How to Pick the Best Foreign Language to Learn

Kate Feathers

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“How many languages do you want to speak one day?” asked my friend during a boring class at high school.

“Hmm… Like eight?”

We both created a long list of languages, and we rated them based on which ones we want to learn as soon as possible, and which ones we can save for our glorious retirement days.

Mine went something like this:

  • Czech (my mother tongue)
  • English (my favorite language in the whole world)
  • French (I already spoke it quite well)
  • Spanish (something about it always called out to me)
  • Japanese (I was obsessed with Naruto)
  • Greek (I was also obsessed with Ancient Greek philosophy)
  • Russian (I liked the sound of it, and it was similar to Czech)
  • Swahili (I tried it on Duolingo, and it was fascinating)

I didn’t include German. I never thought to even consider it. I was surrounded by people who learned German as their third language at school while I had French classes, I grew up in a town located one hour from the German border, and some of my Czech slang consisted of German words without my realizing. I lived in the former Sudetenland— a part of the Czech Republic with lots of German history.

German never really spoke to me, though.

I ended up studying it for my university degree. In a few months, I’m moving to Germany for an Erasmus stay, and every day, the pressure of my seemingly vast lack of German skills is growing. I’ve been studying German for two years now, yet it feels like I’ve done very little progress compared to my previous experience learning French.

It just seems to be so much more difficult. It might be the fact that German grammar is hard in general or that I haven’t had as many German classes at my university as I’d had French ones at high school.

Something is telling me that there’s more to it, though.

When I open a German textbook, I exhale. “Ugh, okay, focus now.”

When I listen to Germans speak, I think: “This sounds so nice. I wish I understood more than 30% after two years of dealing with this language, though.” I try my best to focus on what people say, just to zone out after 3 minutes.

When I look at whatever German text that comes my way, I get immediately overwhelmed.

I never felt this way with French nor English. When I learned Spanish on my own, I loved every second of it. Even Latin was somehow fascinating. My feelings about German could be probably compared to those I had during my Russian course three years ago. It’s interesting, and I put time and effort into it because I’ve chosen to take classes on it.

Would I want to work as an interpreter for a travel agency in Germany or Russia for a few years? No, not really. I’d much rather stay in the UK.

Would I want to do the same in Spain or the south of France? Hell yeah! Adieu, Scotland, I’m taking my sunglasses and flipflops, and off I go into the sunshine!

“So why did you choose to study German?” I hear you ask.

I’m still trying to figure the answer out. To put it simply, I chose German because I let my reason win over where my heart was pulling me. I still don’t know if this decision is one of regret or if it was a wise choice that would bring me more benefits than studying Spanish, the language I wanted to go for initially, ever would.

What I do know now is that when you choose what language you want to learn, you need to take both reason and heart into account. The following questions are what I asked myself when I was deciding between studying Spanish or German.

Are you interested in the culture and mentality of the language?

I love the day-to-day side of Spanish culture and other Mediterranean countries. I love the warmth and openness of the people, the colors, the markets, the sunshine, the architecture, I love the idea of living there and walking alongside the sea at night, the warm breeze brushing against my summer dress.

However, I’m not a fan of Spanish literature. I’ve never much enjoyed it. German literature and art, on the other hand, I can relate to. I love the tortured Romantic authors who wrote about soul-wrecking feelings, and I understand the seeming coldness and formality of Germans because Czechs are the same. German mentality is similar to mine. I like how eco-friendly they are, and how calm and progressive they seem.

It all comes down to how you want to use the language. Do you want to live there? Work there? Find friends? Go with the one that you can imagine your daily life in.

Do you want to study it on an academic level and write a thesis on some medieval work written in your target language? Choose the one that intellectually speaks to you.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find one language that fulfils both of these roles for you. If you’re not — like me — you must choose.

Would you rather enjoy your university course and master a language you otherwise wouldn’t put the effort into learning yourself, or would you rather suffer a little during culture lectures but proceed to live in the country of your dreams?

If you choose one, are you still willing to learn the other at home or in some different language courses? I opted for German with the willingness to master Spanish on my own one day. I’ll give you an update when that happens.

Will you enjoy the course?

I was going to study this language at a university for four years. I wanted good professors, interesting material to work with, enjoyable topics to write my essays on.

My friend already studied German & Italian at the same institution when I was applying, and she had some insider knowledge to share with me. She said the German department had the best professors (I tend to agree with this), the best books to discuss (100% agree), and a really good course for beginners (yep, yep, yep).

As annoying as it might be, teachers matter. How much the language excites them, what teaching methods they use, how strict they are, what atmosphere they set in the classroom. This can change your whole perspective on the way you view the language.

At my high school, most of my classmates hated French only because they disliked our teacher. I didn’t mind her, and I quickly progressed because I put the additional work in at home and because I didn’t regard homework as an annoying chore. She liked me in return since she saw I was interested in her subject.

When my friend told me that she loved her German teachers and she didn’t hear the best things about the Spanish department, I thought: “Huh. I don’t want to spend four years in boring classes.”

This is something important to consider. It’s also essential to realize, though, that what other people say might not be true. Someone might hate the course, while you might actually enjoy it. Take peoples’ reports into account, but don’t let it rule your decision.

Do you like the language itself?

This is a tricky one.

You see, I love French. Did I like the way French sounded to my inexperienced ear when I was 15? Absolutely not. While most people adore the sound of it, I thought it was weird. But I kept on learning, and as I started understanding what people actually said, my love for the language and the culture grew.

In my experience, once you reach a certain level, you just automatically like the language simply because you can speak it, which makes you feel good about yourself. It feels familiar. It finds its own category in your heart, and it can become a part of you.

However, you need that drive to get you there. I enjoyed studying French because the grammar seemed easy to follow, the words were easy to remember, and I found lots of fun resources online. It didn’t take long and speaking French felt natural to me.

When I knew only a few phrases in Spanish, I loved repeating them and collecting different words from my very simple vocabulary to build new sentences. It was exciting.

I find it difficult to remember Russian and German words. It all looks the same. Not because it’s actually the same, but because my brain finds it harder to comprehend the language overall. Although I love the way Russians and Germans speak, their languages unarguably seem a bit foreign to me, while English and Romance languages just fit into place.

Do you like the words, the way sentences work, the expressions? Do you enjoy learning grammar in your target language? Then you might have found the right one for you.

What are your work opportunities?

This is important to take into consideration. If you want to work with languages one day, you should think about your options.

One of my reasons for choosing to get a degree in German instead of Spanish was the fact that German translation is better paid. There are less German speakers than Spanish ones, and German is a highly valuable language to speak in Europe. It’s also more difficult to learn than Spanish is, which should theoretically make good German translators rarer on the market.

However, this point shouldn’t be such a deal-breaker. After all, if you end up working with a language that you ultimately don’t much enjoy, you won’t put all your soul into it, and you might end up doing something you’ll later regret.

It’s better to just do the thing you love with passion and become an expert at it than to be mediocre at something seemingly more professionally valuable.

What language speaks to you?

As reasonable as all the questions listed above are, the bottom line is this:

If you feel an unexplainable pull towards the language and it can’t let you be for a long time, you should go for it.

As much as I like learning German, as much as I might get better job opportunities with a degree in it, and as fun as my teachers are… I’d be way more excited if I went on my Erasmus to Spain or France. I’m sure my year in Germany will be wonderful, but I’ll forever ask myself the question of what if? What if I did study the language I’m more passionate about? What if I did go to study in Barcelona or Nice?

I know for a fact that if I went with Spanish or French, I would never ask myself this regarding Germany. It would never even cross my mind to think about going there.

Yes, I would yawn more in my culture classes. Yes, there is a possibility I’d have to write essays on something I’m not much interested in. But I’d graduate with a degree in a language that I always dreamed of speaking, and I could use this degree to actually work in a country that somehow moves me.

When I picked my language degree, I thought short-term — I wanted to enjoy my university experience. I also thought logically — German seemed more professionally valuable. I wanted to challenge myself as well. My thinking went like this:

“There’s no way I’d ever learn German on my own, but I’m very motivated to learn Spanish, so why wouldn’t I add German to my list of languages this way? I can do Spanish anytime I want.”

But you never know how much time you have left. I shouldn’t have pushed my dream language aside, just to prioritize a language that literally never crossed my mind in all 19 years of my existence.

I don’t mind learning German. But I’d love to learn Spanish.

So, I ask you now: What language speaks to you? What language moves your heart, what country do you feel this strange pull towards?

That’s the one you should choose. Other languages might sound more reasonable, but this is the one. You know it is. You have all the time in the world to learn the others. You have today to chase your dreams.

This is your ultimate language. Go and seize it.

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I'm a student of Languages & Comparative Literature who writes about relationships, feminism and personal growth. Discover more of my work: https://linktr.ee/clumsylinguist

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