Deciding to learn a language: which one is for you?

One of the biggest dilemmas facing language learners is choosing which one. For some people, this may be a fairly straight forward decision, while for others it can be difficult to know where to start. In this post I’m going to talk briefly through some of the things you should consider before embarking on the learning process, which will hopefully aid your decision making.

The Goethe Institut offers German courses across the world

Which language can I learn?

The most important thing to take into consideration is the practicality of your plans. You need to work out how you’re going to fit in a couple of hours a week of focused study. Therefore, you need to assess what materials are available to you – do you want structured study in a group, in a classroom or maybe online? Are you happy to try and go it alone with self-study books and CDs, or do you think you might lack the motivation? Then, what courses are there available, and are you happy with how far they will take you?

This also depends quite heavily on where you live. For those lucky enough to live near big urban centres such as London or Manchester, there are a lot of very good language centres offering a very wide range of languages, such as SOAS for more obscure choices, and things like Goethe and Cervantes institutes for European languages. You also should take into consideration that these courses are often very expensive, require a lot of time commitment, and will definitely involve sitting in a classroom with other learners, listening to them making mistakes. This can be quite frustrating, and if so, maybe you should consider online materials or buying a self-study course and working at your own pace.

What am I learning it for?

There are lots of reasons why you might want to pick up another language. Maybe you haven’t done it since school, and you want to give it another go. Maybe you really like a country and travel there often, and would like to converse with the local people. Maybe you have foreign ancestry, and would like to learn more about your family’s culture and even speak to distant relatives. Or maybe you just want a challenge. Whatever your reason may be, you should be clear about it, and structure your learning goals around it. Without motivation, you will probably lose heart after a bit and go back to where you started.

How can I learn it?

Learning in a group environment has pros and cons that you should consider before committing to a course.

Learning is a very personal thing, and everyone has their own techniques. If you’re just starting out, it’s likely that you won’t yet have a clear idea of what works best for you. In this case, it’s really important to try lots of different things out, experiment with everything and see what works best. I find that a combination of everything is the key, but personally I am more of a visual learner, which means I respond best to seeing things written down as well as hearing them, and like to associate words with pictures to help me along. Here’s a couple of learning techniques you might want to try:

  • ‘The opposites game’: When making vocabulary lists, pair up the words with their opposites and learn them together.

black and white, good and bad, fat and thin, day and night.

If you like, you can extend this by making a chart of extremity:

obese, fat, large, well-built, average, slender, thin, skinny, skeletal.

  • Categories: If you try learning all sorts of random vocabulary all together, you’ll probably just end up confusing yourself. Instead group things together so your brain knows what you’re doing when. Learn body parts together, kitchen items, hobbies etc. etc. Each word will prompt you to remember the next one.
  • Context: For me, this is the magic word. As useful as vocabulary lists can be, I have to know how and when I’m going to be able to use the word I’m learning. You can pick this up by learning vocabulary from reading, watching TV, or listening to songs, and keeping a pen and paper next to you and writing down new words and (if possible) the sentence that you heard them in. Then rather than learning just the word, learn the whole sentence of phrase. I find this not only makes me remember it better, but then that I get to the stage where I can use it independently much faster, as I already have an idea of how to slip it in.If you come across a word out of context, make your own sentences. Write little stories, and you can also use them to go with learning vocabulary by category.
  • Bombard your senses: To really learn something well, you need to make sure you can’t get away from it. Write notes on the fridge, or places that you visit often. Draw pictures of it and put them up too, and whenever you see it try to remember what the word was. Record yourself speaking, video or just audio, and listen to it on the way to work or school, or while you’re doing household chores. Whatever you’re doing, make sure you’re doing it frequently and subconsciously – you’ll learn this way much more efficiently than sitting at a desk and ploughing your way through.

Do you want a challenge?

Each language requires different amounts of dedication, even if you’ve found a proven-to-work technique. There are some languages which are much easier, and which you can attain fluency in quickly as an English speaker, while others will require months and years of study before you can start speaking spontaneously. This comes back to your reasons for learning – are you after a challenge, or are you just trying it out?

Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn, due to its subtle tonal and complicated writing systems.

Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn, due to its subtle tonal and complicated writing systems.

Afrikaans and French are easier languages to learn, while something like Arabic, Russian or Mandarin will give you more of a run for your money. Some languages have very complicated grammar structures and irregular patterns, and for these you might want to consider enrolling in a course to help you along. The most important thing is, no matter what you choose, not to give up. Persevere and set yourself reasonable goals that you can reach and thereby remind yourself of how much progress you’ve made so far. Do this successfully, and you’ve got a very strong chance of succeeding in the future as well!