Decide What Language(s) to Learn Without The BS
Many people use the wrong reasoning when choosing a language.
Whenever I come across the question of what language(s) to learn online it’s often followed by words like “easy”, “fast”, “hacks” or some sort of ‘objective’ metric that claims a total sum for what the best language to learn is.
Sadly, I find this type of cocktail rarely goes down the right way. At least if what piqued your interest in languages, to begin with, is to one day become fluent and enhance and broaden your life by meeting other fluent or native speakers.
Allow me to serve up a different way of deciding what language to learn – without the BS.
“What language should I learn (next)?” or, “What are the most beneficial language to learn?”…
These are some of the most common questions out there from all of you attracted to languages and foreign cultures.
I get it, there are about 6.500 spoken languages worldwide , (although you’re probably considering the same 10-20 most other people are). Besides who wouldn’t want to pick the best of the bunch?!
However, it’s a lot like asking;
“What class should I take (next)?” or, “What is the most beneficial education?”
It really depends on you and your specific reasons for wanting to become fluent in two or multiple languages.
But before we get there you’ll have to do some deciding on your own.
Whenever anyone asks these questions on different platforms, online forums or even to my face, there’s usually always one popular way they’ve gone about narrowing down the field.
Maybe you read a top ten list of the best languages to learn or maybe someone told you that you should absolutely learn Mandarin because China will dominate the world in the future.
Whatever it is I usually tell people to dump the following immediately if you’re at all serious about learning a new language.
Choosing the easiest language.
The easy way out is always a popular topic.
Some language sites suggest ranking languages that are more or less similar to your native one, (I’m assuming English for anyone here), in order to pick from a category where you can learn fast and easy.
These rankings include things like having the same alphabet, similar sentence structures, tones and even borrowed words that are more or less the same.
To be fair, it’s true that some languages are wildly different from English such as Mandarin since it’s tonal and uses characters which means there’s no similar structure you can transfer to or from English.
So, you may be able to stack the odds in your favor a little, but it’s nothing compared to the right reasons, discipline and following through.
‘Easy’ is also used rather lightly in this connection since there are several examples of people taking a second language like Spanish or French for years and still aren’t even near fluency.
No matter what language you choose it will require serious effort and it will become difficult at some point, even if it’s close to your native language.
Choosing based on your career goals.
I can’t help but feel my eyes roll over whenever I see a post on, “top ten best languages to learn”, only to find that someone attributed an average salary increase for each language or predicted which countries would dominate the world economy in 2050.
You might be able to find data that shows people with certain language combinations on average earns more than others. But there are so many factors that affect how your career is shaped.
Maybe you’ll find a different career path you have yet to discover, meet someone you want to spend the rest of your life with and all of a sudden you moved to another country that you didn’t expect.
The point is, “who knows?”
Plus the idea that someone can predict that a certain language will be the most important to you 30 years from now to me is frankly, ridiculous. It entirely depends on each individual situation.
You might end up working in Bangladesh or India at which point so-called career-boosting languages like French, Portuguese, or Mandarin won’t give you much of an upper hand.
Unless you’re one step away from landing a job where you know a specific language will become a huge benefit most people have no clue about what language will become the most useful in that field.
Choosing based on the number of speakers (or the number of countries where it’s spoken.)
This builds off the idea of adding to your career. Who could argue with plain old numbers? The more people who speak it the more useful it is.
Well, when is the last time your life depended on speaking Chinese?
Based on sheer numbers you should’ve been in dire need of using this language a whole bunch of times. Just over 1 in every 10 people walking around on this earth speaks Mandarin/Chinese. Yet, I’m willing to guess that you’ve never experienced any problems at all, not knowing Chinese.
Hold on a second.
Certainly Spanish is the way to go because it opens up South and Central America or French because it’s one of the most widely spoken languages across several different countries.
All of this doesn’t matter unless you’re actually using it. Are you even going to travel there? Do you live or plan to live somewhere you can use this on a daily basis?
There is no language you can draw two horizontal lines under and say, “Okay, based on the number of speakers, average salary and how easy it is for an English speaker, this is the best one for everyone.”
Don’t forget the cool and dazzling part of it.
Joining the common fallacy of choosing based on the popular metrics above there’s usually also another motive added to the mix…
You focus on the end result and can’t wait for the day to show off your multilingual abilities.
I get it. Switching between a few different languages without effort is a damn cool show to put on in front of people who don’t speak multiple languages.
But it’s not a helpful driver to become successful when you’re still on the path to fluency.
The thing is, when you start to learn a language you also start to learn about the people who speak it and their culture. All of your convictions about how certain countries or people are will likely change dramatically during this journey.
Stereotypes are both slain and confirmed and you’ll probably find that a new language opens up your world view in areas you didn’t expect.
If you aren’t excited about the whole journey that comes with learning a new language and find little interest or joy in getting to know a culture and all the intricacies that make every language so unique, then you’ll surely fail.
To you, not all languages are created equal
What I mean by that is that we tend to create an emotional attachment to certain languages.
For example, you might be completely captivated by the sounds of a romantic language like French. Be really into the culture, the food, the music, the French way of life, all of it, even if you’ve never even been to France.
At the same time, you might put German extremely far down the list due to the way it sounds to you and a less glorified culture.
Or maybe you went to a new country on your last vacation and are now completely in love with a language because you feel like you have a unique insight.
Whatever your emotional attachment towards any language it’s important to remember that it’s never an inherently bad idea to start learning a new language.
We aren’t married to it once we decide to learn. It’s not like someone’s gonna come along and say, “Seems like you chose French, now you’re stuck with it for at least three years.”
Your preference might change over time and that’s fine.
I remember not thinking much of German, that is until I went to Germany. What started as an impression that it’s a harsh spoken and rule focused language and culture, I learned that in reality, it’s extremely lyrical and poetic and more diverse than you’d imagine.
What you should focus on when choosing what language to learn
Since deciding what language to learn is completely individual the very first thing I’d recommend is looking at where you are in your life right now.
How does it fit with every other life-goal and project you’re working on?
Without having a use for a new language in your daily life or in the near future, you’re probably not going to commit what it takes to become fluent right now.
Some people are fine by having languages as a side hobby they can pick up once in a while and that’s all good. But if you’re going to become fluent that means speaking, being ready to make mistakes and caring about interacting with the people who live by this language.
Besides wanting to learn a new language, decide if it will add to your life within the next year.
Are you gonna use it for travel or maybe build a new relationship with any bilingual speakers you know? Whatever it is, have a purpose. Don’t do it for the sake of just doing it.
Notice that I say within the next year.
It’s a sizable thing to take on any new language and some people go several years without learning much because it never ends up being a priority.
Whatever you end up deciding the foundation for becoming successful is still going to be discipline, the right motivation, and willingness to put in the effort.
But another must-have, (as far as I see it), is that you should care about how the whole adventure it adds to your life.
A language is not a trophy you put on display whenever you have guests over. It’s a newfound understanding .
The way I see it draws a line to a time I was traveling in Thailand with a friend where we planned to go from the city of Chiang Mai, in the northern part of the country, crossing the border into Laos and then making our way to another city, Vientiane.
This is a 3-4 day trip, at least the way we did it. It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had on the road and it involved everything from super-local busses (the kind where the driver just knows where to stop) to longboats and sketchy border police.
The point is, our end destination was Vientiane but if we’d only cared about getting there we could’ve just taken an overnight sleeper bus or maybe even a flight. Had we done that we would’ve missed out on the central part – the journey.
The destination doesn’t really matter but everything in between does.
Just like traveling there’s no point in learning a language only to reach the end destination.
It’s everything in between that makes a language what it is.
If you don’t care about all the fun moments, the embarrassing ones, and the times it’s going to be a real struggle. Ultimately, you probably won’t care all that much about the stories, the culture or the people that any specific language represents.
Fluency is a journey away.
What practical steps can you take towards deciding?
Here’s how I do it.
The first thing aside from being honest with myself when it comes to why I want to learn a language is to decide how much a new language will become a part of my life.
When choosing a language I love to combine the 20-hour rule and make it a 1-month challenge for myself.
If I don’t feel like investing around 30-40 minutes a day over the course of a month then it’s probably not a language for me. At least at that point in time.
If you’ve got any candidates in mind Beelinguapp covers the reading and listening part of this challenge with an audiobook feature you can use on the move to reach your daily goals and cut through the BS on your 20-hour journey before you decide.
The second thing I do is to consider what resources are available .
Many languages out there have great options for both online courses, language apps, tutoring or exchange partners but you should consider what resources at your disposal match with your preferred way of learning.
Although you want to make sure you at a minimum cover speaking, listening and reading.
Which leads to the third thing.
I ask myself how likely I am to be using this language with other people on a daily basis?
Think about how you’ll be able to access native speakers since you’ll need this eventually in your journey. Do you have to travel to interact with native speakers and their culture or do you have communities around you that offer the same options?
One of my favorite things is to plan on having a specific situation to apply it to after you start learning.
For example, plan to take a trip a few months after you even start studying and buy the ticket. I love this approach because now there’s something on the line and you start to build excitement about how far you can get before ‘game day’.
If you can’t afford it, find another way to add a stake in your language journey with a short timeframe.
This way you can see if that language is for you plus it’s hugely satisfying to use it and feel how it adds to your life. I’m not saying aim to be fluent in that amount of time. But definitely aim at being able to handle a handful of situations without falling back in your native language.
What language will you decide on?
Don’t be mislead by people who say one language is better than the other, that depends entirely on you.
Decide based on how it adds to your life and what new journey you’d be excited to take.