How to Choose a Language to Study
- Student Tips
You probably don't remember learning to speak your first language. Children learn their native language over the course of months and years, through exposure, practice, trial and error, and formal instruction, and while speaking your mother tongue may seem easy, or even automatic now, there was a time when the words you use every day were as foreign as Russian (unless, of course, Russian is your first language, in which case as foreign as...Mandarin). Learning a language is never easy, and if you've tried to learn a language in the past and failed, you might think that language-learning is beyond your capabilities. If so, think again. Learning a language is difficult, but there are numerous benefits to both learning and speaking additional languages, and all it takes is choosing a language that carries the right motivation. Here's how to identify which language will give you the greatest chance of success.
1. 'Liking' a language isn't enough
A lot of language-learners make the mistake of picking a language because they 'like' the language or culture associated with it. Learning a language is a lot like learning a musical instrument – Mendelssohn sounds beautiful and simple when played on a Stradivarius by a master, but no one enjoys practicing scales or listening to a beginner scratch and squeak their way through 'Twinkle Twinkle' on a half-sized violin. So if you're aiming to learn Italian because you think it sounds beautiful or Japanese because you want to write intricate characters, you might find it difficult to motivate yourself through the basics. Learning to say hello and count to ten is the easy part – true fluency takes dedication, practice, and a whole lot of mistakes along the way and the only way to make it through is with the right motivation.
2. Consider the cost
There are plenty of polyglots out there who claim to have simple and quick ways of learning new languages. But while there are some shortcuts, the US Foreign Service Institute, which trains diplomats, estimates that basic fluency in languages similar to English takes between 575-600 hours of study (languages with more difference can take up to 2200 hours). And if you're planning to attend classes or purchase learning materials those hours can add up to a hefty sum of money to learn a language. If you're on a tight budget, consider popular languages like Japanese or German which have a lot of free, online learning tools. Or start with something like Duolingo, a free online language-learning app that offers twenty different languages, to get a feel for a language before investing in language school. And remember that one of the best ways to learn a language is through emersion, which means your budget should include provisions for an eventual field trip.
3. Check job prospects
Many students consider learning a second language because bilingualism will make them more attractive as a potential employee. And common sense would suggest that choosing a widely-spoken language like Spanish or French would be a good choice. But if you're looking to distinguish yourself amongst a host of highly-qualified candidates it's important to do a bit of research first. Chinese has more than a billion speakers, but that doesn't mean that every industry is looking for Chinese speakers. And if your sector does a lot of work in China, it's a safe bet that everyone else applying for jobs in your field will also be adding Chinese to their resume. Instead, dig deeper and find a language that is both applicable and rare. Computer tech students might consider German or Finnish, for example, while Korean and Turkish both rank highly for useful business languages.
4. Identify your goals
Remember that motivation we talked about? Keeping your goals in mind can be one of the best motivators for learning a language. And it's important to identify your goals early in the learning process. If you're aiming for a career in historical research, it may not be very important to speak a foreign language, but fluent reading skills in Latin or Greek may be essential. If your life goals include living or working abroad, speaking and socializing with ease should be your focus. Pinpoint how you plan to incorporate your new language into your life and plans and then concentrate your efforts on the elements that will help you achieve those goals.
5. Focus on culture
Earlier we said that liking a culture shouldn't be the main reason for learning a language, but a language that has a lot of popular culture can be a gold-mine for learners. The best way to learn a language is to surround yourself in it because it turns your life into a classroom, but not everyone can pack their bags and move abroad for a year. In the meantime, learning a language can be a lot easier if you can read, watch, hear, and eat your way through the lessons. Learning Portuguese? Fill your iPod with Brazilian music. Teaching yourself Chinese? Try ordering from the 'secret' menu at your local restaurant. Want to learn a Swedish? Fill your Netflix queue with Scandi-crime dramas and turn on the English subtitles. Find fun, every-day ways to work your language lessons into your life and you'll find the process a lot easier and enjoyable.
Elizabeth Koprowski is an American writer and travel historian. She has worked in the higher education system with international students both in Europe and in the USA.