So, you want to learn a foreign language, but which one do you choose? Here in the states Spanish seems appropriate, as it is becoming more and more widespread. Even French seems logical considering our friends up north (Canada, in case you were wondering :D). Or maybe Japanese or Chinese for the business world. And of course Italian is beautiful. Then there’s Russian and German and Afrikaans and… With so many languages in the world (some estimates say 6,900! But I don’t know if that includes dialects) how do choose one to learn?
I think the best way to choose is to look at why you would want to learn a particular language. Is it because you love the culture and want to understand them more? Or is your heritage German and you want to go back to your roots? Decide the reason for wanting to learn a language first. I can’t tell you what the best reason to learn language is. There are so many reasons and reasons within reasons that I can’t really say if there is a “right” reason. I do, however, think there is one reason that, for most people, could be considered a “wrong” reason.
Why “why not?” won’t cut it.
I recently went through an experience that I will never forget. Oh it wasn’t anything incredibly life changing, but it changed the way I pick what language I want to learn. I was undecided on what language I wanted to learn this summer and was flip-flopping back and forth from Japanese, German, Russian and French. I eventually decided to post pone German until the fall and Russian until the Spring of 2013. So that left me with Japanese and French.
Now let me give you the reasons for why I wanted to learn all these languages. Japanese is my first language love. I’ve had an interest in the language since I was 15. I love the culture and the people and I used to have a heavy interest in anime and manga and would often draw manga style pictures. I also believe that God has called me to be a missionary to share His love with the Japanese people.
German is my heritage. I have a lot of it on both my mom and dad’s side of the family. I think I am 50% German and 50% mutt. My great-grandma was an immigrant from Germany. The sad thing was, she never taught her kids (my grandma) or her grandkids any German. She believed that since they were in America they were going to speak English. (Ironically enough she taught my mother some French, which she didn’t even know!) So I would love to explore my heritage through this language. I also really like the sound of it and I like German music. (Silbermond is one of my favorites!)
Now Russian is a language that I have recently (the last year or so) fallen in love with. Like, madly, hopeless in love with. I have a fascination with WWII and Vietnam so that contributed to it. But I was really exposed to Russian through, oddly enough, the Call of Duty video games, Black Ops in particular. Often when you are playing the game you will hear the opponents (Russians in this cause) yelling to each other in their language. I became interested in it and started looking up things on Youtube. I learned a few phrases (which was really hard after the simple sounds of Japanese!) and listened to a lot of music and I found myself utterly smitten with Russian.
French had entered my head because my sister’s father-in-law is fluent in it. Her husband, my brother-in-law, also knows some and I thought that that would let me practice it a lot. It’s a neat language and they also speak it in Canada. I also sponsor a child through Compassion and her language is French. So I thought, “why not?”
Now, can you guess which one of these reasons is most likely to fail? That’s right, the last one. I, however, didn’t realize this until I had already started French. You see, my original plan was to study French over the summer. My reason: “Why not?” So I started listening to some French podcasts. And you know what? I was miserable. I kept thinking about what it would be like to get back to Japanese, my passion. Or how neat it would be to be studying German or Russian, but no, I was stuck doing French.
I’ll be honest and say I didn’t last long (two days exactly), but it wasn’t because I gave up, it was because of the advice of my family and friends. I’m the kind of type-A person who will force myself to go through with something no matter how painful it might be. I had already told my family and my brother-in-law and his dad that I was learning French and I felt obligated to continue. It didn’t matter that I was not liking it at all, I was gonna learn French dangit!
Thankfully, I talked to one of my friends about my problem and he told me to drop it because I might end up hating it if I pushed myself to learn it. (Thanks Kothe!) So after talking to him I decided to switch to Japanese, and let me tell you, I felt a TON better. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was excited about learning again. The lesson I learned from this was that “why not?” is not a good enough reason to learn a language.
Now I realize that there are probably exceptions to this, there always are. One of them might be a polyglot (someone who speaks a lot of languages) who has many languages under their belt and decides to add one similar to the ones they already have. There might even be people who are motivated enough and love languages enough in general that this reason would be good enough, but I think generally this is not a good enough reason.
I’m not saying there won’t be times when you want to throw in the towel, there will be. I’m not saying there won’t be times that are extremely difficult and very much NOT fun, there will. But if you are constantly thinking, “I don’t want to do this.” then maybe it’s time to switch languages. It’s okay if you stop and pick a different one; it’s not life or death I promise. I know this from experience. If you knew my sister’s father-in-law you would think I was crazy for quitting French after I had told him. He can be a serious and somewhat intimidating man who loves French, most people probably would have caved and just stuck with French. But I just couldn’t do it, and you know what? He understood and said if I did decide to learn it, he would be totally willing to help. So I promise, it isn’t the end of the world. 😉
So I can’t tell you what a good reason for learning a language is, but make sure you have a reason. “Why not?” and “I want to” usually won’t cut it.
So what about you guys? Have you ever tried to learn a language for the wrong reasons? Did it work out or not? Let me know in the comments!