10 items to think about before learning a language

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Learning a new language is a multi-year endeavour, and due to this it's good to be sure of a few things before you start. This can help you avoid later on feeling the pressure to switch languages in between, or simply giving up altogether.

In light of this, here is a list of items in no particular order that you may want to look over before choosing which language to study.

#1 is very simple, while also the most important: do you truly like the language? Since it takes years to become fluent in a language you will have to be able to spend a great deal of time with it, and if you suspect that you're going to become tired of learning it in between it might be best to think about learning a different language instead if you feel that you would like the other one more. On the other hand, don't forget that a language may grow on you as you study it, so a language that you only have a partial liking for in the beginning could turn out to be your favourite language later on after you have given it some time. As long as you have at least a fair amount of personal interest in a language you should be able to turn this into a real interest later on, but if you have a strong suspicion that you will eventually come to hate a language after a year or so you might want to think about going with another one instead.

#2: What countries is the language spoken in, and what do you think of these countries? Could you spend a few years there as well? Some languages are spoken by a large number of people but in countries less developed than others (Hindi, Chinese, Indonesian), while others are spoken by less people in more developed countries (German, Norwegian, Icelandic), and the character of the country the language is spoken in is very important. Being interested in the country or countries a language is spoken in is a good sign.

#3: What languages is this language related to? Since there is often no strict dividing line between a language and a dialect and some languages are more closely related to other languages while others are quite isolated and unrelated to others, it's good to take a look at this too before you start. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are close enough to each other that they would probably be considered to be dialects if Scandinavia were a single country, and Spanish and Portuguese are also fairly closely related (see Portunhol as an example of this).

Not only is this an added bonus when studying a language with many related languages, but it also means that you could consider going with a less-spoken language if you personally like it more. For example, if you think that you will eventually need Spanish but just find yourself attracted to Brazilian culture that much more, it would be best to go with Portuguese first in spite of the fact that it's not as widespread as Spanish, as not only will you enjoy yourself more learning the language you have a personal interest in, but learning Portuguese to fluency will well prepare you for Spanish later on.

#4: How much money do you have? Learning a language will almost always require spending at least a year in another country, and being realistic about whether you will be able to afford to do this is a good idea in the beginning. This doesn't necessarily mean that you should give up learning a language spoken in a more expensive country, but if you are from Mauritius for example and want to learn German but really don't think you'll be able to afford a year in Germany any time soon, it might be better to go with Afrikaans (spoken in South Africa, just 3000 km away compared to Germany at three times that, and a much more expensive country as well). Or if you live in Maine and are interested in Italian but only make minimum wage, you might want to think about just going with French instead for the time being if you're at least somewhat interested in that. The improved opportunities from learning one language might also help you make more money to eventually save up to learn the language you originally liked the most. Remember, when Language A and Language B are fairly closely related, you are actually laying the mental groundwork for Language A even when you have decided for one reason or another to go with Language B.

#5: How good are you at learning languages? Make sure that the language you are choosing to learn is one that you are capable of learning to fluency if that is your goal. This is not to say that you shouldn't challenge yourself with a difficult language if you want to, but remember that a difficult language will probably take a few more years longer to learn than another, and you want to make sure that you have chosen a language that you can learn to fluency within the time you expect to spend. This list here on Wikibooks will give you some idea on how long a language might take to learn.

#6: Career benefits - this is just about as important as reason #1 simply for the fact that it's very easy to be motivated about learning something that provides a very tangible benefit later on. After all, that's what four years in university is all about, spending a few years (and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the country) learning something that will provide a financial benefit later on. French is useful for government positions in Canada and in many European and international organizations, while knowing a "mission critical" language can net a person a signing bonus of up to $35,000 with the CIA. Note that in the latter case these are mostly languages used in less developed parts of the world, so it's not always true that high GDP = more money when you learn a language. Some languages are important for geopolitical reasons alone.

#7: English ability - how well do the people in the country/countries of the language you want to learn speak English? Sometimes learning a language like Norwegian can be more difficult than expected when the student realizes that Norwegians already know more or less fluent English, making it extremely difficult to practice in person. This can naturally be overcome with good planning, but sometimes it's also just nice to be in a country where nobody speaks English, so that can be a plus.

#8: Online culture - what is the online culture of this language like? Take a look around some of the sites used by a language to get an idea of where you would use it online after you have learned it. A language like Korean for example almost always requires something called a 주민등록번호 (resident registration number) or a scan of a passport to register, which can be very annoying. Other languages seem to have a lot of bloggers (Persian), some seem to use phpbb forums a lot (Norwegian). If a language meshes well with your online habits already it may be a nice fit, and you may find yourself using it more in your off time as well than you first expected.

#9: How useful / influential is this language? Check to see if the language is used just within the countries it is spoken officially in, or whether it extends to other areas as well. Sometimes a search will turn up some interesting details such as the fact that Italian is official in a region in Slovenia as well, or that Turkish (or a closely related Turkic language) is spoken in areas like Moldova (Gagauzia), Bulgaria, or Northern Iraq. German can be found overseas in quite a few areas too, such as Pennsylvania. Even Mongolian is spoken in an area where you wouldn't expect to find it, in a place called Kalmykia next to the Caspian Sea (the language is technically called Kalmyk but Mongolians all say they have absolutely no problem understanding it).

#10: What is the dialect / regional variety situation like? Some languages are very unified under a single standard and have little or no variation by region (Icelandic, and Romanian is also apparently quite similar in this respect), while others can vary considerably from region to region (Arabic, Indonesian). This means that sometimes learning a language to fluency will also require learning one or more regional standards as well. Check before learning a language to see just how influential a language's official standard is, and whether knowing this alone is enough or whether you will be expected to learn one or more variants as well to be considered fluent.


sabroso164 said...

Thank you for writing this post! Those of us who blog the topic of applied lingustics are easily ignored, when instead our writings should be at the forefront of discussions about social media 2.0. Knowledge of English is too often a justification for complacency when talking about learning another language. Your post moves the discussion about language learning ahead for all of us.

sabroso164 said...

Thank you for writing this post! Those of us who blog the topic of applied lingustics are easily ignored, when instead our writings should be at the forefront of discussions about social media 2.0. Knowledge of English is too often a justification for complacency when talking about learning another language. Your post moves the discussion about language learning ahead for all of us.

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