Get Picky! How to Choose Which Foreign Language to Learn
Some people learn languages for love or for school or because they’re moving to a new country.
But what if you’re just infected with the bug? What if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?”
You want to learn something, but you don’t know what!
Here are some ideas to get those linguistic juices flowing.
- Which Foreign Language to Learn…
- If you want something “easy” for English speakers.
- If you want to travel.
- If you want to work…
- If you want to learn a new script.
- If you want to be unique…
Which Foreign Language to Learn…
There are so many languages in the world, it can be hard to choose which one “speaks” to you the most.
One way to narrow it down is to take a few lessons or watch a few videos on language learning apps or websites. FluentU, for example, has a library of authentic content to try out, and lets you switch between languages without losing your progress.
Before you start sampling, though, below are a few suggestions for where to start based on what you want to get out of it.
If you want something “easy” for English speakers.
Okay, this is somewhat flippant—we all know that no foreign language is easy to learn. However, it can be extra motivating if you can see quick progress, especially if this is your first time learning a foreign language.
The key point is to pick something that’s not too dissimilar from your native language. Here are a couple of examples if your native language is English.
The language of Cervantes is an extremely popular one. If you went to school in the U.S., you probably sat through years of lessons on this—although perhaps you don’t remember a word!
This popularity is one of the reasons why Spanish is such a great choice for a language which isn’t too impossible to pick up. Even if you didn’t take Spanish lessons in school, it isn’t hard to find someone nearby who speaks the second most spoken tongue on the planet. This will make it a whole lot easier to practice.
Aside from access to a huge pool of hispanohablantes (Spanish speakers), the language itself lends itself to fast learning. Unlike the irregularity of English phonology and orthography, Spanish has a very straightforward pronunciation system. Depending on your accent, English has between 14 and 21 vowel sounds, yet Spanish has only five. Consonants are usually pronounced the same in every word, and when there’s a change, there’s always a logical rule to help you know how to say it.
Stress patterns are consistent, and whenever they’re changed there’s a written accent mark to show you the way. This means when you see a word written in Spanish—no matter how complex—you can always work out how to say it by breaking it down into its constituent parts.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Latin roots of Spanish, there’s a wealth of vocabulary you already have at your fingertips. Nation = nación, music = música, flower = flor, and so on—not to mention the numerous English loan words in Spanish (email, catering, fútbol).
That’s not to say that Spanish is without its challenges. A lot of the grammar is very different from English—it took me a long time to get the hang of putting object pronouns before the verb!—and Spanish learners have to deal with the infamous subjunctive. However, these challenges can be overcome in a very satisfying way, and once you’ve gotten there, you’ll be ordering tapas like a pro.
If you fancy a language that’s related to Spanish, have a go at Italian, Portuguese or French. All are linguistically very similar and have numerous speakers around the world.
If you’re looking to move away from the Romance languages, German should be your first stop. Despite having a huge amount of Latin influence, English is actually a Germanic language. The vocabulary is therefore quite similar and there are a number of cognates. Pronunciation is also quite straightforward.
Consider these sentences:
Das ist gut. Ich kann tanzen.
Even if you can’t guess straight away, it won’t surprise you to learn that these sentences mean “That is good” and “I can dance.” This is just the beginning.
Due to the history of English, which involved Germanic Anglo-Saxons working the land while being mostly separated from the French-speaking aristocrats, lots of simple language has kept its Germanic roots.
This includes religious terminology (God = Gott, church = Kirche), language for animals (cow = Kuh, cat = Katze) and words for family members (father, mother, brother and sister are Vater, Mutter, Bruder und Schwester).
Again, German also has its challenges. Due to the German way of creating compound words, much of its vocabulary can be intimidating. It also results in some curiosities, such as the triple F in Schifffahrt. (This means “boat travel” and is a compound of the words Schiff and Fahrt—“ship” and “journey.”)
Another challenge is that German, like Latin, has numerous grammatical cases to get your head around, as well as three genders to learn. Not to mention the fact that many Germans speak fantastic English, and it can be hard to persuade them to let you practice!
Similar languages include Dutch and Afrikaans.
If you want to travel.
One popular reason for learning foreign languages is to enable us to travel. But what if you don’t have a specific location in mind?
English and Spanish remain the best languages for travel due to their near-ubiquity. Nevertheless, there are a few others we can usefully add to the armory.
The language with the biggest proportion of native speakers in the world, Mandarin Chinese is notorious in the anglophone world for its complexity and difficulty.
Don’t let that put you off! Mandarin opens up China and the rest of Asia as a travel destination, and is spoken by one in six people in the world. What’s more, it’s not as difficult as people would have you believe.
Okay, the writing system is tough; instead of having an alphabet, there are approximately 50,000 different characters to deal with. But in fact, an educated Chinese person will only know around 8,000, and you probably only need 2,000 to be able to read well. Moreover, the grammar of Mandarin is pleasingly straightforward.
Take this example:
- 好餐厅在哪里？(Hǎo cāntīng zài nǎlǐ?) — Where is a good restaurant?
Break this down and it’s fascinating to see how it comes together.
- 好 (hǎo) — good
- 餐 (cān) — meal
- 厅 (tīng) — hall
- 在哪里 (zài nǎlǐ) — where is it?
The focal noun of the sentence (in this case, the restaurant or “good meal hall”) comes first, with the modifiers coming afterwards. Each character has a sound and a different meaning, and they combine beautifully.
The phonology is tricky—not only do you have to get your head around all the different vowel and consonant sounds, but you also need to get the infamous “tones” correct. There are four different ones to master—although this is fewer than in Cantonese!
Cantonese is similar, however, and uses the same script—well, sort of. To make things a bit more interesting, there are traditional and simplified characters, and Cantonese is written in traditional characters in Hong Kong, whereas mainland China uses simplified characters.
Meanwhile, various Chinese characters found their way into Japanese as kanji, so learning Mandarin is a great jumping-off point for other Asian languages.
Learning Russian means another new alphabet to pick up, but it’s still a very useful tongue. Even if Russia isn’t your desired destination, much of ex-Soviet Eastern Europe still teaches Russian as a second language in schools, so mastering the language will open up a new part of the world.
Again, the main challenge is obvious: you have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. The good news is that, unlike Chinese languages, there are only 33 characters to learn rather than thousands. Once you’ve got them, you’ve got them.
Russian is the most widely spoken of the Slavic language family. Once you master Russian, you have access to Ukrainian, Polish and a variety of other eastern European languages.
If you want to work…
A foreign language or two looks great on your resume, and it’s no wonder that many language learners are seeking to enhance their employment prospects. Employers prize both the hard work and intellect required to learn a language, and value the opportunity to make the most of those skills to further their business.
Here are a couple of languages you might want to consider if this is your motivation.
In both Europe and North America, French is a powerful language—think Quebec and the EU—and a staple of language education. And let’s not forget all of the Francophone areas in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
It’s also fair to say that, unlike native speakers of other Romance languages, French speakers are often reluctant to engage in English (or at least they have that reputation, although that’s disputed). This makes a mastery of the language of Proust a valuable asset—and also means it’s very easy to find people to practice with!
Like Spanish, as mentioned above, French is part of the family that includes a host of other European languages, and those high school Spanish lessons will come in handy when it comes to grammar and vocab! Chances are you’ve heard French out and about as well, not to mention the loanwords and phrases we have taken (vis-a-vis, déjà vu, voilà). Enjoy being able to tell all your friends the meanings of all those fancy words on the menu!
The biggest challenge, for me, is pronunciation. While French phonology is fairly regular, there are numerous vowel combinations, often involving silent consonants. This can make it very difficult to differentiate between words. Take for example these five homophones:
- Vers (towards)
- Vers (verse)
- Ver (worm)
- Verre (glass)
- Vert (green)
As an English speaker, it’s not my place to criticize difficult pronunciation. Nevertheless, this is tough!
Go to Morocco and alongside French you will hear Arabic, this most fascinating of languages. Of course, it’s not limited to Marrakesh—in fact, Arabic is an official language in 27 countries. With the Middle East becoming an increasingly important region due to politics and commerce, a mastery of Arabic will definitely score you points with potential employers.
Arabic is certainly not without its challenges, not least its vastly different vocabulary from European languages and its beautiful but alien script which is written from right to left. However, perhaps the biggest challenge is the range of dialects. When a language covers such a huge area, it’s only to be expected that there will be a huge variation in the way it’s spoken!
There are three main varieties:
- Levantine Arabic. This is spoken around Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, and it boasts 20 million speakers worldwide. Although it has no official status, it’s the national working language in Lebanon and is used at home and among friends—as well as in written communication, the media and government. Levantine Arabic has influence from Hebrew, Greek, French and other foreign languages.
- Egyptian Arabic. This is, as the name suggests, the dialect from Egypt and is spoken there by 52.5 million people. This form is understood in many parts of the Arab world due to Egypt’s cultural influence.
- Gulf Arabic. Speakers in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are the main users of this dialect, which has 10 personal pronouns. Gulf Arabic maintains gender differentiation, whereas others have done away with it.
All of these are in addition to Modern Standard Arabic, which is the official language in most of these countries!
Which to learn to begin with? London Arabic Tuition recommends learning Levantine Arabic first—the others will be easy to pick up afterwards.
If you want to learn a new script.
Bored with the Latin alphabet? Many of the languages already mentioned use other scripts, but if you really want to throw yourself into a beautiful, challenging, unique new writing system, why not try one of these?
I love, love, love the look of Hindi.
The curling characters hang from a bar, each representing a consonant sound.
Then, diacritics—the little extra marks that modify characters, like an umlaut (the two dots over the u of Brüder) in German or a cedilla (the wiggle under the c of façade) in French—alter the vowel that follows. If there’s no diacritic, the vowel is -a.
Take as an example one of the best known Hindi words—namaste, meaning “hello.” In Hindi—or, strictly speaking, in the Devanagari alphabet—that is written as नमस्ते.
If that looks unintelligible, let’s break it down character by character:
- न (na, no diacritic)
- म (ma, no diacritic)
- स (sa, combined with त [ta] + े [-e diacritic] = ste)
It may look alien to those of us brought up on the Latin alphabet, but once you crack the logic, it makes perfect sense—and is stunning on a page.
It could be a useful language too: Although India has many tongues, Hindi is the fourth-most-spoken first language in the world.
Japanese has not just one, not two, but three new “alphabets” to get your head around.
Kanji are Chinese characters, and therefore the most numerous and complex of the three alphabets. Most words in Japanese use kanji, and there is no rule—they just have to be learned. For example:
- 恋 (koi) — love
- 猫 (neko) — cat
- 日本 (nippon) — Japan
Like the characters needed for Mandarin, there are upwards of 50,000 in total, although approximately only 3,000 are in common use in Japan.
The other alphabets—the kana alphabets—are simpler. There are two of these, each with around 50 characters. Each character represents a sound or “mora,” either a vowel, consonant with vowel or a nasal n sound.
- Hiragana is used primarily for grammatical purposes, such as adding suffixes to indicate tense—compare 食べる (taberu, “eat”) and 食べた (tabeta, “ate”). It can also be used to spell out complex or obscure kanji phonetically.
- Katakana is most often seen representing loan words from other languages. For example, I once wrote about a scene in Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore” which featured Colonel Sanders, of KFC fame. In the katakana, this was rendered as カーネル・サンダース (kāneru sandāsu). Try saying it out loud, and you’ll hear how it sounds like a Japanese version of the English name!
Japanese is fascinating with a challenging grammar, although a relatively simple phonology. However, it’s spoken only in Japan and its only relatives are endangered members of the Japonic family, so this might be one you don’t get to break out too often if you don’t live in Japan or already have regular contact with Japanese speakers.
Still, it’s very interesting and it’s definitely a good one to consider.
If you want to be unique…
This section might be for the more experienced polyglots among you.
Fed up with your everyday languages, perhaps you want to find something to really break out as a party trick.
If that’s the case, check out these foreign languages, which are sure to mark you as the linguistic hipster you are.
Scandinavians are renowned for their fantastic English, and perhaps this is part of the reason why so few people take the time to learn the languages spoken there.
However, there’s a hidden bonus—learning Norwegian essentially gives you three languages for the price of one! It’s extremely similar to Swedish and Danish, and the three are often considered mutually comprehensible. Hit Scandi noir shows like “The Bridge,” featuring detectives from Denmark and Sweden, make jokes about this with Danish usually the butt of them—as does this hilarious video.
Why learn Norwegian? The distinctive and wonderful sound of the language is a reason in itself. What’s more, despite its hipster credentials, it’s not so distinct from English as to be a complete departure. There are numerous cognates—I’m sure you wouldn’t need me to tell you that gress, katt and vinter mean “grass,” “cat” and “winter” respectively—and the accent isn’t too unusual sounding. Furthermore, Norwegians will love you for having the desire to learn their language!
Swedish and Danish could be just as good to learn, but Norwegian is less commonly taught and therefore that little extra special.
Quechua is the only minority language on this list, so it’s fitting that it should be in this section. Quechua is, however, the most popular second language across Peru and Bolivia, where there’s an enormous drive to maintain the indigenous tongue. This could be a great one to pick up to deepen your understanding of Spanish, or if you’re looking to travel to that part of the world.
What’s more, it shouldn’t be too hard! It includes benefits such as:
- No irregular verbs, nouns or adjectives
- No grammatical gender
- No articles
- Regular cases
Obviously the vocabulary and grammar are bound to be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, but you didn’t want this to be too easy, right?
No self-respecting language nerd can do without speaking a minority language, so give it a go! Other options along this theme include Irish, Catalan, Khoekhoe or the dialects of Italy.
I think that’s enough languages to get you started, what do you think?