We are all fanatic about learning languages, but what language to learn next? Very often people come to the vast polyglot groups on Facebook or elsewhere and ask the question; What language should I learn next?
At first I found this question slightly curious, how would anyone not know? And if you don’t know, is there enough passion or fuel behind the desire to learn, to actually be successful?
Ignoring if we actually have the passion or drive to be successful in a particular language for a second, the criteria we can select languages by are actually not too difficult to list, so I will do that here.
Reasons you might use to pick your next foreign language to study
1. Personal relations
This category is for those who have a personal connection to a language. Maybe your grandmother emigrated from Germany and is now the only German speaker in the family, or maybe a part of your family has lived in a foreign country for many years.
Other reasons could be that you met someone on holiday, and you now want to learn the language to communicate better. Whatever the nature of your relationship, it’s pretty obvious what language you “should” learn next.
This also goes for the community around you. If there’s a sizable foreign community close to you, then that language automatically gets a higher priority
2. The low hanging fruit approach
This is one of the categories I might explore soon, although more about that later. Basically in this category you look for languages closely related to your own, and learn those.
This doesn’t mean that you are just collecting languages for the sake of collecting them, but you are developing proficiency in many languages, which allows you to communicate with more people.
For example, I’m from Denmark. Danish is quite similar to Swedish and Norwegian. In fact often the three are mutually understood. However, that doesn’t mean that I speak Swedish nor Norwegian.
But because they are so similar I could spend maybe 4 weeks on both and suddenly I could not only understand them, but speak them as well!
This gives me an increased awareness and understanding of my Scandinavian brothers and sisters and it allows me to build deeper relationships with native speakers of these two languages.
I like the idea of this because you spend a relatively short amount of time on developing proficiency in languages that you will be using for the rest of your life.
Learning a language is never easy, no matter how closely related it is, but going for the low hanging fruit first might give you confidence and success to pursue other, more foreign languages.
3. The practicality approach
This one is pretty straight forward. You take the number of speakers data from Wikipedia or other sources and simply work your way down. A very rough estimate is that by learning the top 13 most spoken languages, you can speak with about half of the world’s native speakers. That’s over 3 billion people!
I like this approach, because languages are tools of communication, and by learning popular languages we open up doors to speak to many people. Of course the drawback is that it’s a fairly robotic way of doing it, and just because the top languages are spoken by many people, does not make them interesting.
4. The love at first sound approach
This is quite a common approach and one that fascinates me the most. Imagine this scenario. You are sitting outside, a warm summer’s night and you are having a beer with some of your friends.
Suddenly a party of people join, and they speak a mysterious foreign language. You can’t recognize it, but it sounds AWESOME. You fall in love with it instantly.
You are also surprised to learn what the language is, really? That language sounds like that? Killing all our preconceptions about language.
You then romp home to find the tapes, the resources and get started. You didn’t choose your next language, the next language chose you!
But a word of caution. Like the love between people, this type of love for a certain language is very irrational.
That’s not really of vital importance, but just be sure that the language you learn can be of some use.
To me learning something like Ancient Greek or a minority language with a few hundred speakers in the Amazon jungle is just not viable, no matter how “sexy” it sounds.
Some people might disagree on that. Which is fine.
To round up the selection process, pick whatever you feel most passionate about, and if that fails, pick a really practical option.
I’ve heard a lot of people say the passion line in the last few years, and I agree totally with it, but often it’s assumed that everyone has a passion, when in fact it’s very possible to be interested in learning a language, without having a passion for a specific one.
In that case the passion is in the learning process, networking and developing one’s mind.
And to those people in that situation I would advise on a practical approach.
Maybe your country has a huge second language, that could be beneficial to learn.
Again if everything fails, go to the top 10 languages spoken in the world list and pick whatever you think sounds the best.
There’s no penalty for having a practical approach to learning languages. Just get going! 🙂
How do you decide what languages to learn?
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.