Thursday, January 25, 2007

Which Language To Learn?

A colleague of mind recently told me that his daughter's school had asked her to choose which language to study for the next three years. Knowing my interest in language, he came to me for advice. What an interesting question, I thought. And it goes far beyond being a choice that only high school students face. University students attempting to pick up a language that will bolster their choice of career, adults wishing learn something new, people wanting to connect more with their heritage, people who are relocating, people wishing to keep their minds sharp by learning something new- all face this same question.

In this case, his daughter had the choice of Latin, French, or Spanish. High school students, perhaps, have an easier choice than most because the choices are limited to the few languages that the school actually offers. But, even here some interesting decisions must be made. Of the three languages above, one can obviously divide them in Classical Languages (Latin) and Modern Languages (French and Spanish). So the first decision might be whether she wants to learn a classical or modern language.

Classical languages can be more difficult to learn (especially at the beginning) for a couple of reasons. First of all, you cannot find stories, novels, DVDs, and popular music in that language. These are great tools for learning a language. Not only is understanding a culture a crucial aspect of truly learning new language (see the post on Language and Culture), but the desire to understand what you are hearing or reading is a great motivator. Desire is an important part of learning a language. Everyone performs better when they have a desire to learn instead of treating language learning as a chore.

Additionally, classical languages can be more difficult because they often use explicit case endings which involve a high level of memorization initially. These languages also sometimes lack modern language features such as definite articles, making them seem awkward to modern speakers. However, there can be a thrill when learning a language that reaches back into the history of humanity. Once mastered, modern languages which are based upon a classical language will be easier to learn. But remember, difficulty is an important factor when choosing a language. Difficulty can also be measured by how different the language is from languages that you already speak.

If she chooses to study a modern language, she still faces an interesting choice. Both French and Spanish are amongst the top ten most spoken languages in the world. And each of them is spoken in many countries around the world. Thus, they are both quite useful. Usefulness is a major factor when choosing a language.

Both of these languages could provide opportunities for employment or career advancement. Both of them have a huge pool of films, music, and literature to enjoy. Location might be a factor when choosing a language to study. Here in New York City, Spanish would be of more use than French as there are many Spanish speakers living here. However, I would caution against allowing one's current location to heavily influence the choice of a language. It's easy enough to move somewhere else or get transferred.

Regularity might be a factor when choosing a new language, but again I would urge caution. Some languages (like English) are riddled with exceptions and special cases. This can make mastering a language difficult (though might not be a factor for beginning students regardless of the language).

Finally, personal aesthetics are an important factor when choosing a language. Everyone has some language to which they've always been attracted. Maybe it's a language your family used to speak or it's the language of a country where you had a fantastic vacation. Maybe you don't consciously know the reason. But, you've always loved the sound of that language, always wanted to learn it.

So, we've looked at some factors to consider when choosing a language:

  • desire
  • difficulty
  • usefulness
  • location
  • regularity
  • personal aesthetics

My colleague said that his daughter's teacher was pushing her study Latin, but that she was leaning in the direction of Spanish. Between those two choices, I recommended Spanish as it was useful here in NYC and would be easier to learn. She could always go back and pick up Latin later, having a great head start from all of the common roots that the two languages share. Personally, I would have chosen French. Though less useful here in New York City, I love the way it sounds and I absolutely love reading in French. This would fall under the "personal aesthetic" category from above.

Ultimately she chose Latin. I wish her bona fortvna.
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