How to choose a language to learn

Which language should I learn (next)? – Every polyglot, like, ever.

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.

Reasons to learn a language

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 language do you see yourself using in 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. Resources and likelihood of interacting with 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!)

Are there tutors online?
Courses you can take?
People near you who speak the language?
Language exchange events near you?

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.

5. 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.

Bad 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

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!).

Get $10 free credits with your first italki lesson purchase!

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 kickstarted.

Learning more than one language at the same time

“Is it possible to learn more than one language at the same time?
This is a question I get asked almost every day. If you balance your time well, it’s definitely doable. If this sounds scary but you still want to learn many languages, then start with one language and learn it to an intermediate level, and then learn another language through it! A lot of the Japanese resources I’ve found most useful are books written for Korean learners of the language (i.e. A Japanese textbook written in Korean. I’ve found this particularly useful because KR/JP grammar is so similar. It makes it a lot faster to understand new concepts when my mind is already in a language that shares similarities with Japanese. Here’s are two videos that you might find useful. The first one is about learning Korean, Chinese and Japanese at the same time, and the one below it is about how it’s possible fo polyglots to learn multiple languages. (Excuse the weird transition from very long to very short hair lol).

Language resources

I’ve created resource lists on this website that might help you.
I currently have pages for the following languages:

An app I recommend for self-study is Lingodeer. They started out with Asian languages but have since expanded their collection to include Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and more. Unlike Duolingo, Lingodeer has a holistic approach and delves more in depth into grammar. Chinese characters are also taught more intuitively, and you can switch between Traditional, Simplified and PinYin! The app is free up to a point and thereafter you need to pay to unlock the rest.

For readers of this blog, you can use my discount code LINDIE15 to get a 15% discount on any subscription made through the Lingodeer website. It’s really affordable for a year and will kickstart your language learning. You don’t even need to buy a textbook. Just use Lingodeer and make sure you’re immersing yourself in the language outside of the app too, and you’ll improve in no time!

That’s it for now!
I want to remind you that no one can make a decision for you and whatever your motivation is for learning a language, that’s unique and special to you. Keep going!

You can follow my language journey on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr.


When you don’t feel motivated to learn a language

You’re probably here because you’re looking for motivation to continue studying a language. Maybe you’re burnt out or maybe the original passion you had for the language has died out. Whatever your reason, read on to find some tips on what to do when you really don’t feel up for studying.

First of all, let’s try to identify the cause of your lack of motivation. By identifying the cause, you can come up with the correct solution. Some reasons might be:

1. Being scared of failure
This is one of the most common reasons why people struggle to sit down and study a language. They are so scared of making mistakes and messing things up that they don’t even try. In this case, your anxiety takes over your motivation.

Often times, our fear of failure stems from not seeing instant results. We look at people on YouTube or Instagram and see how fluent they are in the languages they’re learning, but we don’t see the time and effort they put into achieving the results. This brings me to the next point – you’re probably looking at the bigger picture and not taking language learning in bite-sized chunks.

2. Thinking ahead too much 
You’re thinking of the future too much. You wanted to be fluent, like, yesterday. Thinking ahead of how good it’ll feel to be fluent might be a good driver to study, but it won’t keep you going because that’s just mindless dreaming and not real action. You need a plan and goals to achieve your dreams – just thinking about them isn’t going to be enough. In our world of instant gratification and so-perceived overnight successes, it is becoming harder and harder to live and work with patience. You must understand that learning a language takes time and it requires a strong base and patience. Hold onto that. Language learning takes years, and nothing happens overnight.

4. Tiredness and mental health
Studying 24/7 is not effective for anyone. In fact, it will make you tired and demotivated since your body needs rest and a break. Your brain cannot take in massive amounts of information at a small time. If that were the case, language learning wouldn’t be a journey or an exciting thing to add to one’s CV because everyone in the world would be able to learn any language in minutes. Reward yourself for every little step you’ve taken and how far you’ve come, no matter if you feel progress is slow.

How to overcome lack of motivation

Remember why you started
Having a reason to begin and a reason to continue is crucial in language learning. There will undoubtedly be times when you feel tired of the language, crying over grammar at night, or feeling frustrated with yourself because you lack vocabulary. Remembering why you chose this language in the beginning can give you some hope! It’s not good enough to say you want to be fluent. Think of a tangible, measurable reason. Do you want to work in Italy? Do you want to converse in Tamil with your boyfriend’s parents? Do you want to understand Anime without subtitles? All of these are valid, measurable reasons. 

Change up your learning style and consider getting a study buddy or tutor
You might be stuck since you’re only using one textbook, or only going to classes once a week, and not using the language outside of that. Try adding variety to your language learning! If you’re used to sitting and studying from a textbook, try phoning a friend in the language instead. You can also get a language tutor if you’ve never gotten lessons from anyone yet. I love using italki to meet tutors – there are so many tutors for different levels and needs. Even if I have a busy schedule, I’m bound to find someone whose schedule fits mine. Try out italki and get $10 free credits for your first lesson here!

Clean up & change up your work space
We underestimate how much our environment affects our productivity and mental state. I think some of the popularity with studyblr (photos of people’s study spaces and notes on Tumblr) stems from the fact that the spaces photographed are very charming, tidy and quirky. Though you don’t need to go out and buy a new desk or flowers, just giving your work space a quick clean-up and making sure you have all your materials with you is already a big start.

Some more tips in this video:
Check out this video I made on motivation and language learning.

Don’t be so hard on yourself, and pat yourself on the back for what you’ve done so far. Can you see progress from a year ago to now? If so, you’re on the right track and you’ve done an excellent job. Keep going! It’s okay to slow down. Just don’t stop.

My friend Alex Rawlings said he once heard someone tell him that learning a language is like swimming in a river. If you stop swimming, you float back because of the current. If you keep swimming, no matter how slow, you’ll at the very least stay at the same place or move forward slowly.

You can do it, and I believe in you!

Illustration by Oops