Like I mentioned in my latest post, I am going to Brazil on a student exchange next spring. Counting out the few weeks I will hopefully have time to travel in a few Spanish speaking countries in South America, I will spent six to seven months in Brazil and Brazil only. And the stories have it that even some of the university professors aren’t especially proficient in English.
Not that I would want to travel to a place like that, anyway, and not learn the language. It is an exciting process since I’ve been learning my current tri-combo of English, German and Spanish for years now, and it has probably been close to a decade since I last picked up a new language. What makes it all the more exciting is that I don’t know speak any Portuguese yet. Zilch. Nada. I literally know more words in Hindi than I know in Portuguese. I’m confident that my Spanish will help me learn the vocabulary, but it also makes me nervous since the word on the street is that it is offensive to speak Spanish to Portuguese speaking people… And you know damn well I will be speaking a beautiful mix of Spaguese.
How would you guys like to join me on my crusade to learn a new language? It’s not too late for another New Year’s resolution yet! I was thinking about posting a series of articles related to language learning throughout the spring/summer where I would i.e. talk about best ways to learn a language and review a few language learning apps.
First things first though – if you’re gonna get anything out of this, you’re gonna have to pick a language to learn. It could be just the basics for a holiday or the medium to be able to talk about weather with your foreign boyfriend’s near-to-deaf grandmother, or you could go the whole billion yards and get fluent. Which language should you choose, though?
Easy mode: a related language aka Oh, I know this already
For me, Portuguese would probably fall into this category. Because it shares a lot of vocabulary with Spanish, I am already able to read some Portuguese-speaking texts and understand them, like course introductions at my exchange university’s website. Some years ago I took a year-long course of Italian, and my Spanish skills also came in handy with it.
Similarly, if you already speak one of the four Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish or Icelandic), you would stand a good chance of understanding a speaker of another Nordic language. German and Dutch are quite similar (even though to my ear Dutch still sounds like someone shoved a potato into a German baby’s mouth and put it in France), as are Finnish and Estonian and to some extent, even English and Spanish.
Pros: Learning familiar content is easy.
Cons: Constant mix-up with the other language as you’re trying to speak the other.
Medium mode: a widely used language aka I might need a dictionary for this
If you want to pick up a useful language that billions of people speak, there are a few things that might make learning easier. First of all, there will be more learning material available for mainstream languages. Secondly, the language is usually easily accessible through music, movies and literature. Thirdly, your motivation to learn might increase when you consider the usefulness of knowing a mainstream language and the benefits it can have to both your career and your trips.
Spanish, obviously, is a big one. Depending who you ask, it is the third or fourth most spoken language in the world and gets you through most of Central and Latin America as well as a few scattered countries around the world. Within Europe some of then most widely used languages are German, French, Spanish and Italian, and English, of course, but if you’re reading this you probably know enough of it already. Go you!
Pros: All the opportunities! Wherever you go, someone will understand you, maybe.
Cons: Your hipsterness will suffer if you don’t learn a really, really obscure language.
Hard mode: a rarer language aka I have made a huge mistake
So for whatever reason you really don’t want to touch a widely spoken language, or you know all of them already – what to do? You could always learn Finnish. He he. (I’m sternly looking at you, Ben.)
Finnish, though, easily falls into this category. Only five to six million people speak it and even though you would think it’s only useful in Finland, the language keeps popping up here and there. I had an American teacher who studied Finnish literature in the USA, which was just really bizarre to us students but it just goes to show that you could get unexpected, quirky opportunities if you know a rarer language. Of course it might also be harder to find studying materials or native speakers to practice the language with.
Pros: You’re super cool for niche markets and if you ever decide to live in a weird little country
Cons: You’re probably the only person you know who speaks it
Superhero mode: a language with a different alphabet system aka What even is life
Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic are all really widely spoken languages and definitely useful in business, but learning the language requires learning a while new alphabet. If you wanted to be even more hardcore, you could learn Greek or Vietnamese or something similar, that isn’t even that widely spoken.
One thing that seems to be in common with these kind of languages is that not only their alphabet is difficult but also their grammar. Chinese is even said to be one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Sometimes these languages require you to also learn a different set of mind, like with Japanese which only has one past time form to mean everything that happened, has happened and had happened. (Which sort of makes learning it easier too, I guess?)
Pros: Probably good employment prospects
Cons: And you thought your English professor’s cursive writing was incomprehensible
It’s impossible to realistically divide languages into difficulty modes, though, like in a video game. Your learning is not necessarily based on a rating I gave some language – I mean, I speak like one word of each of these languages I mentioned and most of those words are ‘beer’ or ‘platypus’. A lot of this is based on what I’ve heard other people say about the language they learn.Some people are also just not meant to speak some languages, I guess. My heart weeps manly tears thinking of that Canadian guy I met in Munich who spoke better German after four months of learning it than I did after ten years.
Which language have you always wanted to learn?