The advice that I put in this article is literally found nowhere else and if you’ve come here for a list of eight languages you should consider studying, you’re not going to get that.
Too many people have asked exactly what sort of process I use in order to pick what language goes “next on my list” or which ones I’d like to learn manageably well (Breton) vs. professionally fluent (Danish).
Too many people embark on a language-learning journey and just say “I want to be fluent. Period.” But it requires more thought than this. (Learning English for communicating with customers vs. learning English for law school are going to be too very different things. And besides, not all of a language’s “realms” have been fully explored by native speakers. Far from it, in fact!)
The fluency that people like this probably have in mind is when the various “realms” of their target language pertaining to their life are filled up.
If you think I need to talk about music theory in Tok Pisin or Finnish, think again. While I do know that vocabulary in my native language, I barely use it. I could manage it if I want (although keep in mind, some languages don’t have all of these “realms” filled in, Estonian in particular prides itself in being the smallest language in the world with a very comprehensive scientific vocabulary!).
Anyhow, language choice.
Reasons that I would disregard when choosing a language
Too many people pick languages based on “how many native speakers it has”.
This is not a helpful metric, for a number of reasons.
For one, the one thing you should NEVER do with your life is entrust the choices in your life to other people. E-ver!
Obviously earlier in your life it may have been necessary but if you’re independent in any capacity I highly recommend anything that even contains a whiff of letting other people choose your destiny.
There are those that choose languages like Spanish and Chinese because they have a resonance with their friends from places where they are spoken. They have become attached to the music and to the literatures and the many cultural mentalities contained in such a place.
There are others that choose these languages because of cultural misunderstandings—perhaps they think that a fear of Mexico or China is just too much to bear in the United States and learning these languages will help serve as a protection against such a fear.
There are others still that encounter speakers of these languages with great regularity.
But choosing a language based on an abstract concept of “lots of people speak it” and very little else is pointless and ill-defined.
People who learn Spanish or French for reasons like this and little else barely get past the intermediate stage, don’t have the cultural resonance required for genuine fluency, and probably continue their learning for ill-defined “monetary benefits” or “understanding people” when just sticking to learning material aimed at foreigners year after year, being surpassed in progress by people who learned the language out of a genuine love for the culture and way of thinking.
(You CANNOT become fluent with just language-learning materials! You NEED material intended for native or fluent speakers!)
And never, ever, EVER ask ANYONE “what language should I learn next?”
Ask YOURSELF that question instead!
I’m sorry if my word choice is too harsh, but I’ve decided that in the coming year, I’m going to be a lot more uncensored in my opinions. It’s good for clickbait, after all!
Also peer pressure is not a good reason in the SLIGHTEST. Not for language, not for anything. “No French? No Turkish? No Chinese?” Got this year after year after year.
And the only thing that really got me interested in the French language to begin with wasn’t even France, it was West Africa and the Pacific Islands!
You are the boss of your life. Disregard the rest of people who want to pressure you or make you feel bad. Make decisions that you really want from the heart, and you’ll be a legend. Let other people make your choices, and you’ll end up burned out and full of regret. End of story.
Okay Jared, so HOW should I choose my language instead?
Step 1: Look at one of the following things:
- A map of the world
- The language index at omniglot.com
- The register of flag emojis in your smartphone keyboard (if you have one)
- A very vast collection of language-learning books
- The travel section in a bookstore or library.
Feel free to use a combination of these elements.
What places or languages in that list stick out to you?
Which ones might you have been dreaming of seeing or knowing more about since you were a kid?
When the language is written on a page, does it feel like something you ABSOLUTELY must have in your life?
When you read about the language or the country where the language is spoken or visit online forums about the language or communities associated with it, do you feel a sense of wishing that you were a part of that? Do you feel a sense of wishing that you would like to communicate with these people and understand this culture?
When you listen to music sung in this language, how does it make you feel? Would you like more music of that sort in your life or not?
Also, another metric to consider using is to look at your own heritage.
What language(s) did your ancestors speak? Do you have relatives that speak it or otherwise are (or were) capable of understanding it? You’ll have the motivation to learn such languages because, whether you like it or not, they are a part of who you are.
I got very much attached to languages like Yiddish and Swedish precisely for this reason, and it seems that it will be that way with Hungarian, too.
It’s Okay to Learn a Language for Silly Reasons, Too
Sometimes a language jumps out at you and you don’t know why. Maybe it sounds cool. Maybe you like the writing system. Maybe you read something funny about the way the language is spoken (“Danish sounds like seal talk”) or written (“Greenlandic looks like a kid banging on a typewriter”)
You’re probably wondering, “Jared, did you just write that it wasn’t a good idea to choose a language based on number of speakers, but it is okay to choose a language because it ‘sounds cools’?”
Here’s the reason why.
When choosing to invest in a hobby or buying a product, it is primarily an emotional decision. Logical decisions can be used some of the time, but if you want a lasting attachment to your investment, choose something based on your emotions rather than what other people think might be good for you.
My choice to have learned Greenlandic was not a logical decision in the slightest. My choice to have taken the book out from the library, photographed the language section in the back, and put it on Memrise was all purely from an emotional standpoint.
Where exactly did it land me?
Well, I became attached to Greenlandic because I liked how it looked on paper and how it sounded. I also had a fascination with Greenland since my childhood.
Several years later, I’m going to Greenland to meet with some of the country’s biggest names in the arts and I’m developing a video game set in Nuuk. I was also interviewed by Greenlandic National Radio in December 2016!
This was all because I had an emotional attachment to my project.
And you need a project that you, similarly, are emotionally attached to.
The choice of language has to be YOURS.
It has to be one that you long for deeply, that you can think about with a smile and talk about with friends and show you true devotion to the culture and literature and idioms and everything that language is.
It can be any language in the world! It doesn’t matter if it is a global language or a small national language or a minority language or an endangered language or even an ancient tongue that is used only in writing.
You have to choose it because you genuinely love it!
Love conquers all, and this is doubly true for language learning.
This building from Antwerp has been featured in WAY too many foreign-language learning posts. I think I may be the one that started the trend!