How We Decide What Languages To Learn

Speak to Anyone in the World

People tell us after we tell them about our language learning plans: “Wow, you’ll be able to speak to just about anyone in the world.”

This then begged the question:  What languages would we have to learn to speak to anyone in the world?

What a goal!

I have a list of languages I want to learn (it’s pretty long). Out of curiosity, I made a map of everywhere I could travel with these sixteen languages. Here it is (the ones in light grey are ones where I wouldn’t know a primary language):

How to Speak to Anyone in the World by learning these sixteen languages
What countries speaking 16 languages will let you communicate with (light grey ones are countries not covered). Most notably this includes Eastern Europe, some parts of Africa, a chunk of Asia and Papua New Guinea.

But wait. Am I just trying to cover the world? If so, shouldn’t I start with Hindi and Russian? Maybe. But I have other priorities.

There are so many languages out there. There are some countries with several – even dozens – of major languages spoken by significant groups of people.

So this brought us to one guiding question: Why do we learn languages?

Why do we learn languages?

The ‘why’ is critical. Because it’s more than just geographic coverage.

Our main motivation is to be able to travel and understand people different to us that would otherwise be inaccessible.

There are many other solid motivations to keep you going. It might be to speak to family or a loved one. Maybe it’s intellectual curiosity, like to read novels in French, or to keep a small language alive. A minority might be doing it purely to impress people.

Our motivations will also dictate how we learn. For example, if our motivation was to learn and perform French poetry, we’d go in super deep and focus a lot on rich vocabulary and perfect diction. If our motivation is to just chat with random locals around the world and have a laugh, we wouldn’t go anywhere near as deep.

We figured out our rules in Socratic style, which is a generous way of saying a rambling conversation.

Dana: “Hey Jo, let’s learn Russian!”
Jo: “What, I don’t want to go to Russia! OK, maybe another country that speaks Russian. Russian’s pretty cool. But isn’t it also really hard?”
Dana: “OK you’re right. Well, we’re going to Estonia… but I don’t want to learn Estonian. It’s one of the hardest languages in the world, we’re not staying long, and everyone there speaks English.”
Jo: “How about Swahili? They speak it in the Lion King and it sounds so beautiful!”
Dana: “Well, it is the most spoken language in Africa. But what about Xhosa? It has those click sounds!!”
Jo: “But do they speak it in the Lion King?
Dana: “No”
Jo: “Also more people speak Swahili and I want to go to Tanzania and Kenya. Also, Lion King.”

What guiding principles do we use to choose languages?

Let’s start, for arguments sake, with one assumption: we’re going to try to learn only languages spoken by a large number of people. So we chose them from this list.

  1. Do we want to go to the country/regions where it’s spoken, and will it help us connect with people? You have to want to go there. For the longer, the better. And it has to be a necessary language to communicate well with people.
  2. How easy is the language? An important factor to weigh up. We might invest a year in one language, but get a similar return from investing two months into another.
  3. Is the language cool? How awesome would it be to speak this language? How impressed would they (and others) be? This is important!

Let’s talk about these.

Do we want to go to the country/regions where the language is spoken, and will it help us connect with people?

We want to go to a LOT of places.

Our main ‘why’, as we talk about in this post, is to connect with people outside our comfort zones, to genuinely connect with people and cultures different to our own.

For us, this is going to mean spending time everywhere but the US and Australia. Africa (all regions – North, East, West), the Middle East (especially Arab countries where we would be least comfortable), most of Asia (despite Jo and I having spent time in various countries, there are so many nuances in this rich part of the world), Eastern Europe (Russia and the Former Soviet Union), Central Europe (the Stans, the Balkans, Latin America (the Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries at least) and probably other places we’ll think of later. Central Asia. Greenland.

An important secondary consideration is: will we even need the language to connect with the local people there? This can vary dramatically.

Take French for example. It’s the official language of France and its overseas territories, as well as for a number of countries in West Africa. But we have to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not universally spoken in those countries. The dominant spoken languages vary greatly from country to country, but French may at least be a lingua franca, unfortunate pun not intended.

For East Africa, Swahili is spoken as a mother tongue by only an estimated 14 million, but is spoken as a second language by close to 100 million people in a number of countries. So it also becomes a useful language to learn as long as we are aware it’ll never be a mother tongue for both parties in most conversations.

How easy is the language?

“But isn’t that language hard?”

YES! They’re all hard! There are no ‘easy’ languages. Just some that won’t drive you QUITE as crazy. And they’re hard in at least a few ways. It depends on what your mother tongue, is, too.

Benny Lewis thinks every language is easy, because a child can speak them. He’s right; they’re only as hard as we make them for ourselves. We tend to be our own worst enemies by sending up roadblocks, like clinging to failures.

But knowing what you’re up against helps you decide how much effort to put in, and what to expect from learning.

This analysis assumes you’re an English speaker who’d learn in English. You may or may not know some other languages. I’m also going to consider just languages people learn – say, the ones most spoken in the world, the kinds that might have a couple of phrasebook options available on Amazon.

There are four main ways in which a language may be easy (or hard).

Dimension 1, Vocabulary: The words are familiar.

Take French or Spanish. “Coche” is pretty easy to remember as “car”. Other words like “político“, “Restaurante”, “Gobernamiento”, “Telefono”,Legislación“… all pretty easy to guess. Go to Elmundo.com and you can kind of figure out what’s going on even without knowing any Spanish.

How to choose a language to learn - El Mundo
How to choose a language to learn – El Mundo

The same is true of French and other languages with a familiar alphabet and a lot of related words.

Go to the front page of China Daily and it’s a different story. You’re just looking at the photos now.

How to learn any language - Chinese newspaper - people's daily

Dimension 2, Pronunciation: It’s nice when it’s easy, but it usually isn’t

No language has REALLY easy pronunciation (including English for non-native speakers). But some get way harder.

Like with tones in Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. Or sounds originating in different parts of the mouth, like in Arabic, German, Hebrew, Dutch (there’s a trilling ‘R’ from the back of the throat that bedevils me) or even Spanish (the R) or even French (again, the R. What’s with R?). 

The easiest languages are those that have fewer sounds than in English, which are standard and usually follow rules. Like Bahasa Indonesia, for example, is the easiest major language I can think of (>300M speakers). It has the blessing of being relatively modern, having been standardised in the 1940s at the formation of the Indonesian nation. Korean and Japanese are very easy to pronounce (if you can read the words). The hardest major language would be Cantonese. Vietnamese is actually more linguistically dense, but at least has a standardised Roman writing system. (Cantonese has three non-character-based writing systems, and it’s not as well documented.)

Dimension 3, Alphabet: It’s great if there’s a Latin script, or at least some kind of alphabet

It’s nice if it’s an alphabet you know (French, Spanish, hey even Vietnamese!), but if it’s not, it’s nice if it is an alphabet at all. Korean has a very standard Arabic and Farsi have alphabets – but they write right to left, and don’t write in vowels, which throws a lot of people for a loop.

Sitting some where in the middle, at the ‘somewhat complex’ level are Indian languages, of which there are many, with many scripts. The common languages use syllabic scripts, meaning each major letter usually represents a consonant, with an attached vowel (and sometimes just a standalone vowel/consonant).

The very hardest scripts are those using Hanzi (in Mandarin Chinese)/Kanji (in Japanese), which are all the Chinese languages (which share a common script and written form, but not common verbal expression) and Japanese languages. You can, in theory, learn to read and write Japanese just learning the simpler alphabets, but you’ll end up not being able to fully participate in society. The casual traveler will of course do fine without kanji.

Dimension 4, Grammar: It’s helpful if the grammar isn’t too hard

Grammar itself has to be broken down into a few sub-sections.

Grammar can be hard when there are

  • Genders (two, like in Latin languages and Arabic, or three, like in German, Russian, Marathi and a few other Indian languages), or a whopping eighteen noun classes like in Swahili (cripes! We’ll have to find some shortcuts)
  • Persons, like in English (I eat, she eats… it’s pretty easy though), all romance languages (yo como, tu comes, ellos comen etc.), though NOT in Chinese (it’s easier than you think! OK that’s one of the only ways) or Bahasa Indonesia
  • Conjugations, like how you talk about the past, future, completed actions, things that might not happen, etc. This is very hard in Spanish and Italian, quite hard in French and other languages but most have fewer. Written arabic has a lot, but spoken arabic only two. It’s pretty easy in English and again, absent in Chinese and Bahasa Indonesia (hooray for small victories).
  • Cases, like in German, Russian and Arabic. Basically the word changes shape depending on what role it plays in the sentence.
  • Number of exceptions – German and English are all exceptions, it seems
  • Extra (common) grammar constructs that seem alien but that you have to become familiar with, like ci (to it) in Italian, en (‘some of’) in French, the 把 in Chinese, the use of ‘al’ in Arabic to denote ownership, etc.

It’s rare for grammar to be anything but hard, but it’s nice to have an understanding of what’s coming up.

OK fine, but how hard are the languages?

With all that said, we analysed the 25 most spoken languages from this list on Wikipedia and grouped them into (for English primary speakers) a few groups so you can prioritize them.

Remember our target level of fluency:

Our target level of fluency is to be able to use the language to learn

  • Very hard
    • Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese) – mostly for the script. Dang! It’s hard to get past beginner level without it.
    • Japanese (if you learn writing). It’s easier if you just learn to speak – see below.
    • Arabic (Modern Standard): This is the official style of Arabic, which we wouldn’t suggest most learners start with. See below – spoken Arabic is easier
  • Hard:
    • Russian – Hard mostly for the grammar and vocabulary
    • Indian languages: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, all for the grammar, script and vocabulary
    • Vietnamese – for the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation
  • Moderately hard
    • Arabic (Spoken, any dialect): Much easier than Standard Arabic which has a LOT of rules, spoken Arabic is achievable with an investment.
    • Farsi: It’s just an alien language (not to Dana, but to most people), even though its grammar is easy.
    • German: for the grammar (all exceptions), but not as bad as Russian because sometimes it sounds like English.
    • Japanese (Spoken): Still pretty hard, for the grammar, though it’s easy to say.
    • Turkish: The grammar is complex and the vocabulary alien. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to pronounce, read or write.
  • Not too hard:
    • Latin languages: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian. You have a huge head-start on these if you know English; even more of a headstart if you know one of the other ones.
    • Korean: Once you get past the basic structures, it’s phonetic and makes sense.
    • Swahili: I feel like this is achievable.
  • Easy:
    • Bahasa Indonesia/Malay: Wow, almost no complex grammar, easy pronunciation and alphabet… still has alien words, but that’s fine
    • Javanese: Like Indonesian/Malay.

Cool factor: How awesome would it be to speak this language?

Yeah roughly the same number of people speak Bengali as do people who speak Swahili. But Swahili is in The Lion King! Xhosa has those clicks in it!

Hebrew is cool. I’ve always thought so ever since I went to Israel. So the fact that only 6 million people speak it in Israel (maybe another few million worldwide) is a bit of a bummer.

Jo’s first reaction to learning Arabic was “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if some Asian chick could speak Arabic?” Yeah it would! In the exact opposite way to how people ask me “Arabic. Does that have much in common with Farsi?” No. No it doesn’t. You better believe I’m going to have to work.

Related to cool factor is the cultural return on investment. You have to get pretty fluent in French to impress anyone in France as an English speaker. On the other hand, ten words in Vietnamese or Cantonese will get you exclamations of delight. What sounds easier to you? If you’re aiming to please people and make them happy (not a bad goal!) you’d know what to do.

Let’s not dwell too much on cool factor. But it’s important to acknowledge it’s there.

The final analysis – what’s the list of languages?

Here’s ours. It’s a work in progress. In rough order.

  • English – we both know this pretty well
  • French – Dana speaks, Jo speaks pretty well
  • Spanish – Dana speaks, Jo has basic level
  • Arabic (spoken) – Dana knows the basics, Jo knows nothing but will learn!
  • Swahili – Both know nothing but will learn!
  • Korean – Dana knows the basics and wants to learn conversational, Jo needs to get fluent
  • Malay/Indonesian – Dana can count to ten, Jo knows none
  • Farsi (spoken) – Dana needs to get fluent, Jo wants to get conversational
  • Chinese (Mandarin) – Dana speaks, I don’t think Jo is keen
  • Chinese (Cantonese) – Dana could learn with a bit of investment, Jo isn’t keen
  • Russian – Neither speak
  • Portuguese – Neither speak
  • German – Dana can fake it, but doesn’t speak, but feels like it’s achievable. Jo doesn’t speak
  • Japanese – Both know nothing
  • Italian – Dana speaks OK and could get better easily, Jo doesn’t
  • Hindi – Both know nothing, and feel guilty that this isn’t further up the list
  • Hebrew – Dana wants to learn but knows it’s not a priority

We might add more later. But that’s it… for now.

What do you want to learn? Let us know in the comments.

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