Here’s what I tell people, students especially, who ask me which language they should study: Imagine your future friends, your future adventures, and the man or woman you are trying to be.
Do you want to have adventures in Europe, Asia, Latin America, or Africa?
If you want to sit in cafes, ride trains around, and discover things like breads, wines, sausages, and cheeses, then by all means study a European language. Europe is beautiful, fun, and romantic just like everyone says it is, and I think everyone should study Italian the way I did… language teachers in particular. More on that later.
If you want to have adventures in Latin America, then study Spanish and/or Portuguese. Latin America will show you an amazing patchwork of colonial, indigenous, and immigrant cultures and traditions. You’ll see societies at their most fascinating: as they struggle to identify and establish themselves. You’ll read magical authors and eat ancient traditional foods against the backdrop of rugged New World geography: the deserts, the beaches, the jungles, and the mountains.
If your adventurous spirit calls you to Asia, then Mandarin or Japanese might be good places to start. Asia offers the excitement of hyper-urban metropolises built upon ancient civilizations; places that at once feel like ten years in the future and 500 years in the past.
Certainly there are similar reasons to study languages I haven’t covered. Who could I be if I studied Arabic, and was always hanging out in Morocco or Abu Dhabi? Who could I be if I studied Swahili or Hindu?
Another way to approach this question is this, “Which community are you drawn to here at home?” Do you want to walk into a Chinatown grocery or Japanese restaurant and have the owner greet you as a friend, and ask about your health? Do you want to get invited to quinceañeras and paelladas and be a part of the in-crowd, find out what they’re all laughing about? Could you imagine throwing dinner parties and attending foreign film festivals, being the cool local friend to an eclectic band of expats, immigrants, and visitors?
Which adventures do you want to have, and who do you want to be?
I wanted to have all of those adventures; I wanted to be the guy that did all of those things. So I studied French in high school, and Spanish and Italian in college. I’ve done a little bit of ASL, German, Tagalog, Portuguese, Korean, and Latin, and I can’t wait to get back to any and all of those some day. Right now I’m working on Mandarin.
Anyway, the point is I started with one. I started with French, and I sat in cafes and rode trains and discovered cheeses and breads and sausages and wine… I met people I came to care about, and saw ancient and medieval ruins. I came back to Seattle with some new mannerisms and habits, and a mild accent from the South of France.
Somebody will ask me about all the pain I endured, and the self-discipline I must have had to succeed, but I have to say; if it takes pain and self-discipline, then you’re doing it wrong. Sure, I studied and did my homework, but more importantly, I talked to my host mother every night after dinner. I joked around with my host brothers all the time and tried to mimic their mannerisms, their accent, their non-standard casual register. Honestly, when you’re getting a lot of practice, homework is an afterthought. When you’re getting a lot of practice, you start hearing your mistakes, and you start anticipating them, and pretty soon you’re either dodging them or fixing them outright. When you’re speaking and reading a lot, new vocabulary and expressions fall toward you rather than away from you. When you’re practicing a lot, your language instinct fuels itself.
That’s not some rare talent; that’s language acquisition instinct that all humans have. It’s why all of us as babies go from zero-to-native in five years, and why old people like me can still learn the slang and terminology we hear in our native languages without study–sometimes without definition or explanation, sometimes instantly. It’s also why people of all ages, including adults are learning languages all around us; as students in a classroom or as immigrants to this country.
In fact, if you’re using your language acquisition instinct properly by getting a lot of regular practice, you might as well consider proficiency and success as inevitable, rather than some impossible feat of talent or effort.
So if you’re trying to pick a language to study, the questions you should be asking are: Who do you want to be? where do you want to go? Who do you want to talk to?
Unfortunately, most of the criteria people consider when they’re choosing a language is more cynical, based out of a perceived “practicality” that’s based on some monolingual fears. They ask, “which language is the easiest, which is the most practical, which one is going to make me the most money.” This way of choosing a language reminds me of the way people might choose a weapon. More on that in Part II.
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