Choosing A Language

The key to learning a second language to a usable level is the ability to stay focused and persistent. When there is a desire to learn a new language, unless already very certain from the outset, the allure of the plethora of languages out there can be appealing, and also distracting. Shifting attention means nothing gets done, and after a while, the realization may come that although much time has been spent in consideration, very little or nothing has been accomplished towards acquisition of any one language. Knowing how to say several things in one language accomplishes more than knowing how to say one thing in several languages.
Therefore, the goal here is to help you become placed firmly in certainty about one language to study, so as to make the effort worthwhile. There are many factors involved in choosing a second language to learn. The “right” language will vary from person to person. Therefore, consider the following:

Trust Yourself
I am a firm believer in the language choosing the person, rather than the person choosing the language. What is meant by this is that a person usually has an inclination, based on past experiences, favoring a particular language over others. This is important. Others may attempt to persuade you towards another language because it is more popular, there are more speakers, economic projections for the future in the country (or countries) where it is spoken are bright, etc. While these are all worthwhile factors to consider, the ultimate decision is yours to make. If you learn a language other than the one(s) you truly have interest in, you may not have the enthusiasm and resolve to succeed to a high level.

What do you want to do with the language?
It may be that one has a serious interest in a language, yet only to a certain extent, or towards a certain end, such as for use during upcoming travel or use only in a certain situation. Others want to know every facet of the language in detail. There is a broad spectrum in between. Being clear on your purposes for the language will fuel your ambition to learn.
In discussing language learning with many people, I have found that a person most often will fall into one of the following categories:

Causally Interested:

This person customarily has studied a language briefly in school, retained some interest, and may want to use the language in only a few isolated situations, or is satisfied with knowing only a handful of words or phrases.

Moderately Interested:

This person ordinarily has an interest in the culture surrounding a language and wants to know all the basics in order to have simple conversations in the language at specific times.

Very Interested:

This person generally has a deep interest in a language, languages in general, or a certain aspect of language as an idea: such as writing, grammar function, or linguistic evolution. They may speak, or have the desire to speak to a considerable point of fluency.
NOTE: Understanding the type of learner you are and your motivations will help in staying focused on the areas you are looking to improve.
Regardless of the category in which you would place yourself, speaking a second language should always be fun and interesting. You may even find yourself gaining more enthusiasm over time and becoming more serious about your studies.
Learning a language to competency will require one to devote large amounts of time over an extended period. However, the dedicated time need not be all at once, but could fit in segments among other unrelated tasks.

Have a Reason to Learn
Learning a second language may be important to you for different reasons. Consider the following and judge for yourself if the language you have in mind is the best choice.

Do I Like The Language?

The first and foundational reason to learn a language is because you like it. To know if you like a language, spend time with it. For example, you could find a video of native speakers talking online. It will be helpful to look at videos with more than one person, so you can see how natural interactions occur in the language. Find beginner lessons. See how the language is broken down. Put your hobbies in the context of the language. Test the waters by studying it for a few days. After all of this, you should have a good idea if the language is truly for you.
NOTE: If you are in a situation where you have to learn a certain language, (which is not so appealing) try to understand it in a new way. I have found a few times that my initial impression of a language changes with time and exposure.

Is It A Major World Language?

For some, the motivation to learn a new language depends on its status on the global stage. The important question here is: Which languages have the most native speakers, and which have the most total speakers?

Most Native Speakers (2016)

Mandarin・ 955 million・ 普通话 (中文)
Spanish・470 million・Español
English・360 million
Hindi, Urdu・355 million・हिंदी, اُردُو
Arabic・293 million・العربية
Portuguese・225 million・Português
Bengali・206 million・বাঙালি
Russian・155 million・русский
Japanese・126 million・日本語
Punjabi・102 million・পাঞ্জাবি

Most Total Speakers (2016)

English・1.5 billion
Mandarin・1.15 billion・ 普通话 (中文)
Spanish・570 million・Español
Hindi, Urdu・ 540 million・हिंदी, اُردُو
Arabic・422 million・العربية
Russian・260 million・русский
Portuguese・260 million・Português
Malay・250 million・بهاس ملايو
Bengali・226 million・বাঙালি
French・220 million・Français

Do I Like The Culture Of The Language’s Native Speakers?

Culture is a major factor for all languages. It is where a language lives, grows, and expresses itself in the most genuine way. Learn about the places where the language is used. What is important to the people there? What are the unique holidays? How is life there different from where you live?

How Would I Personally Use The Language?

Do I want to read famous literature and hear the author’s true voice? Sing along to my new favorite song without having to guess at what is being said? Have meaningful conversations with new family members? Get around more easily in a new country I have decided to call home?

How Will Knowing This Language Benefit Me?

Will learning this language enrich my life on a personal level? Do I want to make new friends? Will it help me advance in my career? Will it allow me to reach out to new clients, and develop a lasting relationship with them? Do I have an important message that I want to share with the world?

Am I Willing To Learn A New Way Of Writing?

Many languages do not use the Roman alphabet. If you are not used to how other systems of writing function, there can be a slight learning curve, and you will need to put forth extra effort to learn how to write, in addition to studying the other parts of the language. The Korean script is actually said to be the easiest to learn, while Japanese or Chinese is probably the most difficult. I recommend researching the language’s writing system, if it is new to you.

Is There A Population Of Speakers Nearby?

Are there people living locally who speak the language you are considering? If you are not sure, search Meet Up for groups that meet in your area. You may be able to find a grocery store or restaurant in your area that conducts business in the language you want to study. If you are having trouble finding people, you can create your own environment. Television shows, music, news, radio, speeches, books, podcasts, and more are all available in many languages. If you surround yourself with the language, you can get the feeling of living in the country, without having to leave the living room.

NOTE: There are many online options as well. HelloTalk and iTalki are quite good.

Stay With The Language
As I mentioned before, it is necessary to stay with this one language if you are serious about making progress, and all of this actually being of use to you. I have learned from personal experience that keeping with one language at a time will net the most reward. That is not to say you should strictly forbid yourself from learning about other languages (if interested), but be sure that your percentages match what you are looking to achieve.
Before adding a new target language, it would be helpful to:

  1. Be able to speak without hesitation.
  2. Be able to hold a conversation across a wide variety of topics.
  3. Be able to write all of what you can verbalize.
  4. Understand the vast majority of what you hear in daily life.
  5. Be able to read a book, newspaper, article, etc. with minimal comprehension issues.
  6. Be confident in your abilities.

Which language do you plan to learn?

You are welcome to leave any questions or comments about the article or send them to me via Twitter @cbilbrey12. To receive updates on forthcoming articles, please follow me.

Thank you for reading.


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