Many people who wish to learn a new language often struggle with which one they should study first. Many people think that since learning a language takes so much time and effort, you have to learn a language that is “worth it”. This usually means Spanish, French, English, or another language considered to be “in demand” for the world economy. Even though these languages are all beautiful and worth learning, your own personal reasons for studying language might make it more sensible to choose a language that is right for you.
So, which language should you learn first? In reality, that is up to you. The advantages that go along with the passion for a language are indispensable when it comes to studying language every day. Remember that studying a language is almost always an intense and demanding process. Even though some methods might be more effective or enjoyable than others, if you are not passionate about the language you are learning, you will find it difficult to motivate yourself to continue studying.
Why Passion Is Important
There are a lot of popular misconceptions centered around language learning. Some of the most annoying ones have to do with the “usefulness” of a given language. When somebody decides to study a Polynesian language, for example, many of their peers may ask them why, and encourage them to learn something more “marketable”, such as Spanish or Mandarin. Little do they know that many people of Polynesian descent study their native tongues as a way of connecting with their linguistic heritage.
Considering the fact that languages such as Mandarin (or Polynesian, for that matter) are extremely difficult to learn, marketability is far from the most important consideration that a language student must take. When selecting a language you intend to study to fluency, the most important thing is that you like the language you are studying. This will make it that much easier to push yourself to study, even when you don’t want to.
So, how do we figure out which languages we’re interested in, and how can we cultivate a passion for learning them? The answer to these questions lies at the heart of language selection. Essentially, we must acquaint ourselves not only with the vast amount of languages in the world waiting to be studied but also with the different motivations and strategies one might utilize when beginning to study them.
Why Should You Learn a Language?
Before we can think about why we would learn a specific language, we must look at the different reasons one might want to learn any language at all. If you live in a linguistically homogeneous society, what reason could you possibly have to squint at flashcards for months on end? When we sit back and consider all the advantages that language learning gives us, we can quickly make sense of the different motivations that drive language learning in general.
First of all, studying and honing any skill can be very fulfilling. Anybody who has practiced a sport or craft to an appreciable level will know what we’re talking about here. It feels good to become good at something, even if it takes a lot of time or effort to achieve.
Many motivations for language learning stem from this idea, but there are also specific cultural and historical reasons why somebody might want to study certain languages in particular. Like we mentioned earlier, many people who study lesser-known dialects do so because they wish to get in touch with the history and language of their native culture.
Conversely, many people also study languages in order to understand other cultures. This is especially true of people who study languages that are far removed from their native tongue. The classic example here is the American anime nerd who studies Japanese in order to feel closer to Japanese culture.
Learning languages for these reasons gives the student a unique opportunity to engage with ideas in a way they may have never imagined. Japanese is a very good example since it is almost impossible to directly translate Japanese sentences into English, because of the differences in how both languages communicate. Becoming immersed in the culture of your target language is not only good for motivation, but it’s also an effective studying tool.
Another motivation along this same vein is the history of language itself. English can be a very difficult language for foreigners to learn, because of the vast amount of different influences that have shaped English differently throughout history. English grammar is largely Germanic, and actually lacks things like grammatical gender, which other languages use to indicate how words affect each other in a sentence.
English instead uses abstract context to denote these ideas, and even though English grammar can be easily traced through a distinct Germanic root, modern English vocabulary is much more nebulous, and at once more rigid. English vocabulary today is influenced by Latin and Greek (both modern and ancient), as well as French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and a host of other languages. This makes it an extremely eclectic language to study, and makes it almost impossible to rely on rules or observed grammatical trends in order to understand it.
English isn’t the only language like this either. One can find, for example, French vocabulary even in Japanese, particularly when talking about food (modern culinary techniques and vocabulary were largely developed in France during the Renaissance, and as a result, most culinary vocabulary in any popular language is derived from French). There is also extensive English and German influence on Japanese from when the country was occupied by British forces following World War II.
So, as you can see, studying language can give you deep insights into a wide range of histories and cultures, as well as acquaint you with how these cultures have interacted and communicated throughout history. This is still but one of the motivational threads behind why we learn a language, but it gives you the idea of the scope of the question itself.
Advantages And Difficulties Of Different Languages
There are obviously a lot of different reasons why we might choose to learn a language. This is why it is important for students to take time and consider all of the things they feel when they consider which language to study. No matter how you slice it, learning how to speak a foreign tongue is an arduous and slow-going process and demands a lot of patience and dedication. If you don’t understand the advantages that a language might give you, you won’t be able to motivate yourself to continue studying it effectively.
Now, the first motivator that we discussed in this article was “marketability”. This is still the main driving force behind a lot of linguistic studies today. The fact is that if you can make money honing and marketing a new skill, why wouldn’t you? Of course, money alone cannot motivate the passions necessary to study language, and so it helps if the language you choose to study is easier than one you might have trouble with.
Case in point, if you want to learn French, but you have trouble wrapping your head around things like grammatical gender, you’re going to have a bad time. Similarly, if you choose to learn ancient Greek without having any knowledge of declensions and how they work, you will have a harder time than somebody who has learned ancient Latin before.
With language, it’s acceptable to take the easy way out. The idea is that you have to find a balance between difficulty, interest, and marketability. If you don’t consider a language to be advantageous to you, it is unlikely that you will feel motivated to continue studying it.
So, Which Language Should You Learn First?
Really, it’s up to you. As long as you carefully consider all the factors that affect language learning and your passion for it, you will not find it difficult to choose a language to study. If you’re still on the fence and don’t know where to start; choosing a language in the same family as your native language will usually eliminate many of the difficulties that first-time language learners experience.
Examples of these kinds of pairings are German and English, French and Spanish, Japanese and Korean, etcetera. Choosing a language that is most similar to your native language (or one that shares deep influences, such as Dutch and Afrikaans), will give you an indispensable leg up on your initial study period, which will make it a lot easier to stay motivated as you study.
In summation, being mindful about which languages you choose to study is the most important point. Remember that you have to learn a language for yourself much more than you must learn itby yourself. Even if you have the best resources and reasons to learn a language, it will be meaningless if you are unable to enjoy the language you are learning. For more information, some of you might want to look into linguistic families, and how different languages are related to each other.