday life.
Do you want to learn a language that will help you travel?
If you are interested in travelling, learning more about the local language and culture can enrich the experience. Of course, deciding which phrasebook to pick up will depend on your planned destination. If you are travelling to, say, South America, learning a bit of Spanish or Portuguese will be helpful.
Learning a language that is widely spoken around the world can open up many options for travel destinations. For example, French is an official language in 29 countries across multiple continents.
What resources are available?
I firmly believe that all languages are equally valuable and I will defend your right to learn Basque or Oromo or whatever you wish.
However, some languages are just more commonly studied than others and therefore have a lot more resources available to students, including textbooks, online content, courses and tutors.
Before you take on the challenge of learning a particular language, do a bit of research.
How easy or difficult is it to find learning material?
How far will you be able to progress with the available resources?
Are there any native speakers online or in your area who can help you practice speaking? (Italki is a good option for finding a tutor in a wide range of languages)
If you are passionate about learning a minority language, that is amazing and you should absolutely go for it. Just know that you’ll likely have to work a little harder to find good learning material and your progress may be a bit slower as a result.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for a resource scavenger hunt, it’s best to start with a ‘popular’ language like French, German or Spanish.
What are your education or career goals?
Learning a new language can open up career and educational opportunities.
If your company has expansion plans in China, learning Mandarin Chinese may land you a new job in Shanghai. If your university offers an exchange programme with a French school, that is an excellent opportunity to learn a new language and experience a new culture.
Do a bit of detective work and find out what international programmes are in place at your school or workplace. My university’s joint programme with Jinan University sparked my passion for learning Mandarin (go look up your local Confucius Institute).
What are your personal interests?
Language learning is intensely personal. There is no reason why you shouldn’t pursue learning a particular language simply because you love K-pop or anime or Spanish telenovelas. In fact, following your passion can be a great motivator for learning a language.
After all, learning a language is about more than just drilling grammar and vocabulary. Being able to understand the culture and history of the people who speak it, and immersing yourself into a whole new world of art, literature and film, is all part of the joy of language learning.
Do you want to connect with your family heritage or improve personal relationships?
Language is all about making connections and communicating with the people around you. A great motivator to learn a particular language can be to connect more deeply with your family members and friends, or to learn more about your own culture and heritage.