Which Language Should You Choose to Study Next?

Expats are both avid globetrotters and an impressively polyglot bunch. In last year’s Expat Insider survey, our respondents revealed their linguistic skills: 88% of expatriates are at least bilingual, and 62% speak two or more foreign languages. Nearly half (48%) also consider their local language proficiency to be fairly or very good.

True language lovers probably don’t enjoy resting on their laurels, though: knowing a couple of foreign languages might not be enough once they have whetted their linguistic appetite. Considering there are up to 7,000 languages across the globe, prospective learners are slightly spoiled for choice.

How do you decide which language to tackle next? There are plenty of reasons for cracking open a textbook or downloading an app, but the following might offer some pointers for the indecisive language enthusiast.

The Pragmatic Choice

If you are in the same situation as those Expat Insider respondents who admit to speaking the local language only a little (29%) or not at all (12%), your next step is obvious. The longer you are going to stay, the more opportunities to practice you’ll have.

This is your chance to finally go grocery-shopping at the local farmer’s market without resorting to pointing and mime, or to have some vague idea of what the angry-sounding train driver is barking through the underground’s loudspeaker system!

Even if your local language skills are pretty solid, you might be planning a trip to a neighboring country or different region where you don’t speak the language. Granted, most people are usually friendly towards hapless, linguistically confused strangers.

They are frequently even friendlier, though, if you make an effort to say “how much for a cup of coffee?” or “where’s the bus stop?” in their own language — even if you may not understand their effusive answers.

Story time: In the pre-smartphone era, I asked a kind elderly lady for the way to my hostel in very bad Japanese. To this day, I have no idea what she was telling me.

However, she closed down her little flower shop for 15 minutes, took me by the hand, and guided me to the hostel’s doorstep. Perhaps she would have done this for all lost gaijin girls, but I’d like to think my bumbling attempts at Japanese were a bit of an ice-breaker.

The Easy Choice

You would like to keep your brain active with some mental gymnastics, but don’t have much time or are easily frustrated by lack of progress? You need the linguistic equivalent of signing up for the gym next to the office and going for an exercise program that plays to your strengths!

Basically, you want a language that has something in common with your mother tongue or another language you are already fluent in. It also shouldn’t involve those parts of studying that are very labor-intensive or don’t come naturally to you.

When I was thinking about getting back into language learning, I wasn’t sure where to start. So I browsed the online catalog of the MVHS (Munich Center of Further Education), which offers an amazing range of classes, from Arabic to Vietnamese.

A friend of mine was dabbling in the MVHS Mandarin courses at that time, but I was very sure Chinese wasn’t for me. First of all, I didn’t want to memorize 6,500 common hànzì just to read a newspaper article.

Second, all Chinese languages are tonal ones (like as many as 70% of all world languages): they use pitch — high or low sounds — to convey meaning. As someone who had occasionally struggled with English listening comprehension, I didn’t want to confuse (mother) with (horse) or mix up (fish) and (region).

If you are facing a similar dilemma, language families are an easy way out: find a foreign language (e.g. Spanish) that is close(ish) to one you are fluent in (e.g. French). They often share grammatical structures or related vocabulary. That’s how I settled on Norwegian.

While the Scandinavian languages split from the ancestors of modern German on the family tree a long while ago, they still have similarities enough. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that vits (‘joke’) means Witz in German, no kidding.

I’d wanted to go for Danish first, but that’s where the listening comprehension came in again. Sorry, Danes — I do adore Copenhagen, but (standard) Norwegian is so much easier to understand!

The Passionate Choice

Now that we have covered the practical language students and the lazy ones (like me), there’s still the romantics. No, I’m not talking about learning your spouse’s native tongue — although that’s the most beautiful reason of all. Some people simply excel at acquiring new language skills if they feel true passion for the country it’s spoken in or the history and (pop) culture it’s connected with.

If you can identify with that, stop wondering if it’s “useful” to devote all that time and energy to your latest hobby. Maybe you will never live in that particular country, or never get the chance to use your skills to boost your career. Sometimes, the journey is its own reward.

I once knew a guy — a bright grad student with a psychology degree, but no particular interest in foreign languages — who suddenly decided to teach himself Finnish. Yes, that language whose 15 grammatical cases make German noun inflections look like a piece of cake. Its grammar is the very opposite of the KISS (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”) rule.

Why would he do this to himself? A Finnish girlfriend? An exciting PhD program at Helsinki University? The actual answer was … Finnish metal bands.

He was such an ardent fan of the metal music scene up north that all the effort seemed completely worth it. For someone whose song collection included titles like “Pitch Black Emotions”, he bore his language-related struggles with cheerful equanimity.

In brief: there’s no “right” or “wrong” reason to learn a new language. Just think about which motivation resonates with you most and use it to make your choice!

4 Responses to “Which Language Should You Choose to Study Next?”

  1. i need the english for universitary degree but the german people offer 3 years in goethe institut and i was open and now 50 years later i am renewing th touch with german but i receive the invitation for japanesse and is a mid strugle with this and i am fascinated and now my mother language is the spanish so i want french italien portughes and rumanian for complementary sistem of study and i am very ebthusiastic and i am over 70 years old and nobody pay a penny for me iam with all this technology and i have faith in me thats al what i need 10 languages in 10 years yes i can

  2. @enriqueenciso:

    Ten languages in ten years? That’s quite an ambitious goal! Best of luck with your fascinating language learning plans!

  3. I am in Veracruz, Mexico and know some Spanish but need to know a lot more. Please help me. Thank you.
    Mariah Laitinen

  4. @Mariah Laitinen:

    Thank you for getting in touch! Unfortunately, I’m not sure if we can help you. This blog article was meant to be general inspiration for language students: we don’t necessarily have the resources to recommend individual schools or teachers in specific places.

    However, we do have several InterNations Communities in Mexico.

    https://www.internations.org/mexico-expats

    If you are already an InterNations member, you could try asking in their forums which resources other language students might recommend. Good luck!

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