What foreign language should I learn?
You might be asking this question right now. I asked myself the same question when I was 14 and trying to decide whether to take on a foreign language at school or do something else, like more partying and chilling with friends. At that time I thought I would never need that foreign language. Isn’t English enough?
However, my parents were very strict about my education (and I am really thankful for it now) and I had to take German classes. It took me a while to start enjoying it (not the most poetic language in the world). It wasn’t until I saw a reason to learn German that it finally clicked with me. Education in Germany is free and is one of the best in the world. Once I determined to spend a semester or two there I really began to crack down on my studies – I wasn’t learning some arbitrary language I’d never need…I was learning to speak a language that would take me somewhere. So here are the questions you should ask yourself when you’re trying to decide what language you should learn!
Question 1: Why do I want to learn a new language?
Potential reasons for learning a new language range from wanting to study abroad, enhancing your resume, getting a new job, or even showing off in front of your friends (not the best one though) by using some foreign words while you speak.
Learning a language is hard work, and requires a lot of time and (potentially) embarrassment when you first try using it in real life. So make sure to pick a long-term goal that will help you follow-through on learning and visualize it. Picture yourself reaching it and always have this image in mind. I have always dreamed of becoming an international businesswoman, so I pictured myself in the back of a Mercedes Benz, freshly squeezed orange juice in one hand and mobile phone with a business call in another. (Of course, that business call was in a foreign language!)
After German, I started learning Italian. Honestly, every time I went to the class I pictured myself in a nice Italian restaurant somewhere in Venice, sipping espresso and ordering “Una pizza Quattro stagione e inslata caprese.” To motivate myself I actually planned a trip to Italy. With my trip a months away, I studied like crazy to bring my vision to reality.
Question 2: Who or what inspires me?
Think of someone who inspires you. My decision to learn Italian was triggered by one of my friends, who was half-Italian, and would also speak Italian to her twin sister. They were those pretty girls everyone admires, and were even prettier to me when they spoke Italian. I promised to myself that one day I’d be able to join their conversation. Maybe there’s a movie that you really love or an foreign author whose work you want to read in the original language. Maybe you’re crazy about authentic Spanish food and learning the language would give you a deeper appreciation for tapas! Take a look at the world around you and see if the things you love can help you choose your language.
Question 3: Will this language be useful to me?
Another guideline for choosing a language is deciding how useful it’s going to be in real life. Learning Klingon might sound like a good idea, but really, when are you going to use it? Think about the things that you do in real life – the people you encounter who you might want to communicate with. Does one language standout?
If you’re thinking about your future and the future of the world, you might also consider looking at the most widely spoken languages. If you ask Wikipedia, the most widely spoken language would be Chinese. It’s also the toughest one. Remember, you need reason to keep yourself motivated? Picking up to learn a language based only on the number of speakers wouldn’t get you too far. So decide which language will be most useful to you in terms of practicality but also in terms of personal motivation (Chinese might be useful but if it just doesn’t spark your interest it’s probably not the right choice for you!)
Question 4: What potential biases do I have about this language?
I’ve seen people totally rule out a language that might be perfect for them just because of something superficial like “I don’t like the way it sounds” or “I can’t roll my R’s.” I’m here to tell you - don’t judge by the way a language sounds. Ok, unless you really hate it, don’t. German didn’t sound like music to my ears once I’ve started learning it. However, once you start getting what people say, this fades away, because there are other reasons you are leaning it, right?
Think about other biases or assumptions you might have about a language and put them aside. Don’t let trivial things distract you from choosing the right language for you!
Question 5: What opportunities do I have to use this language in real life?
Once you get the basics of a foreign language down, you need to speak it as much as possible. Make sure you enjoy the culture of the people who speak the language. Think of countries where you want to travel some day or where you have already been and really liked. What language do people speak there? Wouldn’t it be exciting to communicate them in their native language during your next trip? If you know that you absolutely never want to travel to Antarctica because you hate the cold and you hate penguins, don’t learn Antarctican (OK, not a real language, but you get the point!) Choose a language that will take you where you want to go!
Asking yourself these 5 questions should help you hone in on the language that’s right for you. And remember, if the answer to these questions lead you to a language that your school doesn’t offer, that doesn’t mean you should abandon the dream! There are plenty of online resources now that will open up your world to new opportunities.