Maybe you’ve seen one of those Rosetta Stone commercials and thought, Hey, I want to learn a language too! Or maybe you’ve been thinking of going on a trip and thinking that it’d be great if you happily surprised the locals with some phrases and conversation in their native language. Whatever your reasons, you have a long journey ahead of you if you decide to proceed. But first thing’s first…which one should it be??
Choosing to learn a language is a pretty serious investment of your time. Despite what many marketing campaigns will tell you, you will probably not be having fluid conversations in Mandarin within a couple weeks of practice. This is why you need to set your expectations.
You need one of two things to really have the follow through to learn a language.
- A love of learning languages in general
- An affinity toward a specific language and the culture it represents
Before you start investing time and money in it, make sure it’s something you can really see yourself enjoying learning about.
Is this the first language you’ve attempted to learn? And no, the several years of sleeping through Spanish in high school don’t count!
An NSA paper titled Foreign Language Learning: A Comparative Analysis of Relative Difficulty (read here) offers one way of thinking about the difficulty of languages and may help give you a head start on which ones to choose.
Take a look at the table below. Think of each ‘x’ in the table as one more marker for how much each language differs from English in several different areas.
You can see that the easiest languages for an English speaker would be Spanish, Italian, German and French. The more ambitious of us will choose Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, or Turkish.
Surprisingly, Chinese is said not to differ too much morphologically or syntactically, meaning word structure and formation is not too dissimilar despite the other drastic differences. So this would be a good option for someone familiar with a second language already and ready to move on to a bigger challenge.
Don’t be put off from learning a difficult language if, at the end of the day, you’ll have fun learning it. Yes this is work, but it’s supposed to be fun! Do you love Spanish cinema like Rec or Mar Adentro? Do you love old Godzilla and Sushi restaurants? Maybe you have Russian ancestry and dream of visiting. All valid reasons to want to learn and if the desire is strong enough you shouldn’t let the difficulty of the language scare you off from trying it.
Another factor to consider is how useful you’ll find the language in a practical sense. Do you actually want to use the language with people or do you just want the knowledge of the language?
This matters because if you want to learn Icelandic because your’e visiting Iceland, you may find yourself a bit disappointed when everyone responds to you in English. Those sorts of languages are great to learn, but you have to learn them for the right reasons: and unfortunately, the utility of getting around isn’t always one of them.
If you want to learn languages that are practical because they have a low percentage of English speakers, then consider moving outside of the Western European families of languages. **Unless you plan on going outside of the very touristy areas.
So which one should you learn? Well only you can decide that. But there are a lot of things you should take into consideration before you go down whichever path you choose. I do hope all of the factors above have helped you along your decision though! If you have any other tips for choosing a language, let me know and I’ll add them above.