Monday, November 7, 2011

I am Planning on Learning a New Language - Which One Should I Choose?

Learning a new language isn't as simple as just choosing one at random and opening a book. Hopefully this article can help you to make a more informed decision on which language you want to learn - and why.

So, let’s say you already have a language or two under your belt, and you (the intrepid linguist that you are) decide it is high time to expand your lexical horizons.

So, which language is it going to be?

Choosing another language to learn –whether it be your third or your thirteenth- is an important decision (well, at thirteen maybe less so!) You will be dedicating a significant portion of your time to mastering the structural, phonological, not to mention cultural ins-and-outs of this new language; depending upon your background, the investment required can be huge, and as such it would be wise to consider “what exactly will I get out of this?” Here are some ideas to help guide you in your decision:

What will I use this new language for? - (Or: what is the overall goal?)

When choosing a language it is a good idea to consider your long term goals. In five years how will mastering this language be of benefit to you? Are you going to use it in business, or leisure? Are you learning so that you can communicate with a loved one? It is most important to first understand why you are learning a language, as that will set the stage for both how you learn it and how you will utilize it. A businessman learning Chinese is going to have different needs, time constraints and goals than a senior citizen learning French or an interpreter/translator learning Italian.

How relevant is this new language? - (Yes Dad, Latin is still useful!)

This is related to the above but with a greater focus on the practical use of your new language. For interpreters and translators this boils down to the overall market demand for services. Or in other words: what kinds of returns are available for your investment? Learning Sanskrit can be interesting, but how much work is it going to bring you? It may be a good idea to see which languages are in high demand and go from there.

How easy will this new language be to learn? – (Going from English to Arabic isn’t easy!)

Let’s face it: some languages are easier to learn for some people. This can be due to languages sharing a common family or to the inborn talent of the linguist. It may be common sense, but if you are familiar with a certain group of languages, picking up another from within the set can be a shortcut to diversifying your service offerings. On the other hand, picking up a radically different language that sets you apart from other professionals in the field could help you to carve out a niche –but if it is truly different from the languages you have learned so far the required investment of time and energy will be greater. How much are you willing and able to put into this new endeavor?

To sum up: figure out what your personal and professional goals are, have an understanding of the current market needs, and do an assessment of how much you are actually able to invest before you make your decision. 

I would like to hear your thoughts; what have I neglected to mention? How have you made this decision in the past?