How To Learn a Language Fast – Which Foreign Language Should I Learn?

by greenMinimalism

Last time I explored the multifarious (from Latin multifariam, “in many places or parts”) benefits of studying a foreign language or two in your spare time.

It always surprises me when people ask: “which language should I learn?” For it shows that simply learning a language, any language, is a higher priority for people than actually assimilating a particular culture. It’s a very American question to ask.

Traditionally, you’d learn the languages that would advance you in life – for instance, up to the Victorian times you’d need to learn Latin if you wanted to penetrate the educated elite in England. In fact, even the Bible was off-limits unless you could read Latin until Luther’s controversial translation in the 16th century.

Yet nowadays we native English speakers have the luxury of expecting everyone else to respect the imperialism of our language. Knowing a foreign language doesn’t seem to be necessary at all, and if you do desire to learn one, you’re spoiled by choice.

“I dreamed I spoke in another’s language,
I dreamed I lived in another’s skin,
I dreamed I was my own beloved,
I dreamed I was a tiger’s kin.” – Clive Barker

Most American schools, if they teach languages at all, teach Spanish for obvious reasons. In England, French is the most commonly studied language by students – in fact, French is the most popular ‘second language’ of all, which some find slightly mysterious given that Spanish and Chinese are far more important global languages today.

Okay, it’s not that mysterious, except maybe when Commonwealth territories like Australia make French part of the curriculum when Sydney is over 10500 miles away from La Ville-Lumière. Yet the influence of French on English is palpably enormous, so I maintain that conquering French is a logical step for any English speaker to make.

However, the best type of motivation is necessity. If you were air-landed into Hungary and forbidden to leave, then you’d pick up some working  Hungarian naturally. Failing necessity, my advice is the same as Steve M’s, who commented on the preceding post in this series: “I think a sine qua non for learning a foreign language is an interest in the target country/culture.”

Failing interest in a particular culture, the next best way to choose is to select a relatively simple or widespread tongue. Spanish is the perfect combination of ease-of-learning and ubiquity. The table below includes the most common languages with the number of speakers. The difficulty column was written after a brief discussion with some fellow linguists; please feel free to contest any of the ratings:

Language Difficulty for English speaker Native speakers
Esperanto 0/5 0m
Italian 1/5 58m
Spanish 1/5 376m
Portugese 2/5 203m
Dutch 2/5 30m
French 2/5 213m
German 3/5 91m
Polish 3/5 38m
Swedish 3/5 10m
Russian 4/5 167m
Hindi 4/5 487m
Latin 4/5 0
Modern Greek 4/5 11m
Mandarin Chinese 4/5 1000m
Arabic 5/5 285m
Japanese 5/5 127m
Korean 5/5 70m

Two big mistakes made by beginning linguists are to either pick a challenging language or to try to learn too many at once. Initial enthusiasm will get you far, but you will soon run out of willpower if you make the job so difficult for yourself.

Recently, my friend Jake tried to learn Chinese. At first, he was astounded by its relative lack of grammar and intuitive way of compounding nouns. He continually attempted to galvanize me into learning Chinese too, although I declined, knowing how much of a time commitment it would take to start learning a language where you have very few footholds. Sure enough, Jake, who is monolingual, gave up on Chinese just a few weeks later due to his frustration at continually forgetting all the new vocabulary.

My best advice to people (unless you are tremendously inspired to study another language) is always start with one of the big European languages. Spanish or Italian are ideal. Once you have one, the others become increasingly effortless to acquire. In fact, I’ll soon write about how you could speak 6 languages (Italian, Spanish, French, Portugese and German plus English) to a high standard by studying for just an hour a day over the course of some years.

These languages also possess the finest literature. Reading a classic novel in a foreign language is one of the greatest rewards of learning; I won’t forget the feeling of being able to fully understand Proust for the first time in its silky smooth French.

Another option to consider is starting with Esperanto. Studies have shown that once you know Esperanto, learning another language is much easier. I have only looked at Esperanto once in the past, in one of those dangerously ephemeral bursts of enthusiasm which I warned against above, but I remember that its grammar was so minimal and logical that you’d make rapid, encouraging progress.

So my final verdict is: if you’re just learning a language for fun, Spanish, Italian, French or Esperanto are perfect and safe choices. There’s still a lot of choice right there! On the other hand, unless you’re visiting South Korea, it’s best to avoid beginning a project like learning Korean, which will take disciplined study over a large period of your life and will not show a great number of tangible benefits.

Onto finding the best learning method!

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