Learning a Foreign Language - What should I pick?

Hello dopers. Due to a recent state of joblessness, I’ve recently brought myself plenty of spare time. Though this state will be temporary, I’ve thought that maybe I should make the best of my situation and try to learn *something *in the interim.

Perhaps its time to learn a foreign language. I don’t expect unemployment to last long (a couple of months, at most), so can anyone suggest a language that is:

A. Relatively simple for a beginner to grasp. I’m not expecting fluency, or even proper sentence structure, but at least a basic understanding of the language within a couple of months.

B. Relevant. That is, still in use and can be expected to be of benefit to learn.

C. Also something common enough to *keep *using in order to improve. Reading as a form of practice, I think, would be good. So preferably a language that does not have much of a disparity in difficulty between its spoken and written forms (such as Chinese and its written variant).

Is there a good language choice for this?

If you just want the experience of learning a language, I’ll suggest one which is relatively simple and phonetic: Esperanto. There are learning resources online. And there is a community of speakers (including me :slight_smile: ). It has proved to be surprisingly useful in my travels.

Beyond that, it really depends on what community you are in or want to join. Are you realated to speakers of the language? Are you dating one? Do you need the language for a job or professional field? Would you like to travel where it is spoken?

I chose German in college because I figured (a) I’m going to have to learn vocabulary with any foreign language, so (b) why not pick one with a grammar as much like English as possible.

Worked well for me.

Spanish seems like it would be the natural choice. It’s the most commonly learned second language in the US and has all the learning aid support that goes along with that. It’s also a very easy foreign language for an English speaker to learn.

I’m assuming that you’re more or less going to try to learn the language on your own, using a book?

For practicality and universality, I’d pick German or French. Spanish is also widely spoken, but in such divergent dialects that it is hard to even call it the same language; Catalan Spanish is not Castilian Spanish is not Mexican Spanish is not Argentine Spanish; whereas one can generally make out what another French or German speaker is saying regardless of geographical location (save perhaps for Schwizertitsch).

Esperanto is “easy” but also almost entirely useless for any practical purpose except watching bad William Shatner films and reading Stainless Steel Rat stories. Plus, it gets you into the whole weird and not just slightly cult-ish conlang subculture. Good if you’re into that sort of thing, but not really useful.

What method or system of learning are you considering?


If you want to use the language fully, and you live in the U.S., you probably should learn either Spanish or Mandarin. By “use fully” I mean having it around you on a regular basis: for example, radio and TV channels are available, you hear native speakers on the bus/train, and so on. But beyond those two languages, if you live in a large enough city to have enclaves of other language speakers, you might consider one of those, especially if you particularly like those neighborhoods for some reason. In Los Angeles, Spanish speakers may outnumber English speakers by now, but there are also large identifiable enclaves of other languages/ethnicities–Armenian, Persian, Korean, Russian, Japanese, and others.

As for German, its grammar can be difficult for an English speaking beginner. Case endings and grammatical gender are the biggest hurdles, but the case endings become mostly second nature after awhile. In my experience gender is a little more difficult, because it’s so hard for us to form the habit of learning the article with the word the way native speakers do. On the other hand at deeper levels English is certainly more like German than French or Spanish. That this includes phonology and such aspects as the composition of tenses. You probably won’t get to speak German much in the United States; in L.A. I don’t think we even have German restaurants anymore. But there’s a huge amount German language content online, including not only the major newspapers, but also complete television episodes. That’s what I love about the Internet! You can live in Dirty Sock, California or Pig’s Puss, Arkansas, and watch German TV on your computer.

Spanish would fit all your criteria.

Unless you’re a member of a religious or ethnic minority, the only languages you’re likely to use in most of the USA are English and Spanish. A handful of others may be useful in certain areas or enclaves, but the job opportunities are going to be limited (not a lot of call for Navajo or Esperanto speakers). Your best bets for overseas jobs are Chinese, Arabic, or Russian and all of those are substantially challenging languages that would require learning a whole new alphabet or writing system along with new vocabulary and grammar. I wouldn’t recommend any of them for first-time language learners.

Since you don’t seem to have a language you’re particularly attracted to, Spanish is the natural choice.

Truly, ANY foreign language study is going to help you in all sorts of ways. Learning the grammar and prounounciation of any language is going to help you see how your native language differs, and perhaps give you a different perspective on the structure of your language (at least, it did for me).

I’ll assume you are American.

Do you live near a border or is there a non-English speaking area that you’d love to visit? If you are from the US, we even have a Spanish Speaking territory (Puerto Rico) that you can visit and even live and work in visa free. If you live in New England, New York, or Pennsylvania, you are close to Quebec and a quick hop across the border will land you in a French speaking zone.

Coming back for a second point, which did not occur to me until just now: there’s a lot of Russian porn online.

I’m just sayin’.

But do you need to know Russian to enjoy the porn?

Where are you in the USA? If you are in or near Chicago, my Nephew, from Colombia, teaches Spanish on a one to one basis. He is a good teacher too.

In the USA definately Spanish. Otherwise it would depend on where you live too. For instance, Chicago still has a big Polish community. So that might be useful, I live on the NW side of Chicago and my mother was from what is now Croatian and my dad was from what is now Serbia. I guess I’m “slavic” enough looking that the Polish people walk up to me and ask me questions in Polish.

If you were in San Francisco, Chinese or Japanese might come in handy.

If you’re a professional who might someday be able to help immigrant communities, you might consider learning the language of a community in your region. For example, around Seattle there is need for social services among speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, and Amharic, among others.

Not yet, I haven’t.

Still, it might be enlightening.

Is this true? Well, sorry, I’m sure it is or you wouldn’t have said it. So if I learn Spanish Spanish and go on a trip to S.America, it wouldn’t be much use? What about the other countries, would it be pretty useless in Chile and Peru?

From memory here: The US military has done extensive research into language learning, and what they found is that ease of learning (as defined by time of study vs level of attainment) is better when the learner’s native language has more similarities with the 2nd language.

Therefore, an English speaker would have an easier time (learn more in a shorter amount of time) learning French, Italian, German, and any other language that shares the same alphabet and Latin roots, while they take much longer to achieve a similar level in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Chinese, according to their research, is the hardest language for an English speaker to learn.

I also spoke to someone in the Army linguistics program who said that when “high aptitude” learners are identified, they are then specialized in learning languages. A person who can learn languages faster than average generally has this skill in any language they study. Therefore, to maximize resources, these people are shuffled off into the next language after learning the current one. The person I spoke to was on their 3rd foreign language.

However, 3 months is a very short time to study a language. You may not even finish the alphabet in that time. College courses generally run 16 weeks, and usually 2 semesters equals 1 unit of learning (e.g. at my school, Korean 101 and 102 was considered one course.) On the other hand, if you focus on only 1 or 2 out of the 4 main language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) it is quite possible to get very good very fast, e.g. conversational in French, but be illiterate in it.

I would suggest both Spanish and French. Because of colonial history, they are second after English in number of places it’s understood and spoken. (I count Portugese as similar to Spanish). Both are similar to English with their latin roots for vocabulary.

Depending on where you live in the US, you either have Mexico with Spanish or Canada with French across the border.

Together with immigrant communities, there are many other ways of getting exposure. Exposure, if possible immersion, is the best way to learn a language. It makes a huge difference how much time you will need to learn, whether you study vocabulary for 30 min. a day, plus a bit of grammar, or whether you immerse yourself for 5 hours a day.

I’ll also disagree about the possiblity of actually getting to speak the language - this is the internet! Look at wikipedia articles in the target language, find a messageboard about your favourite topic in that language (and the country). Borrow foreign audio books and paper books from the library. Rent foreign DVDs and watch first with english subtitles, original soundtrack, and then again with foreign subtitles, foreign soundtrack. Look if there is a friendship society or similar (Spain has the Institute Cervantes for promoting Spanish culture, I forgot right now what the French have; Germany has the Goethe institut.) Look at the webpage of the consulate of the country.
Look for pen pals, there are many organisations that match people. Today, there’s also email.

There’s a program called tandem partners: you look for somebody who wants to learn English and is a native speaker of your language. You set up internet with webcam and microfone, and talk to each other, half an hour you teach him English, then half an hour he teaches you French/ spanish.

Find the online editions of the countries newspapers e.g. Le Figaro and Le Monde for France. Find the websites of the main TV channels in that country - today some snippets of shows are always on the pages to watch as mpg or stream.

Be ready to be overwhelmed at first - you’ll only get one word in 30 at the beginning, esp. if you hear a lot of different accents. Natural speech is too fast, and slang is not in the vocabulary guide. Keep trying. The more you hear and read and try to talk, the better you will get.

I recommend flash cards for vocabulary, repeating them five times until you are firm, then adding new ones. Put songs on your mp3 player and sing along while doing something else. Get relax and listen to an audio book. All kinds of different things, to keep it from being boring and a chore, and to expose you to everything of the culture.

The biggest difference I would think in all romance /germanic languages that English has lost are the genders and the informal/ formal address. There’s no way around it, and no rule to it, so simply learn each word with it’s article (le, la, il, or whatever) right from the start. It doesn’t matter at first if you say “the male train” instead of “the female train” (or whatever), or if you mix up plural and singular, people will still help you find that damn train. The more you hear the more you read the more you speak, the better you will get until it comes naturally to you and you no longer think what gender that train has. (When you talk or write your native tongue, you usually don’t think about what form to use, either, because you have heard and read enough good English to get used to it).

If you decide on Spanish, Nava here is Spanish native. If you decide on French, maybe some Canadien dopers are frankophones. If you do decide on German - though that’s of use only for Germany, Austria and Luxemburg, though you then enjoy the greatest writers, Goethe and Schiller :)), contact me if you like.

No need to be so modest! Gemans are quite avid travelers, after all, and it’s incredibly easy to run into them all over the world. And let’s not rule out the huge number of second-language speakers as well. In any larger US city, it should not be especially difficult to find at least a small community of German speakers to communicate with. And, as you note, it opens up a huge wealth of cultural material (one of the best things about learning a new language, in my opinion), most of which is not too difficult to get a hold of in the US.

But really, Neofio, I think it’s important not to get too wrapped up in utility, as often becomes the case in decisions like these. Unless you’re learning something particularly obscure, it will invariably become useful of its own right–that is to say, as you become better and better at a language, you will generally find yourself attracted to opportunities to make use of it. The truly important thing in deciding to learn a language is to choose a language you’re interested in. This will serve to make the learning process overall more rewarding, and if you’re not particularly interested in a language, but simply decide to learn it because you think it might be useful, there’s a fairly good chance that you’re going to give up in frustration when you reach one of the inevitable rough patches. Having a fondness for the language from the outset means you’ll be more likely to stick with it.

So, Neofio–why not tell us about a few languages you think you might be interested in, and perhaps some posters who are familiar with them can shed some light on the perks and difficulties of each? (Alternately, you might consider taking a glance here–they have a rough overview of numerous popular languages, plus an extensive forum you can search through/inquire in if you’d like some more detailed information).

Almost everything I’ve heard about language learning is that immersion is the best and fastest way to learn.

I ended up choosing Brazilian Portuguese because of several things: I’m attracted to Brazilian women, I enjoy Brazilian food, and there’s a predominantly-Brazilian city five minutes from my home.

For the past three and a half years I’ve been immersed in Brazilian culture, been to Brazil three times already, have more Brazilian friends than American, and consider myself 80-90% fluent.

I’m also especially proud of this because I have only a high school G.E.D., and have never taken even a single formal Portuguese lesson. Everything I’ve learned has been from life experiences—books, friends, girlfriends, TV, music, going to parties, dining out, and so forth.

Is there a culture/race/language near you that you find interesting? I highly recommend that you start there. If you’re interested, you’ll learn so much more quickly. Maybe you like a certain foreign food, and the people at the restaurant can teach you a few words to get you started, for example.

Also, Latin-based languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and even (to a lesser extent) French, have so many words that are similar to English, that you’ll already have a great head start.

Before investing heavily in anything, you might hunt around for a few YouTube videos to see if any particular language catches your interest.

I found learning a second language to be a truly life-changing experience and I recommend that you at least give it a try. It’s difficult at first, but it actually gets easier as you go along.

Good luck!

Sorry everyone, I neglected to put in background.

No, I’m not American (Filipino), and am in the Philippines. I do however “think” in English, so a romance language would seem like a natural choice. Given my background, Spanish would seem to be also, but **Stranger **brought up a good point in the disparity between dialects.

In the case of utility, the reason for my current unemployment is that I just resigned from my previous job in favor of a job in foreign affairs. If I would do something worthwhile (such as learning a foreign tongue), it might as well be useful along the way.

Given the points provided, I’m thinking German or French, supplemented by lots of books and instructional software.

TorpedoTed, you have a point about not getting caught up in utility, but in all honesty utility plays a big part in my choice. Not that its the *only *reason, of course.