Which Language Should I Study, Part II: The Practical Question

You know what I hate?  I hate when people tell me that a certain language is not practical. Don’t take German, they say, only Germans speak it.  Take Spanish, instead; it’s more practical!

It’s true that Spanish is more practical in the Spanish speaking world.  I found a way to speak it every day in New York, Shanghai, and Seattle.  But I bet German would be pretty practical in Germany, or if I wanted to speak to German speaking people.  I do speak Spanish now, and that doesn’t help me at all with my German speaking friends; Spanish is not practical in that particular situation.

One time someone looked me in the eye and told me that Tagalog wasn’t practical, which may be true for that person, but that’s an insane thing to try to tell me. Me!  That person also told a Shanghainese person that Shanghainese was impractical… and ugly-sounding.  Did I mention that we were in Shanghai at the time?

I didn’t learn much Shanghainese there, but I did learn a few practical things; how to count, how to say thank you and goodbye.  I learned how to say “The rice hasn’t arrived yet!”  Those things were very practical in Shanghai, and I LOVED using them, and Shanghainese people seemed pretty delighted when I said these few, practical, things.

The point is, “practical” is not a function of how many millions of people speak it on the planet, or how many thousands of people speak it in your town.  Practical is a matter of who you want to speak to.  A handful of phrases of Shanghainese is very practical if you want to endear yourself to some Shanghainese people. German is practical if you want to talk to German people.  Tagalog is extremely practical if you’re a non-Tagalog speaking Filipino American who never wanted to be monolingual.

So let’s assume that you’re a monolingual 8th grade kid that’s coming to my school next year, and you have to choose one:  Spanish, French, German, or Mandarin.  Which of those is the most practical?  The answer:  each one of them the most practical, in their own contexts.

They’re all the most practical, depending on where you want to go in your life, and who you want to be.  And who you want to be, kids, is up to you.  Whichever language you choose can be practical, if you want it to be.

The most practical language?  The most practical language is the one you learn speak.   And as it turns out, the languages you do not learn turn out to be not practical to you at all.

Part III might have to be about the “easy” language.  We’ll see. Please use the comments section below if you have something to say!

One thought on “Which Language Should I Study, Part II: The Practical Question

  1. I love this: “the languages you do not learn turn out to be not practical to you at all”

    I started learning Mandarin while still in London, only to end up moving to HK – where Cantonese would have been more ‘practical’ on a local basis. And yet I can still use Mandarin regularly – I choose to make practical use of the language that I did learn 🙂

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