What Language Should I Learn?

Learning a new language is an enriching and rewarding experience. It opens so many doors, professionally and personally. And, in a society where only 18 percent of our native-born adult population speaks a second language, it can give us access to opportunities that our peers can only dream of. Multilingualism is not only professionally advantageous, but also improves mental agility, memory, and problem solving ability, and slows down the onset of age-related cognitive losses.

But learning a language is a commitment. It takes years to become truly proficient, and even then there will be yet more to learn. (I'm still learning new words and cultural references in English, and I've been speaking it since I was in diapers.)

So learn a language! There's so much to gain!

But first, think about which language will help you achieve your goals, and what learning opportunities are available to you. It all begins with just two questions: What to learn and how to learn it.

Question 1: What do you want to use your language for?

If you want to speak to a lot of people, look at which languages are widely spoken around the world (Some of them might surprise you!) or in your neck of the woods.

If you want to stand out from the pack and develop a unique skill, look at how many people are learning the language. The Modern Language Association publishes a database of how many American college students are studying each language. That said, remember that there may be a lot of people who speak the language natively and have thus beat you to bilingualism.

If you're using it for work or research or travel, think about whom you will need to speak to. Sometimes people may rush to learn Mandarin Chinese because they will be working in China, only to find that they should have studied Cantonese. Try to avoid making big assumptions. You may be in a region of Paraguay where Guaraní is more helpful than Spanish, or an Indian state where Tamil will get you further than Hindi. Furthermore, be sure to find out what the vernacular of the everyday people is. In Cape Verde, you may find that Cape Verdean Creole will get you further on the streets but Portuguese will be essential for work with the government.

Question 2: How do you prefer to learn?

If you need an first-rate teacher to stay motivated, ask around or run some quick internet searches to find out what language-learning programs are excellent near you, and then ask current students about their instructor. You can also search online for experienced teachers who can tutor you in person or via Skype. And, if you do opt for tutoring, don't feel like you have to stick with a teacher when it isn't working -- look at the first few sessions as a trial period. Always remember: Not all native speakers make good teachers. Language instruction is a skill that is developed through study and practice. If you're not learning, then find another instructor.

If you're looking for something flexible and convenient, check out the wealth of online tools that are available. Mango Languages, for example, offers programs in 70 different languages and dialects, and it's free at many libraries and universities or affordable if you're purchasing it just for you. There are endless language learning options online, and it all starts with a simple Google search!

If you need a community to learn with, consider starting a study group at your office or in your school. The organization I work with, the Student Language Exchange, builds small language learning communities within universities. We have learned that students have more fun and are more likely to stick with it if they are learning with their peers. Post some "Wanted: Vietnamese language study buddy" posters around your neighborhood -- you never know who you will meet!

If you need accountability, think about what works for you. For some, a learning community helps hold them accountable. Some people find that forking over some money helps keep them focused, whether it is by paying for an online program or handing $10 to a friend who will only return it when they can hold a conversation. In my case, I need a well-defined schedule with specific milestones (when I reach my milestones, I allow myself to transfer $10 to my "fun fund"). We all have different motivators -- figure out what yours is and exploit it.

So learn a language!

There are so many languages out there (7,106 at last count, and that's not even including dialects). Do not limit yourself to what is easily accessible or blatantly obvious. Consider your options, align your learning with your goals, decide how you want to learn, and make a firm commitment. It is completely doable (regardless of your age) if you are strategic and intentional in your decision-making.

I just have one last question: What language will you learn?