If you’re lucky, you already know exactly which language you want to learn next. Congratulations! You can skip the following post and get back to bingeing Game of Thrones. But if you are among those struggling to decide which language to learn next, this post is for you. There are approximately 6,500 languages spoken today, and this massive number of options can quickly lead to what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” Many of us get stuck in “paralysis by analysis,” endlessly weighing pros and cons in a foolish effort to make the perfect choice. There is no perfect choice, of course, so we often make no choice at all. Or if we do manage to choose a language, we are left with a nagging fear that we made the wrong choice. Are we missing out on a more fulfilling adventure? Would another language be more useful in our career?
So what to do? While there is no right answer to the question, “What language should I learn,” there are at least some useful criteria we can use to narrow down the list of options. We can then spend less time deciding what language to learn and more time actually learning it.
How curious are you about the language?
The single most important factor in deciding which language to learn is your level of interest. What cultures, cuisines, destinations, and histories fascinate you? Which can you not shut up about? Which lead you down Wikipedia rabbit holes? Which language would you learn just for fun, with no practical or professional purpose in mind?
How many native speakers are there?
How many people people speak the language? Languages with large populations of native speakers tend to have more language learning resources (which can make learning easier) and also represent more professional opportunities to apply the language. That said, curiosity trumps all, so if you are truly interested in the language, don’t let a small number of speakers or resources dissuade you. Technically, you only need one speaker to practice with.
What are your travel plans?
Are you traveling abroad soon? Even if you will only be in a country for a few hours, days, or weeks, it’s well worth learning at least a few essential phrases in the target language such as:
- Thank You
- Excuse me
- I’m sorry
- This one
- That one
Where are your relatives from?
Which countries and regions does your family tree reach back to? Is the language of your ancestors still spoken today? Learning at least some of your ancestral language can strengthen bonds with overseas relatives and make heraldry research all the more fun and productive.
How similar is the foreign language to your first?
On the one hand, learning a language that is similar in structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation to your own will make the learning process go a bit more quickly. On the other hand, learning languages very dissimilar to your native language can provide a greater adventure and a stronger neurological challenge, which may improve brain plasticity and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
How will fluency in the language affect your career?
While economic incentives shouldn’t be the most important factor when choosing a language, they certainly are worth considering. Each new language you learn unlocks countless professional doors that would otherwise remain closed. Or perhaps more accurately, you wouldn’t even see the doors until you have the linguistic glasses to spot them.