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With so many languages out there, which one(s) to learn? (#378)

With so many languages out there, how can one chose which one(s) to learn?

This is one of those never-ending questions that you hear others endlessly ask themselves.

I personally do not think there is a right or wrong answer, but perhaps there are better answers than others.

I was lucky that I had both English and French from almost the beginning.  Yet I realize that others in Canada do not necessarily have the opportunity to receive a footing in both languages so early on and at the same time.

However, I too had language-learning experiences with other languages as an adult.  In addition to the above two, I dabbled in four others, exploring whether or not I would like them, and if I would find them useful.

I studied and used Chinese for many years (in fact the majority of my adult life), I studied Arabic for a couple of years, I gave Spanish a shot for a couple of years (a few lessons, but mostly concentrated on reading the news for a year), and I gave Portuguese at shot at the same time as I tried Spanish.

Yet, I dropped Arabic owing to the fact that it would require a huge continued effort (a part-time job in and of itself) – time which I simply did not have owing to the fact that I was already concentrating on Chinese and my career.

I also dropped Spanish and Portuguese because of a lack of time.  Yet I was happy with the progress I made within a year of studying them.  My French gave me a huge jump-start on Spanish and Portuguese.  It allowed me to rapidly make progress in reading them (to the point that I do not have many difficulties when reading a newspaper in Spanish or Portuguese).    I’m cool with that, and I don’t have any burning desire to take them further.

What langauge(s) would I recommend to Canadian Anglophones who wish to learn a second or third language?

As I said above, I do not think there are right or wrong answers, but there perhaps are better answers than others.

First and foremost, I recommend you learn what interests you.  If you do not have an interest, you will not feel stimulated in your studies, and it simply won’t fly.

The unique situation with learning French in English Canada:  

Yet, if you’re Anglophone in Canada, I would recommend you explore French before looking at other languages.  You have more French language-learning materials and cultural references available to you in Canada than for any other languages – making French an easy(er) moving target to tackle than other languages.

At the very minimum, you at least would be able to rapidly come to the conclusion whether or not French interests you for continued studies.

Building on this, it is sometimes easier to take an interest in French than other languages because, contrary to other languages, you can consider yourself to be learning “your own” language if you take the plunge with French.

Because French is one of our country’s two languages, as an Anglophone Canadian, you would not be learning a “foreign” language.  You are able to immediately embrace the fact that you are learning your country’s own language.  You can claim ownership over it, and be proud of learning and speaking it.

At the end of the day, you can say “This too is my, and my country’s language”.  Other languages do not afford you that “feeling” (learning languages and emotions are closely linked… You have to feel good and proud about what you learn).

French also opens the doors wide-open to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, and Romanian right from the beginning.  If you can attain an upper-intermediate level of French, you should be able to quickly learn to read the above other languages within a year or so.

Beyond French, I would also consider the following options in deciding what language to tackle:

  • Do I still have an interest in other languages, and which one?

Even if you are interested in a little-spoken language, such as Latvian or Faroese, you still may be fascinated by the learning it.  Thus why hold back if that’s what you get off on?

  • Do I think I would use it often?

Most Arab-speaking people I know who (or those who I am likely to run into) already speak English or French.  Therefore I felt it kind of negated the “need” for me to learn it, and my interest sort of dropped off.

Yet in the case of Chinese,  most people who I would be interacting with (and do interact with) in Chinese would / do not speak English or French.  The need for me to speak Chinese has always been there (for personal interactions, career, and relationships).

From my travels in Mexico and South America I quickly came to the realization that most people there also do not speak English or French – hence making it obvious to me that Spanish and Portuguese would be useful languages to learn.

  • What resources are available to learn the language?

If I were to suddenly find myself in a love-affair with Dzongkha (the national language of the country of Bhutan), that may be fine and dandy.  But if it were impossible to find find comprehensive learning and practice materials in Canada, then it would make the task all that more difficult.

In the end, owing to a lack of available materials, I could end up wasting precious time (perhaps years and years) learning the language, whereas I could have possibly mastered another “material-ready” language in half the time.

These are just my few thoughts on the issue.

Again, for those in English Canada, I would certainly encourage you to at least explore French as a list-topper.  It will open a billion doors for you in Canada (employment, full participation and a feeling of cultural ownership over your own country, travel and relocation opportunities, etc, etc.).  In addition, it will make learning many other languages much easier.

I firmly believe that knowing other languages has afforded me more opportunities than any single university degree could have ever afforded me.  I would have never done what I have done (or what I am doing) without having both English and French.

Adding a third language on top of that (Chinese) pushed the global-envelope open even further.

Hopefully this helps to serve as a bit of encouragement in your own language-learning adventure.   Sometimes it takes hearing about others’ stories to help find that little bit of extra “footing”, “context” and “incentive” in the realm of language learning.