What Makes a Language Important Enough to Learn?

My last post about the world’s top 20 languages really got me thinking. I realized that if I spoke the five biggest languages then I could communicate with over fifty percent of the entire world! This thought seemed quite attractive to me. I let the idea roll around in my head a bit and though I was excited at first the conclusion that I arrived at was rather discouraging.

Let’s take a quick look at the top five languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian. Not one of them is in the same language family. In other words, they all have grammars and pronunciations that are more different than they are alike and, with the exception of English and Spanish, their writing systems are all extremely different. Even in the case of English and Spanish, which share the Latin alphabet, the sounds of many letters do not match up like the /v/ in vaca and the /v/ in very.

The optimist might point out that there are, actually, a few little things in your favor if you want to learn these languages. Spanish is derived from Latin which, hundreds of years ago, had a big influence on both English and Russian so you’ll find some similarities between different words in those languages. The other four languages have borrowed many words from English so there are some words that will seem familiar between all five. These tenuous connections are really as good as it gets.

Not one of these five languages will help you much to learn the others. Fortunately, this is not always the case when you try to learn a second or third foreign language. Let’s say your native language is Italian and you learn to be fluent in German. There are a big number of languages that, belonging to the same linguistic family, share many of the same characteristics, or at least similar ones. Because of this, our Italian friend could then learn to speak good Dutch or Afrikaans while exerting about half the effort that he did to learn German or maybe even less. If our Italian friend learned Hindi it would take a lot of time and effort and then when he began learning, say, Russian he would have to pretty much start all over again.

The difficulty of learning the world’s top five languages got me thinking some more about what the “right” or “best” language combination is. If you are thinking about learning a language then I suggest you take this free online test which I’ve found to be quite helpful. Personally I think there are two general factors related to choosing a language to learn and, interestingly enough, they don’t have much to do with the total number people who speak any given language.

The first one is practicality. I think that most Americans could be bilingual in Spanish and English without too much trouble; the same goes for French and English in Canada. What’s the point of learning Mandarin Chinese if you are a mailman in South Boston? Will Russian be of much use to you as a computer programmer in Mexico City? If you have a lot of opportunities to practice a language and a practical use for it then you will certainly be more likely to learn it and learn it well. A hotel manager in Romania probably doesn’t care that Italian is not one of the world’s top 20 languages because a great deal of his customers are Italians and knowing Italian not only makes his job easier it also makes him a more valuable employee.

The second one, and arguably the more important one, is motivation. When I was a boy I met an old Swiss accordion player who said he spoke seven languages. When he saw the look of surprise on my face he said, “Where I am from if you drive for an hour in most directions you find yourself in a different country. Then the pretty girl across the room doesn’t speak your language and you are going to want to talk to her.” A Chilean from the south of that country may learn Croatian just to be able to read his deceased grandfather’s diary. The fiancée of a nice Cambodian boy whose family immigrated to Canada might want to be able to know what everyone is saying at family dinners at his parents’ house. Then there is the Anime enthusiast who is sick of reading subtitles and learns to read Kanji.

In any case, we are very lucky to be living in a time when so much information is available for free or for relatively cheap. I am looking to move in the near future and want to find new people to speak Portuguese with so I can keep up on that language. Portuguese isn’t a very common language here in the USA but I decided to do a bit of searching anyway. After looking online for only a few minutes I found a group of people, native Portuguese speakers and regular Americans too, who get together frequently to speak Portuguese, cook Brazilian food and dance Samba. I’ll have a two hour drive both ways to get to some of the events but at least I was able to find a fun way to practice a language that I am interested in.

What language combinations are you interested in? What language combinations do you think are best or at least very advantageous? Is this completely personal or are some combinations better than others?


11 Responses

  1. You’ve just put the case for learning Esperanto! Life is simply too short to learn all the languages of the world. I recommend Esperanto as a useful tool for travel and finding out more about the world. Take a wander around the net. A good place to start is http://www.esperanto.net
    Incidentally, there is quite a lively music scene in Esperanto. Some songs are translated, but there are original lyrics in this planned language too. A good place to start is http://www.vinilkosmo.com

  2. Bill, I’ve always heard that Esperanto was another one of those great ideas that just never really took off. It has a lot of good points that are hard to ignore though. I’ll definitely take a look.

  3. Dear blogger,

    This is Clare Li from eChineseLearning in Beijing,China. I’m very much interested in your blog. We would like to offer you and your readers some free 1 on 1 live Chinese lessons online to help you to get to know China better. Of course, we would love to hear your comments about our service.

    Please let me know if you’re interested. Looking forward to your reply.

    Clare Li

  4. Dear Clare,

    Thank you for your generous offer. I do not have a list of people who I send emails out to in order to receive updates on this blog so I really wouldn’t know how to get in touch with the dozen or so people who probably read it. If someone reads your comment on this blog and decides to look you up then I hope that you get your commission all the same.

  5. Hi Ryan,

    I think this is a great post. My current language combination is Spanish and Portuguese, as I am really interested in Latin American studies. However, I would never rule out the possibility to study French and Italian. In the U.S., depending on where you live, many language combinations are very advantageous. I live in Boston so there are many Spanish and Portuguese-speakers. Some friends live in Westfield, MA — and there are a lot of Russian speakers there.

    You bring up a good point that learning a new language is often an issue of practicality. People often endeavor to learn a new language for work, for travel, or just to be able to communicate with that many more people. My motives combine all three. I would love to be able to communicate on a daily basis in several languages. When I travel, I enjoy chatting with new and interesting people. And I know that the more languages I know, the more people I can speak with. For me, the fact that I focus on Spanish and Portuguese is because I am absolutely fascinated by their cultures — so that is why I continue with my language studies…mainly because it is practical for me, and I know it will open many doors for me.

  6. Jeffrey: Acho bem legal a sua combinação de línguas! A sala de chat do polyglot-learn-language.com é ótimo para praticar as línguas de uma forma diária. Tem vários brasileiros que vão lá e também alguns portugas bem bacanas. Siga com o português porque vale a pena!

  7. Ryan:

    Obrigado para a sugestao! I will give that website a try 🙂

    Um abraco,


  8. I started with Mandarin and am now getting into Cantonese after rejecting some none related languages to learn. Because of the connections the payback will be quicker and in thoery I should be able to walk in China town in cities throughout the world :).

    I wanted to learn Japanese and or Spanish but whilst still working on the Mandarin I realized I just do not have the time. If I do get around to another European language it would probably be German because it seems the most natural for an English speaker (possibly helped by the fact that I have a lot of South African relatives so Dutch and then German sound quite familiar to me even though I don’t speak Afrikaans)

    I aim to completly master Mandarin, but that takes time and I don’t think I have the time or inclination now to learn something that is not close to Mandarin or English.

    I did investigate Spanish but came to similar conclusions, another factor is related to your comments on practice is that the people you mix with are more likely to speak two related languages, many Chinese I speak Mandarin with speak Cantonese and some would actually prefer to use Cantonese.

  9. Chris: I very much agree with your decision to limit yourself to Cantonese and Mandarin for now. Kudos for being European and learning those two languages. I always tell people who ask that Chinese is easier than many people think but definitely not for wussies. As for your next language, I would say to go for German. I love Spanish but I’m from the Western USA and have lived for a while in South America so Spanish has been wonderfully useful and enriching to me, however, it sounds as though you’re more interested in German and will have more use for it out there in Europe.

  10. Hey great stuff pal!!
    I have been learning german since a montyh.Can you tell me how to speak it fast and fluently..

  11. What’s with the link there James? It seems to me that you’ve already got a way to learn German quickly and are trying to sell it, lol.

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