Learning a Foreign Language - What should I pick?

I second this. Whether you learn Spanish or French or Italian, simply knowing another language (aside from the personal pleasure of having new friends on the internet, new restaurants or clubs to hang out at etc.) means that you can look at more job offers. If ever the situation should come up that you work for a company with international branches, and they want to send somebody abroad, you have an edge. If foreign exchange students arrive at your local high school or university, and they want tutors to help them integrate and get to know your city, you can offer help and maybe then get offered something else.
It means you more likely to visit that country because language is no longer a barrier. (I know, if you pick France, it’s across the ocean - but Canada you can drive to!). Maybe you come for a guest term at the university, but find a wonderful job oppurtunity that you never thought off at home.

Everything’s possible, you don’t know beforehand what might happen, but with an additional skill, you get an additional card in the game, so to speak. (and be glad you don’t have to learn spanish in 6 months because you have been ordered to go to Mexico by Headquarters! instead, you can simply choose to your liking.

So Filipino (Tagalog) is your first/ native language, or English? I’m a bit confused here.

Actually, English is half-Germanic and half-romance. When I look at Dutch or low German I can see similarities to English words, and French is just badly pronounced English :smiley: (The French of course see it the other way round).

I don’t want to cast any doubts on Stranger, but I would wait till morning for Nava and other spaniards, because I remember previous discussions about how big of a deal the dialects in spanish are, with opinions ranging widely. I think there’s also some continuum, so if you learn Mexican dialect Spanish, you will have a hard time understanding the other dialects, but if you learn one of the Spanish dialects (forgot which one exactly) that’s kind of in the middle, you can adapt to most of the others.

Because I would think in the Philippines as former Spanish colony, there should be lots of Spanish speakers around, no? Or has English completly replaced it because of recent US influence?

I’ll defer to any fluent and well-travelled speakers of Spanish, as my own command of that language is at best marginal in any dialect. However, the Spanish speakers I’ve known from different parts of the world all point out that their particular brand of Spanish is mutually unintelligible with those from other parts, while German speakers are generally able to cope with one another by accounting for changes in hardness of consonants, emphasis of syllables, and the use of idiom.

Russian (with which I have a passing familiarity) and the associated East Slavic languages are somewhat the same way, owing to the fact that they are rarely learned or used with grammatical discipline, and thus, knowing how Russian or Belarusian is spoken by one group of speakers does not convey fluency with the population as a whole. Only in technical Russian are grammatical rules followed with some stringency, and then the vernacular is so constrained and specialized that if forms its own sort of dialect. (One could say the same about technical English as well, I suppose.)

If I were going to pick a random language to learn just because I had free time, I’d probably pick Magyar, just 'cause I’m kind of fascinated with Hungarian history and because it seems so alien. It’s also almost completely useless outside of Hungary and Romania, but that’s part of the fun.


In any case, his other theories are even more flawed. There are far more Francophones in Africa than Europe. I’m almost certain you’d find as much variety across French-speaking countries as you would among Spanish speaking ones. From personal experience, I speak pretty much fluent west African French, learned on the streets in Cameroon. I can speak with other west Africans without any major problems.

But I have trouble communicating with French people. They can generally understand me, but I imagine it’s confusing to hear someone with such a distinctly African accent. As for me, I can barely decipher their lispy whispers- give me the trilled 'R’s and staccato rhythms of African French any day!

My local dialect is Cebuano, while the national language is Filipino (or bastardized Tagalog). Early immersion has made me fluent in English, and I can speak it better than both languages. As I tend to “think” in English, and speak Cebuano and English better than I do Filipino, I consider both languages as my first languages.

Yes to the latter. Spanish as a common language has just about been replaced by English, and aside from some very old holdovers from the early US occupation, there is no sizeable Spanish-speaking population. There are a lot of Spanish loanwords however (as there are English, Chinese and Japanese), but then that can be said of just about any language so historically and culturally connected.

They have 4 categories, with level 1 (easiest) consisting of Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, and level 4 (hardest) consisting of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

I think I’d personally learn towards Chinese being a little easier to learn than Japanese even taking into account the pronunciation difficulties, simply because the grammar is much more similar to English.

Re: the issue of Spanish dialect intelligibility, I don’t think it’s that much of an issue. I have friends from all over Latin America and they don’t seem to have any trouble talking to each other. I studied Spanish from a Spaniard a long time and can still understand a fair amount of what they’re saying even though my Spanish is very rusty. Also, Spanish speakers understand the difference between their local dialect and “proper” Spanish and can adjust according to who they’re speaking to.

I would chime in with Spanish. In the US, it is by far the most useful language to learn (and easiest to practice). I took German and French in HS and have found them to be useless. I used my German only with my fellow students and post-docs, but rarely. I only use my French when I am watching movies with French spoken - subtitles lose the feel. I have used my Chinese and Russian MUCH more frequently than my German and French. Spoken Chinese is an easy language if you are musically inclined, but the characters take time and effort to learn and require frequent use (at least with me) to remember.

One of the main plot lines of John Grisham’s recent novel, “The Broker” is focused on the details of learning Italian on a forced schedule. Found it very interesting and entertaining.

Could one “walk” their way towards learning a language that is very different from one’s native language by continually learning languages that are similar to the last learned language until they drift to their desired language?

Sure, in theory. I’m a native English speaker fluent in Japanese, which gave me several advantages over my friends during the brief periods I spent studying Chinese and Korean.

If you wanted to learn Japanese I guess going German > Hungarian > Korean > Japanese would be a good “walk”. But it probably wouldn’t be a very efficient use of time :smiley:

I’m sure you could. I speak fluent Bulgarian, which I learned when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria. Now I’m studying Russian, which is considered to be generally very difficult for native English speakers. But for me, it isn’t. I find it quite easy. I don’t really study outside of doing the homework, and I’ve gotten an A on every single test and quiz except one. (I got an 87 on one test, it was a terrible moment.) I didn’t exactly “walk” toward Russian, but I’m sure it would be possible.

cckerberos, I don’t see how German > Hungarian, considering they are totally unrelated languages. Hungarian isn’t even Indo-European, is it?

You’re right, it’s Finno-Ugric rather than Indo-European. But you have to jump across language groups at some point to get to Japanese, and Hungarian has a lot of loanwords from German (10% of its vocabulary according to wiki) which is why I chose it.

It’s possible that Finnish would be a better choice, but I’m not as familiar with its vocabulary and grammar.

I learned Chinese for 3 years. I know how to talk and write. Reading, however, is another level of difficulty.

Languages seem to be somewhat like different animals; there’s a kind of lemurlike primate that walks around the forest upright like a human, but it’s obviously only a distant relation of ours. I think the short answer to this is no. On the other hand, learning a language will help you learn a third language if it’s in the same language family. If you know German it’s pretty easy to learn Dutch, although there are a number of similar words that mean different or even opposite things. I would imagine the same is true of Polish and Russian.

If we’re talking about larger categories, e.g. Indo-European, by learning any foreign language in the group you might unknowingly pick up some understanding of how the whole language family works. From knowing German, I understand better the principles of an inflected language. I think the fact that I understand German grammar fairly well would be helpful if I wanted to learn, say, Lithuanian, which has a horrendously complicated case structure and is thought to lie fairly close to the primitive root of IE languages. (Primitive = less changed, less diverged from the IE Ursprache. )

Assuming you are an English speaking American, definitely Spanish. Mandarin is not a bad choice, but very hard to master.

I would also say French would be a distant second, since it is a language spoken in so many countries. Arabic would the third choice.

I’m an American who learned Latin American Spanish in school and then studied abroad in Spain. I would say the difference from Spanish-speaking country to Spanish-speaking country is about the same as between English-speaking countries. That is: the accent and the vocabulary are different, but still perfectly intelligible.

I would also point out that Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish, it is a separate language. All the Spanish spoken in Central and Latin America is the language called Castilian.

English is a Germanic language which has absorbed a great deal of French, Latin, and Greek vocabulary (along with myriad others). It is not a creole or a pidgin, and is not ‘half-Germanic and half-romance’. In its structure English is eminently Germanic. Like all other languages it has evolved and mutated over time. It’s true English lost almost all grammatical gender, but it still retains it, a neuter gender pronoun that harkens back to its Germanic roots. English also lost a great deal of inflection, but that happened to a lot of languages that aren’t creoles.

Many of the phonological changes that are often cited as evidence that English is a Creole had already happened by the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066. English had dropped grammatical gender by 950; unstressed vowels changing to schwa had occurred about the same time; /ü/ merging with /i/ had begun by the 9th century; all of these things happened too early for French, Latin, or Greek to have had any part to play in them. The population of Norman French-speakers even after the invasion never exceeded more than perhaps 50,000 or so. Pidgins and creoles are created when speakers of two or more different languages need to communicate; this situation did not exist in England, where the vast majority of approximately two million people could speak to one another. It is true English absorbed some French, Latin, and Greek vocabulary, but even then the basic vocabulary is still Germanic, with the loan words being primarily specialized terms.

For more information, I would recommend Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics (1991) by Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman.

Theoretically, yes. Language aptitude is similar to riding a bicycle. Once you get your brain to switch to language learning mode, it should be easier to learn each successive language. Europeans, for example, because of the nature of Europe, commonly know 4-5 languages, usually enough to do mundane transactions at a low level.

The big trick though is convincing your brain to treat language like language, not math. Many adults, because they think language is like algebra (word X + word Y = meaning Z) are unable to learn language at all.

For example, I failed 5 times to pass basic Korean and failed once to learn Hawaiian as part of my undergraduate requirements. Here’s an example:

Korean has a letter called “riul.” It is a combination of “r” and “l” sounds. However, it is not simply r + l. It is a new sound in and of itself, and until I started thinking about it that way and not thinking of Korean as just a translated version of English could I be successful.

Therefore, rather than try to ladder yourself up through a series of similar languages, you should just do any convenient (and cheap) language you want, and then if you are successful, this should help you learn a much harder language by rewiring your brain.

ps. You should avoid Chinese though. Usually, for beginners, the only option is to use a dictionary, and Chinese dictionaries are really, really hard to use. Also, they use something called “tonals” which are completely unused in English. For example, the basic greeting, “ni-hau-ma” is pronounced something like “NIEE-hau-maaAAA.”

I’m pretty sure I already posted an answer, but it seems to have dissapeared.
Note that I’m not a spaniard.

The thing is that there’s a difference bewteen the various dialects/languages spoken within Spain and the variants of spanish spoken in various countries.

Yes, there are significant differences between dialects/languages spoken within Spain, and it can indeed be big deal, the most obvious example being Catalan, which is in fact a separate language.

But on the other hand all spanish-speaking countries use Castillan (“standard” spanish), so even though there are some differences here and there, everybody will understand everybody else. I didn’t have more troubles communicating with Latin Americans than with Spaniards (more exactly I have the same level of trouble, or , if anything, more trouble with spaniards).
The only situation where you could run into problem would be if you travelled to Spain and met someone who, for some mysterious reason, would refuse to speak Castillan with you and insist on using his own local language/dialect. Then, yes, you would be in trouble, but so would be an Argentinian, a Mexican, or even a Spaniard.