Which language should you study?
Welcome to your first lesson on language learning. Today we will cover how to choose a language to study, whether you are thinking about taking up your first foreign language or your fifth. Learning a language is a long-term commitment, so it’s important to choose a language that appeals to you and will motivate you.
Discover your ideal foreign language by answering these three questions:
1. Are you interested in the cultures that use a particular language?
Check out movies and music from countries in which the language is spoken. Survey their history and catch up on their political situation. When you study a language, you’re learning much more than grammar and vocabulary; you’re immersing yourself in a new civilisation.
This step is particularly important if a language that interests you has a variety of standard dialects. Should you study European or Brazilian Portuguese? American or British English? European or Latin American Spanish? Your choice should consider both objective factors, such as the number of speakers of each dialect, and individual considerations, such as what you might want to read and where you might want to travel.
2. How different is this language from your native language?
Some languages are more difficult and time-consuming than others to learn as foreign languages. The main predictor of how difficult a language will be for you to learn is how different the language is from your native language. Would the language require you to learn a new script? Is its pronunciation straightforward and consistent, like Italian and Spanish, or less predictable, like English? Does it use an alphabetic script like English, Russian, and Arabic, a phonetic script like Korean and Japanese, or a logographic script like Chinese? Grammatically, does the language use many noun cases like Hungarian? Does it inflect (conjugate) its verbs in complicated ways, like French? Does it have several grammatical levels of politeness and formality, like Japanese?
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks languages according to how much they differ from English. The further a language is from English, the longer it will take native English speakers to learn. For example, Spanish takes considerably less time than Japanese for a native English speaker to learn. Try skimming a textbook, checking out beginner-level sentences from the news on WordBrewery, or reading articles on sites like to see the differences between your native and possible target language.
Difficulty is just one of many considerations, of course. Members of the WordBrewery team who are native English speakers have tackled Japanese, Arabic, and Turkish, and we did not choose those languages because they were easy. In fact, the unique challenges of a particular language can themselves be motivating because they create intellectually exciting puzzles for learners to solve.
3. What other languages is the language related to?
Languages are organized into families. The Indo-European family encompasses a vast number of languages ranging from Spanish to Hindi, its subgroups include the Romance family, Germanic family, and Balto-Slavic family. Awareness of language family structures is useful in several ways; for example, you can estimate the language’s similarity to English and, if you plan to become a polyglot, you can plan your long-term goals. If you learn Spanish or Portuguese, for example, you will find it much easier to learn French later on because those three languages are closely related members of the Romance family, which consists of languages derived from Latin.
Your Homework: Even if you have decided on your target language, do some research to learn something new about it! Check out its dialects, its language family, its FSI difficulty level, and make a list of possible resources.
Tomorrow we will show you how to find the best materials to learn your language.
Ethnologue | A catalogue of information about specific languages. Includes lexical similarity, dialect information, and more.
Omniglot | Overviews of specific information including examples of writing systems and audio.
WordBrewery | Read and listen to real sentences from the news in twenty languages.
Which Language Should I Learn This Summer? | A WordBrewery blog post with tips on how to choose a language to learn in a short amount of time.
How to Learn Any Language| Barry Farber’s book that inspired WordBrewery founder Ryan McCarl to become a polyglot. Includes learning strategies and a discussion of the challenges and benefits of studying different languages.
Is learning a language difficult? | A blog post by David Mansaray investigating whether learning a language is difficult or just complex.
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