How to Choose Which Language to Learn

The first question on any would-be language learner’s mind is this:

Which language should I learn?

It’s a difficult question. The actual number of distinct languages in this world is something that’s heavily debated among linguists and anthropologists alike, but suffice to say the number is well towards ten thousand.

Sounds like a lot of choices, right?

Well, yes and no.

Many Languages, Few Resources

There are certainly lots of possibilities, yes, but if you don’t already have a particularly rare language in mind, you’re not likely to want to learn many of the world’s most obscure languages.

Why? Simply because:

  1.    a) You’re likely unaware of the existence of the large majority of these languages.
  2.    b) You want to learn a language you can find learning resources for.
  3.    c) You want to learn a language that you’ll have a decent chance of speaking.

Take a look at this list of the most widely spoken languages on earth, sorted by number of native speakers.

Chances are, unless you hail from a geographical region where many of these less-spoken languages are common, you’ve probably only ever heard of the top twenty-five languages, while the rest are more or less new to you.

This is a good place to start.

Make Language Lists

Print out the list of the top-25 most widely spoken languages or pull it up on your computer screen.

Then take a piece of paper, and divide it in two columns:

1) Languages I want to learn

3) Languages I don’t want to learn

Now, take two minutes, and split up the original list of twenty-five languages across the two categories.

Don’t worry about the reasons why you feel a certain language belongs in a certain column. Just go with your “gut feeling”, and ask questions later.

If you’ve never heard of a given language among the twenty-five, just throw it in the “I don’t want to learn” category. As you progress as a language learner, you’ll likely learn more about these “unknown” languages, and be better equipped to consider them as “want-to-learn” languages in the future.

Whatever your results are, try to narrow your “want” list down to five or less candidates.

Prioritize Your Passions

Once you have your handful of preferred languages, set it aside, and answer this question:

What am I most passionate about?

It’s tempting to go “too deep” with a question like this, but as before, just go with your gut reaction.

Maybe you love sports, or movies, or television. Maybe travel, cuisine, or literature really get you going.

Make another list, this time of your five greatest passions.

Now, with both your “top languages” and your “top passions” list in hand, see if you can find connections between the two.

If your greatest passion is film, for example, and your preferred languages include Italian or French, you may want to learn one of those languages in order to explore the rich history of cinema within those cultures.

If you’re particularly drawn to ice hockey and have an interest in Swedish or French, you may be happy to know that Sweden and Quebec both have great traditions in the sport.

Connect Your Passion to Your Second Language

Try to draw as many connections between your passions and your preferred languages as possible. Soon, you may begin to notice that one language and culture in particular has lots to offer you in domains that you already have a great interest in, in ways that the other languages or cultures may not.

Once you find that language, what you have to do next is simple:

Get started learning!