Choosing A Language to Learn: Three Questions to Ask

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Language learning is a positive thing for many reasons. It expands your horizons, expands your mind, and it’s fun!

But choosing a language to learn is quite hard for a lot of people. Before going down this difficult, long path, people want to make sure that they’re not choosing the wrong language.

There are so many languages out there. Many countries have several major languages, some have dozens, and very few have hundreds of spoken languages.

To help you choose a language to learn, we’ll present you with three simple questions you can ask yourself.

choosing a language to learn to be able to speak anywhere in the world

Choosing A Language to Learn: A 3-Part Framework

Here’s the general framework for choosing a language to learn. Ask yourself these three questions.

  1. Motivation: Why do you want to learn a language? There are lots of great reasons for learning a language, from learning the language of your family, wanting to connect to other cultures, wanting to travel, or others. Figure out your “why”.
  2. Difficulty: How hard is the language you’re thinking of learning? If it’s your first second language, then lean towards easier ones. Or at least understand the investment to get to the level you want.
  3. Attraction: How much do you like the language? This is highly personal, but it’s this motivation that might keep you going.

Let’s explore the thought process of each of these.

A map of the world with countries coloured depending on the languages we want to learn
A language coverage map with sixteen languages that give maximum geographic / population coverage, though not always as the “local” language.

Motivation: Figure Out Your “Why”

Deciding “why” you’re learning a language is critical. You can really narrow down your list by figuring out the “why”.

People often wonder what the most “useful” languages to learn are. Obviously, the most useful languages would be the ones that best serve your purpose.

So “useful” can mean so many things — it might mean visiting a country, ordering food in a restaurant in your native country, or just reading books. That’s why we talk more about motivation to get more specific.

But while “useful” may help you choose a language, it’s rarely enough motivation to get through the arduous task of mastering one. You’d also have to fall in love with it on the way.

Some motivations for choosing a language to learn might be

  • To reconnect with your ancestry
  • To speak to your extended family
  • To better integrate with a country you’ve moved to for other reasons
  • To learn more about a minority culture that’s around you
  • To become familiar with part of the world you don’t know much about
  • To watch movies or read books
  • To travel to places where that language is spoken
  • Because you love the language (this is also the third aspect of the decision making process)
  • For fun!

All of those motivations for learning a language are useful. Sometimes they’ll narrow it down a lot. For example, if your extended family speak one language, then that’s the language you’re going to learn, no matter how impractical.

MotivationTarget fluencySuggestions
To speak to family or loved onesIntermediate, with fluency in everyday issuesWhatever language your family/loved ones speak!
To connect with people in unfamiliar cultures, make friendsIntermediate — Breadth over depthChinese, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Swahili
To read literature, poetry, or musicVery/extremelyFrench, Italian, German, Russian, Arabic, Chinese
Intellectual curiosity, or a mental challengeAs much as you want!Any language! Pick up Duolingo and go.
To travel as a touristBasic-Intermediate (food, prices, directions)Spanish, French, spoken Arabic, Russian, or anywhere you want to go
To build your résumé/impress peopleIntermediate (as much as you need to pass an interview)Any language (the easier the better) — French, Spanish, Indonesian
A few reasons why you’d learn a language

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s hard to work out your motivations. In these situations, I’d just carefully consider all the things you want to do in the language, including

  • Visit places
  • Listen to media / watch films / YouTube
  • Talk to people
  • Look at the art
  • Read books / magazines

Figuring out how many resources exist in things you like will influence which language you choose to learn.

Globe of the world, illustrating that a language can be a vehicle for travel
Asking “What language should I learn?” means asking many things, including where you want to go.

Difficulty: How Easy / Hard is the Language?

There are no easy languages to learn. But there are definitely some that are harder than others.

If you’re interested, these are the hardest languages in the world to learn.

If a child can learn any language, then so can you — in theory. (Adults learn differently, but use that to your advantage.)

But knowing what you’re up against helps you decide how much effort to put in, and what to expect from learning. That’s why I suggest you get an overview of every language to understand exactly how hard it is going to be to learn, considering it from the angle of

  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Pronunciation
  • Writing system

How easy is the language’s vocabulary?

A language’s vocabulary may have a degree of overlap with English or other languages you speak. Choosing a language that has some vocab in common with yours will make the learning process easier.

If you speak English, then you’ll find a lot of vocabulary overlap with Romance or Germanic languages. A lot of words will sound the same. The word Brot in German sounds like “Bread”, the word restaurante in Spanish sounds like “restaurant”, and an orange in French looks exactly like an “orange” in English, but just with French pronunciation.

Many other words may be different, but similar enough to help you remember them. For example, in French the word journal means “newspaper”. It’s different, but not hard to memorise.

In fact, any English speaker can pick up a French or Spanish newspaper and get an idea of what’s going on.

How to choose what language to learn. This is a copy of the El Mundo newspaper as an example of written text in another language using Latin lettering
El Mundo newspaper from Spain. Being able to read Latin text makes parsing a new language a lot easier.

Go to the front page of China Daily and it’s a different story. Unless you can read Chinese characters, you’d just be looking at the photos now.

A Chinese newspaper showing it's harder to learn a language that doesn't use a Latin character set
Copy of the People’s Daily newspaper. Do you want to learn all these characters?

So, assess how hard it’ll be to pick up words in the other language. If there’s some overlap with a language you know, even if there are “false friends”, then your work will be a lot easier.

How easy is the language’s pronunciation?

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

Many Asian languages like Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai all have tones. So do some smaller African languages.

Other languages like in Arabic, German, Hebrew, Dutch, Spanish, and French have letters that are difficult to pronounce. The letter r (in its various forms: French, German, Spanish/Italian) is a usual culprit for English speakers.

The easiest languages are those that have fewer sounds than in English. These languages are standardised and usually follow rules.

Bahasa Indonesia, for example, is the easiest major (>300M speakers) language to pronounce that I know of. It is relatively modern, standardised in the 1940s at the formation of the Indonesian nation. You pronounce it like it’s written and write it like it’s pronounced.

Korean and Japanese are very easy to pronounce — if you can read the words. But you do have to get used to some unusually pronounced letters.

The hardest major language to pronounce, in my opinion, for an English speaker, is Cantonese. Vietnamese is actually more linguistically dense, but at least has a standardised Roman writing system (and a smaller population of speakers).

How easy is the language’s 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 standardised writing system, Hangeul, that’s mostly phonetic (other than very few colloquial exceptions). a very standard writing system.

Arabic and Persian have alphabets — but they write right to left, and don’t write in short vowels, which throws a lot of people for a loop.

You might like: How to learn to read and write any language.

Sitting somewhere 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 traveller will do fine without kanji.

How complicated is the language’s grammar?

Grammar can by itself make a language very difficult.

Grammar can be hard when there are

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.

What are the hardest and easiest languages?

With all that said, we analysed the 25 most spoken languages and put them into a few groups so you can prioritise them.

Very hardHardModerately hardNot too hard… maybe even “easy”
Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese) — hard for the script, grammar, and pronunciation.Russian – Hard mostly for the grammar and vocabulary.Arabic (spoken dialects): Much easier than Standard Arabic.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.
Japanese (if you learn writing). It’s easier if you just learn to speak, but at some point, you need kanji.Indian languages: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, all for the grammar, script and vocabularyPersian: Grammar is not too hard but has a lot of subtleties. Plus it’s right-to-left and has a foreign vocab.Swahili: Difficult for the system of noun classes, but people are also forgiving when you speak!
Arabic (Modern Standard): This is the official style of Arabic, which we wouldn’t suggest most learners start with. See below – spoken Arabic is easierVietnamese – for the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciationGerman: for the grammar (all exceptions), but not as bad as Russian because sometimes it sounds like English.Bahasa Indonesia/Malay: Wow, almost no complex grammar, easy pronunciation and alphabet… still has alien words, but that’s fine
Korean: Once you get past the basic structures, it’s phonetic and makes sense, but getting the “tone” right is hard, and the vocabulary is 100% alien unless you speak Chinese.Turkish: The grammar is doable, but the vocabulary is alien. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to pronounce, read, or write.Javanese: Like Indonesian/Malay.
Classifying how “hard” various languages are

Attraction: How much do you like the language?

To get through anything difficult, you have to enjoy it in at least some way — even if it’s enjoying the sheer challenge.

But for most of us, we have to actually enjoy some aspect of the language. This ties to the first part, but adds an emotional aspect to it. How much do you like the language?

Some related questions are

  • How much do you like how it sounds?
  • How much do you enjoy putting sentences together? (Sometimes it’s like a puzzle)
  • What kind of reaction do you get from people when you speak it? (External encouragement counts for a lot!)

Outside motivation is pretty important. Don’t dismiss it. With smaller languages, or languages that fewer people learn, native speakers give compliments freely and easily. If someone tells you “You speak so well!” it encourages us to keep speaking.

Some of this outside motivation relates, by the way, to ourselves. If you’re of an ethnic background not normally known to speak a language (for example, if you’re of Asian background and speaking Swahili), then you’ll get an outsized reaction.

In the exact opposite way, how people ask me “does Arabic have much in common with Persian?” (It doesn’t, but Persian did help me learn some Arabic.)

Wrap Up

Choosing a language to learn is difficult. It’s like choosing a mountain to climb, or even country to move to. There are so many factors at hand — what your motivation is, how hard the language is, and how much you just like a language.

If you have any doubts about any of the above, don’t hesitate to drop us a line, or leave a comment below..

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Sara waleed
Sara waleed
3 years ago

Thank you for the advices I was hesitating about what I should learn next Chinese or French 😫😫 I am an Arabic native speaker and right now I am focusing on Japanese (fluent on speaking) but still can’t read or write that much. If you need any help or practice partner in Arabic don’t hesitate to ask 😄