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What language should I learn?

| 85 comments | Category: mission

When I first started this blog, I presumed most readers would have pretty solid decisions of what languages they were learning, but the several e-mails I get every day seem to tell otherwise!

So many of them are asking me what I think they should learn. After debating with myself briefly about whether I should abuse this power and create my own army of Na’vi speakers just for the hell of it, I decided to be helpful instead ;)

There are so many criteria for picking a language and once again I’m going to have to say that so many of them that people typically look at (similar to the criteria for what makes a language hard) are wrong. I’m not going to tell you which language to choose, but I am going to suggest ways to avoid making the wrong decision:

Most number of speakers?

Any language pissing competition almost always includes the statistic of the most number of speakers of any given language. This is a bad way to decide which one to go for.

Two of the major “languages” in the list for example; Chinese and Arabic aren’t even languages for practical purposes. The dialects are so vast that even native speakers simply cannot understand one another when speaking. Even a language like Portuguese has to be somewhat relearned if you move from Brazil to Portugal.

But forgetting that for a second – let’s imagine you did go for a language because it has half a billion speakers. How does this actually help you? Do you plan to visit all villagers speaking that language? Looking at “most speakers” in terms of making a decision sometimes comes down to nothing more than ego. You get more “points” for the bigger number.

Even if you go live in the country, you’ll be unlikely to visit more than a handful of towns and come across the same number of speakers as you would in any other country. Then when not in the country, it depends on how much that culture travels. For example, I’ve met way more Israelis than I have Chinese/Russians etc. when travelling in Brazil (of all places).

In most cases you will speak with such an infinitesimally small percentage of the total population of speakers that basically any language will give you more than a lifetime’s worth of conversations and new people you can meet.

I’m not trying to discourage people from going for the big languages – but just make sure you are picking them for the right reasons. Even a language like Irish has enough speakers to keep you busy if you really dive into it.

Best for your CV/resume?

Picking the most “spoken” languages isn’t even that great a career choice, because so many other people do that too – you aren’t necessarily distinguishing yourself from the noise. I worked as a translator for several years and I can tell you from seeing how the industry works that the best paid and most in-demand translators are those with less common language combinations.

The “most spoken” language also depends entirely on where you are. If you are in Europe then knowing German will help secure you a job much quicker than others in the tourist industry (apart from English), while that would be overshadowed by Spanish in many parts of the states in terms of immediate practicality.

In most jobs that don’t require you to actually speak other languages, having any of them on your CV is impressive to employers, or it depends on the employer’s personality. Having simply learned a foreign language seems to have become a badge of honour in some places – in this case the actual language itself makes little difference.

What really matters: How you plan to use the language

Number of speakers or misleading career advantages are empty reasons for picking a language. You have to ask yourself why you really want to learn a language. Do you want to be able to read literature in that language? Attend Italian Operas? Embrace your German heritage?

Are you sure you really want to speak a language? This is a social undertaking, not an academic one. Spending all your time with books or courses may help a little, but unless you are willing to make mistakes in front of people you won’t get far on improving your spoken abilities.

If you want to just “know” a language then reading and listening a lot might be all you actually need. Many people enjoy this academic side of it – that’s great, but it’s better to be clear about your goals from the onset!

If the idea of speaking “a” foreign language is all that tickles your fancy, you have to realise how much time needs to be invested in the project. Try Esperanto first to see how it feels. Learning a language for no work is a pipe dream – going into it half-assed won’t give you anything tangible – you can spend years on a language and get nowhere, or you can spend just a few months on it and speak it well if you are passionate about it.

My preference: cultural reasons

There are dozens of good reasons to pick any particular language. My own depends almost entirely on the culture of the people who speak it. I get e-mails every day suggesting that I should take on language-X because my current list of European languages (although Hungarian technically isn’t, depending on your definition) isn’t impressive enough.

Impressing people is a pathetic reason to choose to devote months of your time to something. While people think that being a polyglot may perhaps give you instant rockstar status, I can tell you that while it piques people’s curiosity at first, after 20 seconds you have to rely on your own personality if you want to make new friends, no matter what your achievements are. In those situations, one particular language is always more than enough. I learn languages because I intend to use them, not so I can wear them as a badge.

I can tell you right now that my own decisions to learn languages has little to do with impressing linguists. If I decide to learn yet another Romance language (Romanian is the only one I haven’t touched at all) because I want to, then I will. Protests from people calling me lazy are irrelevant. Then on the other hand, Chinese, Japanese etc. don’t “scare” me one bit in terms of being harder – my choices thus far have been because I know I’d enjoy myself living in that culture. European and South American culture has a lot to discover, but I’m always up for something new and you can bet I’ll be diversifying my language families lot as I discuss the stories over the coming months/years on this blog.

My next languages?

Don’t take the title of this post as an invitation – I will never be taking surveys or votes for which language I should learn next. This is not a democracy – I am the dictator, king and overlord of next-language-choices and all decisions are final ;)

Most people who e-mail me to tell me to start this or that language next list completely irrelevant reasons to me. How complex the grammar would be, as a nice challenge, (yawn – that’s not a language, that’s as good as a sales pitch for a mathematical theorem), how impressive it would be (if I want weak validation from people, I’ll learn how to juggle fire-breathing monkeys), or that they really really want me to (nicer, but still not quite convincing!)

My choice is always based on the culture of the people who speak the language itself and my interest in getting to know that country. How much fun would I have going out and socialising with them? How easy is it to make new friends in that country, or is it worth the challenge of attempting to break down people’s stereotypes of that? What is day-to-day life like in that country?

I know a lot of people reading this blog are linguists, but I’m a traveller. Speaking languages is just a natural consequence of wanting to get truly immersed in cultures and expand my horizons. Languages are just a means to an end for me. They are not the end. PEOPLE are the channel that languages come out of and if you don’t use the language to communicate with human beings, then it’s just a faceless list of grammar rules and vocabulary tables.

On Monday I will send out an e-mail to those in the Language Hacking League newsletter (sign up on the right of the site) to announce what my next language mission will be (starting mid-October). It’s definitely one that a lot of you will want to follow. ;)

How did you decide?

Travel happens to be my reason, but how did you decide what language you were going to be devoted to? Share them with us in the comments!

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  • http://twitter.com/FSLReoch Fergus Reoch

    I came across your blog today through twitter and have very much enjoyed reading it. I love your ‘get on with it, it’s not rocket science’ approach to language learning!
    Also very much in agreement with your ‘language is not an end in itself’ philosophy. I guess you’ve already made your decision for your next language mission, but based on my experience, I would definitely recommend Arabic. I learned to speak both the formal language and the Syro-Lebanese dialect, and I find I can communicate effectively with more or less all Arabic speakers save Moroccans… there are dialectal differences, but on the whole a day or two max is all it takes to ‘tune in’ to a new dialect. Speaking Arabic has given me an enormous amount of fun, and such a varied spectrum of friends right across the Arab World.
    Anyway, I look forward to seeing what you’ve decided on. Good luck with the next language.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Glad you found my blog! Interesting to hear about the tuning in for different dialects of Arabic – I was under the impression that it was harder than that. Anyway I have a thing for dialects – if you look through the archives you’ll see that this time last year my mission wasn’t “Portuguese” but “Portuguese from Rio” – Before the blog started I had been working on speaking Buenos Aires Spanish for example. When I get on to Arabic, it will be “Egyptian Arabic” or whatever.

      But yeah, the decision has been made! You’ll see soon :D

      • http://twitter.com/FSLReoch Fergus Reoch

        Positively bursting with excitement to see what the next one is! I may actually expire between now and Monday from the sheer anticipation of it.
        I’m with you on the dialect thing. My spoken Arabic is Damascene in the extreme. I suppose I’m [enormously] biased, but I do think Levantine Arabic is prettier than Egyptian. In general terms with dialect-switching, as with so much else about language learning, a lot more hot air is blown about it than is at all necessary. Many of the big differences are in very common phrases (i.e. English: I want, Syrian: biddi, Egyptian: ‘aiz, Iraqi: Arid, Formal: Urid), and the ways particular letters are pronounced (Syrian: ‘j’, Egyptian: ‘g’, etc.), and once you get accustomed to things like that communication is not particularly hard.

        I’ve had a couple of Austrian, Swiss and Bavarian friends over the years, and that has dragged my German rather southwards. Strangely, that did wonders for my fluency when talking to North Germans – mistakes were brushed aside as dialectal differences, and people began to believe I was legitimately from Zurich!

        My current missions are trying to make my Persian sound Tehrani rather than mediaeval, and trying to get a handle on Scottish Gaelic with *anything* other than a Lewis accent [mostly due to a bizzare prejudice on my granny's part...]

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

          I am at the same stage with my French. Time in Quebec has made natives from France genuinely think I’m some from strange region of Belgium or something :P

        • Sarah Warren

          I could be charitably said to reliably speak less than two dozen words of Arabic, but I would still completely agree that Levantine Arabic is the best, having heard a few versions. It’s also the only one where I have some hope of saying hello, and may I have a glass of water. Not the most versatile vocabulary in the world, but fairly useful in the Middle East ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Good point – people will pick the language for the “big number” reason and this lack of real personal motivation gets them nowhere. If you don’t feel anything for the culture, why force it?
    Best of luck with your German :)

  • http://twitter.com/cosleia Heather Meadows

    I took French in middle and high school because everyone was taking Spanish and I wanted to be unique and cool ;) I learned the stuff that was fun, didn’t study much, and never spoke to a native speaker of French. Really, my French studies were more cultural than linguistic.

    Japanese was different. I took a Japanese culture class to fulfill a college requirement and became fascinated. Even though I didn’t need another foreign language to graduate (since I had plenty of French credits from high school), I decided to try it out. I remember my first day, when I learned that “Japanese” isn’t a Japanese word…I thought “Nihongo” was an ugly-sounding word and that maybe I’d made a mistake. But I stuck with it for four semesters and came to find the language beautiful.

    I also visited Japan on a six-week study abroad program, and it was an amazing experience, but I was frustrated at how little I was able to actually communicate.

    It’s been almost a decade since my last Japanese class, and I finally decided to start studying on my own. I chat with all kinds of Japanese people on Twitter and Skype, read blogs (like FI3M!) on language learning, and incorporate all the hints and tips I learn. I feel like I’ve learned more in the past few months than I did in those four semesters in college. Amazing what difference actual motivation can make! ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Definitely! I had no motivation to learn German through school, but now it’s a big part of my life (even in Budapest!) because I changed my goals with it :)

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    I fully agree. I’ve chosen languages for various reasons, but the ones that I’ve stuck with have always been those that I’ve actually used.

    German was fun and fascinating for me, but I never had a use for it… I only chose it because I’d already taken all the Spanish classes my school offered, and once school was out my German was gone. That was a lousy reason to choose a language.

    I lived with some French speakers in my late ‘teens, and studying French was fun then, but once I was out of touch with them, my French dropped like a brick. That was a better reason, but it didn’t last.

    I learned Tagalog because I was spending every day with my best friend, who was from Manila, and that remains one of my favorite languages with some of the best memories attached to it. This was one of the best reasons I’ve had for choosing — in fact, it wasn’t a choice at all. My friend spoke Tagalog. I took an interest in his family. No choice involved in that.

    I started learning Russian when I dated a girl from Ukraine. We used to run into Russian people by chance all the time, and they would speak Russian for a few minutes, and then the stranger would turn to me and say “hang on to this one, she’s really smart.” So I decided to learn Russian because I wanted to understand her the way other people understood her… and eventually, I did. So far, that’s the best reason I’ve ever had for learning a language, and it’s the one I put the most work into. And once again, this wasn’t really a choice. The language was already chosen for me, I only chose to learn it.

    By contrast, this year’s choice of Italian came by something of a vote: I put it to a vote among my Facebook friends because I wanted to start my blog with as much interest as possible from day one. It was a tie between Italian and French, and Italian was more interesting to me, but because I’ve lacked a more serious reason, I’ve had to do extra work all year to motivate myself. Choosing by committee wasn’t a particularly good decision, and next year’s language will be 100% my choice. (Of course I’ve already got readers, so that won’t be an issue next year.)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I had the same background with German. I’m glad I gave it some real context this year!
      Interesting background stories for your language choices, thanks for sharing :)

      I can feel the extra work necessary issue – I had that with Czech, that I *also* picked with no really good reasons and blogged about it. That was a spontaneous decision and with no investment I just had to ditch it at the end of the mission. All goals ever since have been long term and deeply considered.

      Choosing by committee would just be a popularity contest – it would be more or less the same result as my question “What language are you learning” in the survey I took a few weeks ago.

    • Goŝka

      :D the languages of people with whom you date is a very good motivator :). I’ve thought so since I decided to learn 2 romanian languages.
      Unfortunately you might stop ‘loving’ them or they might stop ‘loving’ you and you have the motivation no more.. as in my case ;)

      • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

        On the contrary…. I learned Russian when I was dating a Russian-speaker, but when we stopped seeing each other, I was left with a language skill! I can and do use my Russian almost every day.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Low living costs are always a good motivator! Will think about it ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Sure! Can they be delivered by DHL?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Good to know! :) Thanks!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I know… all I can do is politely say “thanks, I’ll think about it!” The suggestions will never stop :P

  • http://languageblogbygina.wordpress.com/ Gina

    I choose languages that appeal to me personally, I don’t usually have much of a rationale for learning a language. I did write a blog post about why I chose each language that I’ve ever studied, but most of my reasons are quite vague, usually the main reason is just because I like the language.

    Thank you for pointing out the flaws in the “x number of speakers” argument, it really annoys me when people act as though languages are only worthwhile if they have a large number of speakers. There aren’t as many Romanian speakers as (for example) German speakers, but I’m still going to speak Romanian, because it’s awesome and I like it too much to give it up for a language that is considered more useful.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      The most useful language in the world is the one that is most useful to YOU. ;)

  • http://twitter.com/Milan_Navratil Milan Navrátil

    There is an argument in favour of big languages that hasn’t been mention in your post and that is (at least for me) very important – availability of resources. I suffer from a disease that prevents me from staying abroad for an extended period of time (I’m from the Czech Republic) because I need to undergo expensive regular treatment. However, I love learning languages and if I choose the big ones, I can find people who speak that language in the city I live in much more easily. Moroever, there are many more resources that focus on things I’m interested in and that I’m able to get hold of – films, music, books etc.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Well said!

  • http://twitter.com/chrissarda Chris Sarda

    I like that you specifically point out you’re a traveler and languages are a means to and end here.

    I remember back during the “lingq wars”, it seemed particularly evident to me that you were mostly a traveler, who felt the same way about language/culture as some people feel about seeing the Statue of Liberty, or the Aran Islands.

    It’s part of what you do when you travel, and I think it’s admirable that you work so hard in that period of time to get to a certain level in those languages that you studied, but probably won’t ever work hard enough on to put them on your list (Czech, Thai, and probably Hungarian).

    Because the primary focus is on languages, and the fact that you do speak a number of them at a high level, you’ve lumped in with the language blogs, but for awhile now I’ve seen you as more of a hybrid between the language blogs and the lifestyle design blogs like Chris Guillebeau’s, Location 180 ect, especially in your marketing strategy ect. It’s hard though to be a tweener… :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      I don’t understand the Statue of Liberty / Aran Islands comparison, but linguists obsession with details grammar and obscure uniumportant vocabulary does lead to a lot of arguments and obvious changes in learning pattern when my focus is on efficiency.

      I’ll actually decide if I’ll maintain Hungarian permanently at the end of the year rather than at the end of this mission. But yes, I won’t go on with Czech or Thai for the moment. As long as I take up at least one new language permanently per year (this year, definitely German) then I will be happy. Otherwise speaking a language temporarily is fine for me.

      I don’t like to think of myself as a tweener – I hope to be starting a new movement of language tourism :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks for sharing your motivations with us! I hope you find the next mission interesting ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Even without travel we can fall in love with languages for cultural and personal reasons. This can never compare to outside pressure – I have no doubts your Spanish will be fantastic very quickly if you really are passionate about it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Interesting to hear your motivations, thanks :)
    Force and pressure are always horrible ways to motivate us to try in a language. In many cases they will actually create contempt in that language – it’s a pity!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Interesting to hear your motivations, thanks :)
    Force and pressure are always horrible ways to motivate us to try in a language. In many cases they will actually create contempt in that language – it’s a pity!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Interesting to hear your motivations, thanks :)
    Force and pressure are always horrible ways to motivate us to try in a language. In many cases they will actually create contempt in that language – it’s a pity!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Interesting to hear your motivations, thanks :)
    Force and pressure are always horrible ways to motivate us to try in a language. In many cases they will actually create contempt in that language – it’s a pity!

  • Norinaway

    Hi, I really enjoy the pop culture of South Korea and as such would love to know what they are saying, singing and doing without relying on other peoples translations. Of course I would love to speak more than one learn language as I find be able to speak more than one language really interesting. However, you should find a way that drives you to the language and as such I really want to learn Korean!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Great to see your passion for Korean :)

  • Judith

    las fotos siempre son lo mejor de los artículos

  • David

    To be honest, I started learning Swedish because I have Swedish friends, and they always speak it to one another, but speak English to me. I wanted to be able to understand what they say to each other without them having to translate it all into English. They would also occasionally screw up and say something in Swedish to me, and I’d be condemned to looking at them like an idiot until they repeated themselves in English. Needless to say, I still enjoy learning Swedish, and practice it when I can (which makes them usually burst into laughter over my poor grammar :D)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Best of luck with your Swedish – keep trying and you’ll start understanding for sure ;) But it will come quicker if you insist that they don’t speak English with you! All that translation to English is making any Swedish you learn go to waste…

  • minif

    People tell me the same when i tell them i’m learning Finnish. Living in mexico, it sounds like a waste of time, but i actually like the language x3

  • Anonymous

    this blog post really resonated with me, as I am living in Qatar, but want to go back and finish the Romance languages I started in High School.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  • http://beyondbounds.org/ Jason Sharp

    I love that you emphasize that you are traveler first and foremost. Many many people learn languages all for the wrong reasons. “Knowing Chinese would be cool” is what I get from a lot of my friends, but when I ask them what are going to be their motivations for actually getting into the language, they can’t come up with anything. Good points.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yeah, if you don’t care then silly motivations mean nothing! Thanks for the Kazan reminder – we’ll see when I get around to Russian!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I’m a traveller. Speaking languages is just a natural consequence of wanting to get truly immersed in cultures and expand my horizons. Languages are just a means to an end for me. They are not the end. PEOPLE are the channel that languages come out of and if you don’t use the language to communicate with human beings, then it’s just a faceless list of grammar rules and vocabulary tables.

    YES!! THAT is me! It’s a means to an end, not an end in and of itself as it is to so many other people in this community (not that either one of those is better than the other–there’s absolutely nothing wrong with learning grammar minutiae if that’s what makes you happy). My interest in languages comes solely from my passion for traveling and learning about different cultures and their people. I’m also a bit of a history buff and these 3 things (language, travel, history) all intertwine together wonderfully :)

    If I’m not interested in the culture where a language is used and, especially, in the people who speak it, then forget it, I can’t motivate myself enough to learn that language regardless of how nifty and unique the grammar is or whatever.

    Man after my own heart.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Anonymous

    I feel that for a lot of people, choosing a language is like choosing a major and you end up trying to pick one that is most “practical”.

  • Jay Wan

    I feel that for a lot of people, choosing a language is like choosing a major and they end up trying to pick one that is most “practical”. I get the sense that there are a lot of language learners in it for business purposes, judging by the amount of language learning material marketed to businesspersons.

  • Troy

    Benny, I agree: getting “difficulty points” is no good reason to learn a language. But I’ve chosen NOT to learn languages because I’d get absolutely ZERO credit even if I could speak them fluently!

    I’m American, but my ancestry is purely Japanese. So I look Japanese even though I don’t speak a word. Suppose I were to learn Japanese. Then non-Japanese would think I didn’t have to work to learn it and Japanese people would wonder why I spoke so badly!

    On the other hand speaking a language that few Americans speak (like Portuguese) gets you a lot of “credit” and helps you make friends!

  • Sunjianfeng1209

    A propos du chinois, je peux affirmer que je vis à montréal et qu’ il y a plus de chinois dans mon école que toutes les autres ethnies reunies( incluant les Quebecois )et je les comprends parfaitement, qu’ils viennent de parts et d’autre de la chine alors que je suis taiwanais.
    Vous avez raison, l’etude d’une langue importante ne dépend pas de la population qui la parle mais bien de l’economie du pays, si vous voulez insérer cette information dans votre CV et que vous travaillez en affairez. En l’occurrence, la Chine est la 2e economie mondiale.

    En passant, je trouve vos posts fort intéressant et pertinents

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Please read my recent post about what language to choose. I don’t make my choices based on scripts and grammar but on PEOPLE ;)
    Glad you are taking advantage of your international city and all the opportunities to meet people!

  • Goŝka

    :) I’m from Poland and I’m also learning Norwegian, and people ask me ‘why’. but I don’t see it as something negative and I never feel attacked or insulted. I know that learning norwegian is not common and can be strange. but I always answer with my motivation – that I like the sound of it very much and I have good memories of going there a few years ago.

  • Goŝka

    you haven’t covered one motivator!
    I totally understand that people and culture are your motivator. but I just want to know what you think about learning a language which you like itself? I love
    ** the sound of scandinavian languages so I learn norwegian (but I’m also planning to come back there and speak with people), I like
    ** alphabets other than Latin one, so I want to get to know Georgian, Greek, maybe Chinese or Japanese (but I’m not interested in these two last cultures..) .. and also Arabic ’cause it looks like an ornament. so I would learn at least the alphabets if not languages.
    I also got interested when you mentioned
    ** tones when learning Thai, so I thought – why not see what it is about?
    maybe if you’re sceptical about it, it means that there are Bennies and linguistists which just like languages :)

    the best language for me, as you see it, would be French, ’cause I think there is something very interesting in people’s approach, their culture and all this history.. but I’m just not that crazy about the language, hmm..

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      That’s great! :) I can see how passionate you are about languages ;) Those are some interesting reasons!

      I don’t actually love languages themselves though to be honest :P They are always a means to an end for me.

  • Julie

    Oh do I love this blog!

    I found you through your guest post on Zen habits, and I couldn’t agree more with everything you say (even though or maybe especially because I am a “linguist” of the official kind, working on a PhD!).

    I learned German (but haven’t practised in a looong while) and English at school (and enjoyed it, thanks to great teachers), then Hungarian when I moved to Budapest, and now that I live in Ireland I’ll learn Irish!

    Actually your blog came at the right time for me since my motivation was flagging…
    Go raibh maith agat!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Very happy to see all the cool new readers from Zen Habits ;) Thanks!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the kind words!
    I’ve thought about doing the Camino de Santiago – once I want a long break from learning languages I may take asides like that :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Does sound to me like you are more interested in linguistics. In that case maybe read a few Wikipedia articles about languages and see what grammar points tickle your fancy. This is definitely not how I would make the choice, since I find such aspects of a language to be irrelevant to making a decision when the priority is just cultural and human. Maybe you can find a nice middle ground ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You’re 17 and you’re too old! hahahahaha
    Read this: http://www.fluentin3months.com/adults-vs-kids Being too old is a myth.
    Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Best of luck with your project!! Great to see it’s something your coworkers can help you with :)

  • David J

    I find it interesting that you use “interest in a culture” as a way to choose a language. As someone who has traveled as extensively as you have, don’t you find an interest in all cultures? I’ve never traveled to a country that I didn’t like (as of now). All cultures have fascinating aspects, so I can’t choose which language I’m going to speak based on culture. Instead I choose for number of speakers that I tend to run into in the US. I’ve never regretted learning a language, and I think that there is nothing wrong with learning language by number of speakers in your area (which in the US tend to correlate somewhat with the most spoken world languages, albeit not perfectly).

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Frankly, no I’m not interested in all cultures equally. When you like everything equally then the concept of liking starts to mean nothing. The idea of living in some places pull me much more than others. All cultures are fascinating in their own ways, but not to everybody.

      I never said learning by number of speakers in your area is a bad decision. That seems totally logical to me. But learning based on number of speakers at the opposite side of the planet is what I feel is just playing with numbers as if it means something. 1 billion and 50 million don’t actually mean anything to most people, and it makes no difference at a practical level for an individual language learner.

      The correlation is nothing like the world population distribution, especially in the states. Some nationalities are way more likely to move to the states than others. More will go based on their wealth, ease of travels, visa processes, motivations, distance etc. etc. I’d hazard a guess that Mexicans are probably the 1st or 2nd best represented foreign population in the states, but Mexico is not even in the top 10 most populated countries of the world.

      By this logic I’d argue that Spanish is important to learn in the states because of immigration, NOT because Spanish has the second most number of speakers in the world. That’s just a nice benefit, that is actually irrelevant to most people.

      In Europe, on the other hand, Spanish is much less important for likeliness of running into a native (compared to Polish, German and even Turkish) – but if an individual has a good reason to learn it for him or herself, then that’s what is more important.

  • David J

    I find it interesting that you use “interest in a culture” as a way to choose a language. As someone who has traveled as extensively as you have, don’t you find an interest in all cultures? I’ve never traveled to a country that I didn’t like (as of now). All cultures have fascinating aspects, so I can’t choose which language I’m going to speak based on culture. Instead I choose for number of speakers that I tend to run into in the US. I’ve never regretted learning a language, and I think that there is nothing wrong with learning language by number of speakers in your area (which in the US tend to correlate somewhat with the most spoken world languages, albeit not perfectly).

  • David J

    I find it interesting that you use “interest in a culture” as a way to choose a language. As someone who has traveled as extensively as you have, don’t you find an interest in all cultures? I’ve never traveled to a country that I didn’t like (as of now). All cultures have fascinating aspects, so I can’t choose which language I’m going to speak based on culture. Instead I choose for number of speakers that I tend to run into in the US. I’ve never regretted learning a language, and I think that there is nothing wrong with learning language by number of speakers in your area (which in the US tend to correlate somewhat with the most spoken world languages, albeit not perfectly).

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I really hate questions like that. I could ask you is there any specific reason that you have stayed away from a town in Brazil called Votuporanga? Or any reason you hate the children’s fruit juice “Umbungo”.

    I just haven’t been there yet, come on! I travel slowly and make my decisions based on what I like about a particular place, not why I would avoid others.

  • Kirstin Plante

    I love what you said above: “I learn languages because I intend to use them, not so I can wear them as a badge.” Languages are for communicating, and it looks like you’re good at THAT! Have a great time learning quechua!

  • Anonymous

    i have purchased 2 learning programs with CD’s, both worthless, NO ENGLISH ON THEM.  I now speak a new language, the language of “thank you” I know the word for “thank you” in about 140 languages. really fun, those from albania to the mong people are just not ready for this guy in middle america with a cowboy hat to know their language.  many smiles and i’ve had a thousand great conversations.

    • Noah

      I couldn’t agree more. Knowing how to say words like “Hi” and “Thanks” and “Bye” in multiple languages really brings a smile to peoples faces. It is amazing how much they appreciate that you took 2 minutes to learn the basics of their languages.

      This is actually what motivated me to learn Spanish and Russian. The feeling of communicating with someone else in their language (and their forgivingness of mistakes) makes you feel really good. I am going to reiterate the amount of appreciation that they have for you, no matter how many mistakes you make.

      I now speak English, Spanish, and a little Russian. After I finish Russian, I am going to try to take on Mandarin.

      Benny, you are an inspiration to us all. I cant wait to find out about your next mission in America! (And the secret one your hiding from us!) Also, thanks so much for the new post on Language Learning Resources!

      до свидания,
      ной (Noah)

  • Anonymous

    oh yeah, ger rev ma agut, irish gaelic 

  • http://twitter.com/nuts2soup Allison Baker

    Given how old this thread is, I guess I’m just thinking out loud. I want to learn another language for two priority reasons. #1) I think it’s the right thing to do. One of the excuses we always have in this world for cruelty, ignorance, or just indifference, is lack of understanding. If everyone learned one other language they would be able to speak with at least one person who they formerly could not understand. I think it is an important humane gesture to learn another language. And yes, I find humane gestures very motivating :) #2) I love words. I love the way they look, and sound, and feel in the mouth. I love the incredible subtleties of meaning a single word can be given by choosing an old term, or a new term, or a complex term, or the ‘correct’ term. Then there’s the inflection and the emphasis. Swoon! I may be more of a ‘knower’ and less of a ‘speaker’ but I really appreciate the inspiration and encouragement. Thank you for this blog, Benny!

  • ggoorts

    I’ve learned Spanish before out of an interest for the culture, but a couple of years after that I met my wife in Singapore and that sealed it pretty much for learning Mandarin. It’s a convenient choice, because I’ve got plenty of opportunity (and need) to speak it.

    I totally agree that learning a language should come from your heart and not be about brownie points. It’s just too much effort to do for the boasting rights.

    That said, I recently wrote a post on how to choose a language if you’re intent on learning a language for career purposes. Find it here: http://yago.sg/blog/which-language-to-learn/

  • http://twitter.com/RobArtisan Rob Baker

    Well said Benny if you learn a language for reasons of ego and the end then you are less likely to succeed in mastering or ever achieving a good standard Rob

  • Keith Potvin

    I just want to say that I truly LOVE your webpage! I am from just outside Ottawa, Canada and I have been trying to learn French for years; but I never knew why I could read it and not speak it at all! It was embarassing because I have French heritage so I expected it to just click! Despite years of work, I thought it was the language that was the problem not me, so I tried Spanish for a semester in university. When I was at university I was in much much more social scenarios and I would be conversing with exchange students from all over the world. Although I have always wanted to travel to experience other cultures, and learn languages, I grew up in a small town where it was 98% white english people. Being at a diverse university gave me an oppurtunity to become exposed to other cultures and oppurtunities to practise my Spanish and French. Something that may have made it easier for me to learn Spanish was that I was intrigued by Spain’s culture! The people appeared so vibrant and passionate to me. (I found English culture to be…bland) and that prompted me to work harder to learn the language. The progress I saw happen even after 1 month with Spanish compared to my years with French, was baffling! I didn’t know what was different! Intrigued, I put Spanish aside for the next semester and delved intensively into another French course at my school that was two courses worth of work in one course. It was exhausting, but I could see the results! I was refusing to speak English during my French class (6 hours a week) and spoke to all my classmates and teacher in French. It moved my French forward and I began to open myself back up to French culture! I decided to begin to become more interested in French culture. Something that was a huge help to me was my neighbour and friend named named Nici could speak 5 languages, had just spent a year exchange in France and an added bonus was that she was an exchange student from Germany! (a friend to visit in Frankfurt! haha) Her attitude towards languages was inspiring. Although I had made many international friends at University who could speak 2 or more languages, Nici`s mindset was aimed at always finding the positive side to the language. I thought this was pretty unique and it pushed me to think about seriously learning more languages! (I had wanted to before but until I experienced Nici’s point of view and stumbled upon your blog it was only a “want” not the passionate need I feel now) I’ll end my rant here out of courtesy but on a closing note I want to say thank you and please keep updating your blog because in two years when I am done school I plan on travelling to France and taking your 3 month challenge on quite seriously!! (I plan on other countries too but France is stop #1!!)

  • Rahwen Rapottas

    I like what you said about how “major” languages aren’t necessarily the best choice. I am probably in absolutely no way, shape, or form in any relation to Iceland or anyone from there (I’m half-Pakistani and on the other side my heritage can be distantly traced to Wales) and yet I set off to learn the language. You make an excellent point about how it’s about the people; that’s what I was learning the language for. In itself, I believe the language is beautiful, but as is the culture of the great, yet small, majority that speaks it. Takk!
    -Rahwen

  • Guest

    Benny,
    I’m a 13 year old going into 8th grade and I really want to learn a language. I really enjoy your blog and find the post very interesting but I can’t decide what language I should speak. I’ll give you some background on me. I live in Southern California and there is a large Spanish-speaking population here– so should I just learn Spanish? Also I lived in Italy when I was little and my mom spoke good Italian (I spoke OK). Should I learn Italian? Lastly, we went to Germany last summer and I thought the language was really cool and the people were very friendly. Or should I just wait until high school to learn Spanish, French, or Chinese?

    P.S. (sorry this is getting long)- when I pick a language should I check out books and Audiotapes from the library or what do you suggest?

    Thank you,
    Eric

    • James Frain

      I am a 14 year old boy from Essex, England. I, like you, have no idea about what language to learn. Unlike you, i have never lived in any other countries. If you intend on returning to Italy then italian is obviously the right choice. If I were you, I would pick Spanish because of the large Mexican population, and also because it is close to French and Italian, all three are big and important languages. chinese is the popular choice, and for teenagers like yourself and I, is extremely difficult. All I can say is its your choice

  • Alex

    why there is no russian language in your list ?

  • EleniGoofaki

    I know you wont give a shit abou my opinion but give Greek a try!!
    Greece is a beatiful country with significant culture and friendy people
    I really hope you will at least visit it…you wont be dissapointed ;)
    (btw I really liked your blog :)

  • Vladimir Georgiev

    you say that you don’t look at popularity, but as far as I see you speak bigger European languages. What do you think about smaller languages, there is lower competition, lower number of people speaking them, but also less work? i’m interested in languages and culture and study programming. I’m mostly interested in Scandinavian and Balcanic and among the popular ones I speak English and German and am native Bulgarian
    p.s. your blog is interesting and I kind of agree with a lot of the things you say and while posting this comment, I imagined how you or traveller with your style experiences a Bulgarian village

  • Jasper Simon

    I mostly learned languages because I liked the culture and the language itself.
    So I ended up learning: English, French, Italian, a bit modern Hebrew (Ivrit), Danish and Japanese. I could also imagine learning Portuguese and Greek for example.
    It’s not that much important how big or small a language is, if you are highly interested in the culture and are willing to learn it. A friend of mine lived in Japan for a year, another one in Denmark for a while. So for them studying those languages was the right choice.
    I also agree, studying unusuall language combinations actually helps, most study a language because they hear it’s usefull and sometimes it is yes, but sometimes this ends in the fact that more ppl a studying a language than it is actually needed and smaller languages get ignort who are also important to some degree.

  • James Frain

    Hello. I am 14 years old and although I am young, I know I will be an interpreter when I am older. I love languages, and your method seems to be the only ‘sane’ method around. The trouble is I am too young to move away, and for obvious reasons, it is not wise for a child of my age to be skyping strangers, even if they live in Shanghai. My French and German levels are pretty good, but apart from school, I have no other means of learning languages except studying. Since you seemed to have waged war against it, and as you are a successful language learner many times over, I have learned to avoid that. I want to start learning Russian, as Russian culture and the language intrigues me. If not Russian, then I would love to learn Czech. I went to Prague for a small while (3 days) and completely fell in love with the city. I want to return and be able to speak fluently. Is there anything you can recommend that I haven’t thought of, or should I study? Or should I wait till I am older?

  • Justin Davis

    I have been working on several languages myself. I started with Spanish in high school. Then afterwards I spent two years living in Spain. I love it there. Barcelona, Valencia and Zaragoza are my favourite cities there. When I returned to Montana I couldn’t shake my life. So, long dream of Russian. So I became a Russian major at the University of Montana where I have been for the last 3 years. Я люблю русский язык! Since then I have made friends with a guy from my Russian program who spent his senior year of high school in Germany. Now I have started to learn German and I love it. Besides my friend from class I know a few other Germans so I hope to use it some one day.I say learn what languages you want. For the ambitious it would be wise to prioritize which of your choice languages are most important to you. I really love the French singing R and B artist Cornielle and hope to pick up French one day. For me language lea
    rning is a life long passion that gives me new ways to connect with people I care about. For those who can’t afford to travel as much I recommend listening to lots of music in your target language. I learned lots of Russian that way. I recommend gruppa Kino
    (Группа Кино) to anyone wanting to learn Russian. Удачи!
    My languages of choice are in order of preference
    Russian
    Spanish
    German
    French
    Catalan

  • Guest

    Loved the article – I always have to explain why I’m not learning a “useful” language (which is of course always determined by number of speakers…)! I’m personally learning Icelandic because I love the country and the culture. I learnt British Sign Language because there was a free society that had meetings every week, so it was a fun opportunity to be social and learn something new.

  • XelaD

    I’m interested in languages that sound and look (in writing) very cool and interesting, and have an interesting culture to me. Thank you for this article, because I’ve thought of learning some less commonly learned languages but felt it would be useless. Now I might decide to :)

  • Hyperion

    Hi there, so glad to have found this! I’ve been in a terrible, heart-wrenching dilemma for the past 7 whole years regarding whether I should focus on Japanese or Chinese. The story starts many years back when I decided on a whim to study Chinese and Linguistics as a double major at university. I ended up dropping Linguistics as the theory bored me to the point of self-harm but was left with a lack of credits I needed to make up for the lost modules so I ended up choosing Japanese. I did the brave thing and double-majored. I initially found Japanese hard and the style of teaching incredibly hard to follow. I used to prefer having to memorise only one reading for every character and I found Chinese syntax and grammar a lot easier. But most of our materials were like a page from a communist manifesto. The amount of times I read ‘comrade’ made my eyes roll deeper and deeper into their sockets. The time came for my year abroad and I chose to spend it in Taiwan and Osaka respectively (mainland China was and still is out of my sphere of places I would like to visit). And that one year changed everything. I did a home-stay programme in Japan and I fell in love with the people so much that I literally wept before I left. I had already had a lot of ‘schooling’ in the culture of Japan through my Karate training since the age of 4 so I didn’t experience that ‘barrier’ that a lot of westerners face when they try to fit into the local society. But nothing hit that ‘O’ button like those few months I spent there. I even became a buddhist and for the first time in my life I thought ‘This is it! This is home away from home!’ and vowed one day to return. I came back to the UK and finished my degree and the time came when I had to choose my Master’s degree carefully as I was reminded by all around me. The UK and indeed Europe had by that time entered the China Love Fest and scores of Chinese students entered the UK making it a very popular language for future professionals. My parents joined in with their kind advice and long story short I did a Master’s in Applied Translation, working with Chinese and Greek translating into English of course. I graduated feeling all the more uninspired as the communist documents had been replaced by legal texts, financial analyses etc, not to mention that all my classmates bored me to death. Nothing in my head like those cool Karate mates from Japan…Then life took over, I got myself into a dead-end customer service job where I am currently festering, looking for a way out. Everyone is touting China as the next big thing and keep telling me that I’m stupid I am not utilising my qualifications to get out of this situation. But somehow, I get all floppy at the idea of having to work in China or even here in a Chinese context. My heart says Japan in big bright Kanji. It’s telling me to drop everything, refocus on my Japanese eventhough I am more qualified on paper in Chinese and try to find a job with Japanese. BUT, I cannot ignore all the negative predictions about the Japanese economy nor the continuous ‘yellow lust’ (yellow being the emperial colour for the Chinese) that has gripped British media and the business world of Europe. So my question I guess is: Do I follow my heart? Or do I follow the money? Cuz where I am now, neither my wallet nor my heart are particularly happy. Sorry about my drivel. I guess I needed to vent :P Feel free to charge….

  • Colton Austin

    I’m in high school about to start taking Spanish 4. Personally, I hate language courses but learning another language is always helpful (especially when you live in Florida). When I’m older and have more desire and patience, I’m going to try to learn German. I’ve always thought its a beautiful language with a rich history behind it. Would you have any tips?

  • Morgan Rohrbaugh

    I just came across your blog for the first time, and I have to say that I agree with you whole-heartedly. I took on learning Japanese for the first time ever three years ago. It’s my first second language. I guess the reasons I chose it at first were varied. It was different (everyone around me was going for Spanish), it was challenging, I had interest in the culture since I was little (my parents told me stories of their deployment in Okinawa from a young age), and it was useful in the business world. However, now that I’ve been studying and speaking for three years (I write this from my college in Japan as I study abroad) I have definitely realized that there is a benefit for learning a language that far outweighs all of these things. It’s people. Being able to communicate with people I wouldn’t have been able to before without the language skill has been quite a journey, and very rewarding. I admit, I found myself on this blog site because I have my eyes set on learning a new language and need some direction. I love what you said here, and I think along the same lines. However, since I don’t see any dire need in the near future (and I have a goal to learn 10 languages by the year 2033), I’ve been considering many options. When I chose Japanese it was very final because I decided to major in it in college. But now that I’m going to be studying on my own, I know that I need to make a commitment to the next one. If I could ask one thing it would be what did the process look like for you when you embarked on a new language? Thank you for this blog post, congratulations on your hard work and consistency, and blessings to you in your travels!

    • Morgan Rohrbaugh

      I can definitely tell that my English now needs some brushing up as well, lol!

  • Megan

    I’ll say choosing a language can be tough but there’s always been one I’ve set my eyes on, Japanese! What I like is that Japanese isn’t a tonal language, or click language so I wouldn’t have to worry about saying a word in the wrong tone or forgetting something. Japanese is said how it looks almost all the time, with a few exceptions.

    I also noticed it was a language wanted in businesses and while I do have a few years to go before getting a job I knew knowing Japanese(or more) would surely help. So yes I did choose the language so I could put it on my resume as I want to stand out and make sure I qualify greatly for the job.

    I will admit I also chose to learn a language because I thought it would be fun, and yes challenging. Picking it up as a hobby would do very nicely as I strive to learn more. I could very rarely pick up and keep a hobby as sooner or later they got kinda boring but learning a language? The list of languages still alive is extremely long and I could never complete, so I would never leave that hobby if there is always more to learn.

    Really though I think I chose to learn Japanese because maybe I do want to have a conversation with a Japanese person sometime. I know it won’t be soon as my family doesn’t have the money and I am not old enough to go out on my own but I know maybe someday I will. You can only prepare for what lies ahead whether you can see the road clearly, or see just a blanket of fog covering the way.

  • Ethan

    I totally agree with this. I’m learning Catalan, which isn’t a totally globally practical language–but for my means it’s perfect. I live in Barcelona, I have Catalan friends, I love Catalan culture, and I could see myself living here long-term. A lot of people think that it’s enough to know Spanish here, but if you really want to live here, Catalan is important, and you feel much differently communicating to the people who live here in it–that’s why I’m learning it, not because it will help me get a good job or help me traveling.

  • Dorothea Schmidt

    As a native German speaker I currently find myself traveling Romania for several month, eager to get to know their culture, including the language. So far I only speak a few words if needed, because the rest of the time I surround myself with English speaking people.
    When I heard about your blog I was sad that I didn’t know it before coming here and before spending much money on classes. But you give me hope that with a bit of courage and some help I’ll do better soon! I very much appreciate that you bring people to think about their motives in learning a language as for myself I forgot about it while being a perfectionist!
    So thanks again for sharing your experiences!