With nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, how do you choose which one(s) to study? It’s a question I often hear, but one I don’t really think about much. For me, language learning has always been an end in itself, first and foremost. I love dabbling, exploring, playing around with new languages.
But for someone new to the linguaphile world, it’s an understandable question. Can there be some logical approach to choosing a language to learn, all things being equal?
Number of native speakers
The most obvious practical consideration is language use; after all, language’s primary function is communcation, right? Just how much of the world will open up to you if you learn a language?
Ten of the world’s languages have over 100 million native speakers: in order, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda (Western Panjabi). The polyglossically-minded might try to tackle all ten. This would grant you linguistic access to a staggering three-and-a-half billion of the world’s population. You could be transported to a random, populated spot of our world of 7.4 billion people, and have a nearly 50% chance of being able to speak the language!
However, random transportation isn’t really a thing. And a glance down that country list shows how far-flung and distantly distributed all these languages are across the map. Chances are, you don’t live next door to many of them.
Here, then, comes the just-over-the-fence / just-across-the-pond option. It’s the reason why so many British schoolchildren grow up learning French, German or Spanish. Pick a close neighbour, and learn about them – what better way to build bridges? (And boy, has there been a better time to build bridges?)
Being on the doorstep, there’s not only a ready supply of teachers and access to resources, but the chance to travel not too far to practise your skills. France is likely to be one of the first foreign countries British students set foot in. Spain is a short flight away and a hugely popular holiday destination for British families. In some parts of England, you can pick up Welsh language TV. There’s a lot to be said for learning a neighbouring language!
Then again, bridge-building does require a soupçon of warmth and goodwill towards neighbours, and this can sometimes seem in short supply.
The economy, stupid
You could be more mercenary, and decide that you’re going for the powerful countries. Cynically speaking, money is power these days, so you’ll looking at the languages of the top ten countries by GDP. That gives you English, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Hindi (along with India’s other languages), Italian, Portuguese and Korean. Learn one of those, and you have the language skills to land a job in a country that’s doing pretty well for itself.
The trouble is, global politics changes so quickly. Devote ten years to learning English, and you might find that China has become the new superpower. Stick all your eggs in a German basket, and you might find that Poland has become the European economic powerhouse in a decade or two. Picking a language on its prospects as a world business language can seem a little like playing roulette.
Language as cultural key
Moreover, I’m not a cynic. There’s far more to life than money, and there’s even more to a country than GDP. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why a country or culture holds a certain fascination for you.
The reasons could be entirely romantic; ever since I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued by Nordic culture. I admit that has less to do with reality, and more to do with snow-and-ice depictions of reindeer, Norse gods and Vikings. The release of Disney’s Frozen did nothing to cure my Nordic romanticism. But realistic or not, therein lies the attraction for me, and it was the hook that got me into learning Norwegian and Icelandic.
There’s no shame in letting imagination lead your language choices. You’ll be more engaged, and greater engagement helps you to access that state of flow in which learning can (sometimes) feel effortless. If you can handle the disillusionment when your imagined wonderland turns out to be quite everyday (Norway isn’t full of Vikings, disappointingly), then you might also spark a lifelong love affair with the your target language culture.
Language as Heritage
Linked to these romantic ideas, but closer to home, we have heritage reasons for language choice. Again, motivation is likely to be high with this rationale – there’s the feeling that you can get close to your roots, your ancestors, your soul, when learning a language with regional links to your family.
Barely 50,000 people speak Scottish Gaelic as a first language today, but all the economics and utility in the world won’t take the shine off learning it if you know your forebears may have used it. And sometimes, the passion can lead to rebirth, as seen in the re-blossoming of Welsh, and the beginning of a Cornish language revival.
Still can’t decide? Well, maybe you don’t have to. You could take a broader brush, and study language in general.
A good way to get a general feel for a lot of languages is to study their reconstructed development from proto-language. There is something awe-inspiring about reading how our ancestors (probably) spoke. You can get a sense of the depth of history when you see how a word you use every day developed from a root that emerged thousands of years ago.
There are some excellent books on Indo-European, for example, which go into great detail about vocabulary and grammar:
Others, like Routledge’s The Indo-European Languages, or the even more specific The Germanic Languages, give snapshots of the modern members of the language family, while highlighting their relationships to each other. Either way, you’ll get a fascinating glimpse into how language, and culture, spread and diversify. Seeing links between languages can also help strengthen your understanding of how a given, single one works.
As for me…
At school I learnt French and German, then German and Spanish at university (bridge-building and economics, you might think). But then – I must admit – practical, dry, real-world reasoning went out of the window. Language is the whole point now – there’s doesn’t need to be a reason beyond because I like it. I’m just drawn to particular countries and cultures, and this is what guides my choices.
Often, it’s down to which places are cheapest to travel to – Polish is definitely attractive at the moment! Other times, you’ll be bewitched, and keep going back despite the expense (thanks, Norway and Iceland). I love travelling, being abroad, trying to communicate and making friends in a foreign language. And I’ll grab every opportunity I can to do that!
Find your Norway / Iceland / Poland / Wonderland and pursue it. All the practical reasons in the world won’t trump passion.