It’s always exciting learning a new language, but choosing one feels like a huge level of commitment… as much as you have the motivation to learn a new language, you just can’t bring yourself to choose one to start with! It makes sense: language learning is personal. Your life, choices, thinking, entertainment, and hobbies will all be affected by the language you learn if you immerse yourself in it enough. The reason you decide to learn a language should become the motivation for you to continue.
I cannot tell you which one to learn, but I can help guide your decision-making process.
1. Which languages do you already speak?
This is a great place to start. If you speak Dutch, learning Afrikaans will be a breeze. Likewise, having a background in French will make learning Spanish easy. If you’re looking to add to your list of spoken languages, consider learning one that’s from a similar language family of a language you already speak. This being said, if you’re only a beginner in Korean, for instance, learning Japanese might be a challenge. Although it has similar grammar and vocabulary to Korean, it might be these similarities that cause you to confuse the two. I suggest learning one to an intermediate/advanced level before you start learning another.
Be careful not to just learn a language without being genuinely interested and passionate about it. For years I was not interested in Spanish in the slightest. It would have been so easy for me to learn it since I speak French, but I knew I wouldn’t have the motivation to continue past beginner. It was only this year that I started becoming more interested in Spanish from a cultural perspective. It became less about ‘adding a new language to my list’ and more about ‘I am learning this because I’m genuinely interested and want to know more’.
2. Which language makes you excited when you hear it?
Sometimes just the sound of a language is reason enough to get interested in learning it. So many people agree that French is the sexiest language in the world. For me, I really enjoy the sound of Vietnamese. I discovered Vietnamese music a few years ago and have since then been dabbling in the language. Years later, I still get butterflies when I listen to Vietnamese music, and each time I hear it, I get reminded how much I want to improve and continue learning. If you don’t like hearing a language, you won’t want to study it.
3. Which one do you see yourself using in the future?
Can you see yourself using this language for the rest of your life? Is it important to invest a lot of time in the language, or is it a short-lived phase?
My parents moved to Japan when I was in my first year of university. As a design student, I knew how prolific Japanese graphic design is and used my goal of working in the design field in Japan one day to motivate myself to study the language more. In my third and fourth year at uni, I did internships at Japanese design companies in Tokyo.
If I hadn’t started learning the language in my first year of uni, I wouldn’t have been able to reach a working-level proficiency by the time of my internships.
Currently I live in Singapore. A lot of my colleagues speak Mandarin, and my office has a branch in Indonesia. If I see myself working here for the long term, it might be a good idea for me to brush up my Mandarin and Indonesian too. Consider where you see yourself in a few years and which language will be most beneficial to your future.
4. Cultural reasons
Is there a particular culture that you are interested in, respect, and feel like you could adapt to? Perhaps the structure, politeness and perceived rigorousness of the Japanese culture is something you find stability and order in. Or maybe you’re not afraid of straightforward conversations and saying things as they are – then maybe Korean is for you as Koreans are more direct than the Japanese. Maybe you’ve been watching traveling to France since you were young. Enjoying the culture of a language will help create unique learning opportunities and keep you interested in the language.
5. Available resources and native speakers
Ask yourself for which language you can most easily find native speakers and resources right now. (Read further to find my resource list for various languages!)
You can consider looking at how widely-spoken the language is. If you’re looking for business opportunities, lots of resources and a huge likelihood of meeting native speakers, you can pick up a language like French, German, Arabic, Spanish or even Japanese. If there’s a language that tugs at your heartstrings that isn’t widely spoken but you really want to learn it, do it anyway! Every language is valid, useful and will open doors. Language learning is allowed to be a hobby and just because you’re not using it with native speakers every day doesn’t mean it isn’t bringing you joy.
Unwise reasons to learn a language
- To impress people. They’ll get bored eventually and you won’t have a solid foundation to stay motivated with. Language learning is personal and if your motivation is an external source, you’ll lose hope soon. Do it for yourself and don’t compare yourself to others!
- Only to look good on your CV. I know people who study a language for work reasons but absolutely despise it. If you dislike learning a specific language, of course you’ll want to spend the least amount of time on it and begrudgingly go trough your lessons. You won’t advance as quickly as you would if you were passionate about it!
- A boyfriend/girlfriend unless you’re serious about staying together for the long term. Many people have told me after they break up, they have such a negative feeling towards a language and don’t want to continue at all. People and situations change, and you need a more sustainable reason to learn a language than romance. This is up for debate though. I started learning Hungarian because of a guy and even though we don’t talk anymore, I still love the language very much. Everyone reacts differently to breakups, so decide for yourself!
Getting started once you've decided on a language
Language tutoring vs self-study
The benefits of having a tutor are one-on-one guidance, receiving homework and corrections, and having someone keep you accountable for your progress. If you can’t find a tutor in your area, you can take lessons online, on a site like italki. I’ve used italki for Chinese but the variety of teachers for each language is great. You can choose a tutor based on their prices, experience and availability. Something I really enjoyed about having a tutor is that my instructor would make Quizlet flashcards for me at the end of each lesson based on the new vocab we learnt together (something I was too lazy to make myself but felt obliged to use!)
There are also fabulous reasons to study on your own, like setting your own pace and goals and not being bothered by fellow students’ lack of progress (or faster speed). Self-study means you can decide when you want to learn and how much you want to learn at a time. It doesn’t mean you need to be completely on your own though! There are excellent apps and resources to help you get started.