Which Language to Learn?
A Guide to Choosing the Right Foreign Language for You
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could turn on your universal translator (so often featured in sci-fi adventures) and be able to communicate with anyone in the world? Unfortunately, this technology is not yet available. In the real world, the only option to effective cross-cultural communication is learning to speak the language for ourselves.
Most people are aware of the advantages of foreign language study. An expanded awareness of the world around you, improved chances of attending the college of your choice, increased job opportunities and earning potential, and enlarged ministry opportunities—these are just a few of the reasons that you should study a foreign language, especially in high school.
But what foreign language is best for you? In the past, many students were limited to the choices available to them through local schools or tutors. However, with the increase in media-based language programs such as Rosetta Stone and others, the choices are far more wide-ranging. However, this advantage brings with it the dilemma of choosing among many great language options.
The decision of which foreign language to study is an important one and is often one of the first big academic decisions in which the student has some input. There are several factors you should consider when choosing a foreign language as a homeschooled student: learning options, difficulty level, personal preference, and future goals in life. We will look at each of these factors and then examine some of the most commonly studied foreign languages.
Factors to Consider
Learning options. While media-based programs offer expanded learning opportunities, you still need to consider your own learning style. Do you feel that you would learn better in a class where you would have the chance to create dialogue with live human beings? Are there classes available to you? Many communities have local tutors that cater to the needs of homeschooled students. If you study on your own, do you have foreign language speakers among your family or friends with whom you could practice your growing skills? What curriculum options are available to you for the language you wish to study? These factors may not totally determine the language you learn, but they are factors to consider.
Difficulty level. Some people seem to have a natural ear for languages. Some have more trouble with the sounds but are great at adapting to the new grammar and vocabulary. Others have difficulty with both areas. If English is your first language, certain languages will be easier to learn because they correlate more closely with our own grammar, characters, or vocabulary. If you do not pick up languages easily, you probably do not want to start with more difficult languages such as Hebrew or Mandarin Chinese, which rely on characters entirely different than our own.
The U.S. State Department has come up with a way to measure the relative difficulty of an English-speaking individual learning foreign languages, based on the expected number of classroom hours they consider to be necessary to become fluent in that language. Even if you learn the language in a different way, this measure can still be used to help you judge difficulty.
Personal Preference. Generally, you will be studying a language for at least two years. To become fluent, you will have to immerse yourself in the language and begin to think in the language. You will also have to spend many hours listening to that language as it is spoken by others; therefore, it is helpful to choose a language that appeals to your ear. Linguistic preferences are as individual as are tastes in clothing, art, or music. Some prefer the smooth, lyric sound of French, whereas others prefer the more clipped, yet rich sounds of German or the trilled r’s and staccato sounds of Spanish. One way to determine your own linguistic preferences is to find sites on the Internet where you can hear these languages spoken. Language learning sites, such as Rosetta Stone, offer some sample languages, but you can also look for other Internet sources such as foreign radio clips or videos.
Also consider the culture where the language is common. Presumably, once you learn the language, you will want to communicate with other speakers of that language. So consider this: If you were able to go to any country on the planet and learn more about their culture, where would you want to go? This simple question may help you choose a foreign language to study.
Interests and Future Goals. Sometimes students and parents are so focused on ease of learning or cost of curriculum that they fail to consider one of the most important aspects of choosing a foreign language: the impact it will have on future careers or life goals. Though learning any foreign language will benefit you in terms of college admission and cultural expansion, certain languages are more valuable for specific goals. As we discuss some of the most commonly studied languages, be sure to note the interest category to see if that language would be a good fit for your future plans.
Spanish is easily the most popular foreign language choice for Americans, accounting for more than 52% of foreign language students, according to the Modern Language Association.1 For many, this is a very practical choice. More than 35 million residents of the United States speak Spanish,2 and it is now the second most commonly spoken language in the world.3 Over 34% of those who speak Spanish reside in the United States.4 For this reason, there is an increasing demand for employees who can speak Spanish as a second language. However, though fluency in Spanish may increase your chances of getting hired, it does not necessarily mean a notable increase in pay. According to report by Forbes magazine, the average premium paid for bilingual Spanish-speakers is only 1.7%.5
Difficulty Level: Relatively easy (roughly 600 hours)6
Interests: Spanish or Hispanic culture; ministry opportunities; careers in customer service, medicine, or social work; education; working as a translator.
Although Latin ranks only eighth on the list of commonly studied languages in the U.S.,7 it ranks second among homeschoolers.8 Latin, though considered a “dead language” because it is no longer the native tongue of any culture, has exerted great influence on many modern languages today. Five “living languages” (known as Romance Languages) descend from Latin: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. Knowledge of Latin can aid in learning these linguistic branches of the Latin family tree. Though not a Latin descendant, English owes more than 60% of its vocabulary to Latin. Long considered the language of scholarly pursuits, Latin forms the basis for many terms used in science, medicine, and legal matters.
Difficulty Level: Relatively easy
Interests: Scientific, medical, or legal careers; ancient history: classical literature; general improvement of vocabulary and test scores.
French, the language of romance and culture, is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful spoken languages. During much of English history, the knowledge of French was considered a requirement for genteel society; therefore, French phrases are scattered throughout many English works. French is second only to English as the most commonly studied language in the entire world and is considered one of the few truly global languages. As the language of diplomacy, it is required for the majority of international jobs. Along with English, French is the official working language of the United Nations, NATO, and the International Olympic Committee.9 Keep in mind that it is generally easier to learn to read French than to understand it, since the words tend to run together when spoken. However, the effort can pay off in the workplace: Speakers of French tend to earn a 2.7% wage premium.10
Difficulty Level: Relatively easy (600 hours)11
Interests: Art, dance, or culinary arts; international business, politics, or diplomacy; English literature; films; music; acting as a translator.
German is the third most commonly studied language in the entire world, largely because Germany has the third strongest economy in the world and is the world’s #1 exporter. German is also the most widely spoken language in Europe.12 Many of the world’s greatest theologians and most influential thinkers came from Germany, so knowledge of the language can aid in studies of religion and philosophy. Because of Germany’s continuing contributions to science and technology, it is the second most commonly used language in those fields.13 In addition, German follows only English and Chinese in terms of books published in that language. In fact, 10 percent of the world’s books are published in German.14 English is a Germanic language, so German is fairly easy for Americans to pick up; however, its more complex grammatical structure means that it is a little harder to become adept at German than it is to master the Romance languages. On the other hand, German requires clear enunciation, so it is generally easier to understand spoken German than spoken French.15 As an added bonus, knowledge of German can boost your income 4% as opposed to the 1.7% premium that Spanish speakers earn.16
Difficulty Level: Moderately easy (750 hours17 )
Interests: International business and banking; theology; psychology and philosophy; music history; publishing; world literature; science, engineering, and technology; working as a translator.
The fourth language most favored by American foreign language scholars is Italian. Italian is a beautiful language long associated with art and culture. Italian sounds lyrical when spoken, which may account for its wide use in operas and other forms of classical music. Italian, the most direct descendant of Latin, is one of the easiest languages to learn and speak; in addition, mastery of Italian makes it easier to learn other Romance languages. Though it is in less demand than Spanish, Italian language skills still generally earn a 4% premium in the workplace.18
Difficulty Level: Relatively easy (600 hours19 )
Interests: Music; art, design, and architecture; fashion; missions; world literature; Italian food and culture; working as a translator.
American Sign Language
Many people overlook sign language when it comes to second language studies. In the past, American Sign Language (ASL) was not considered acceptable for fulfilling a foreign language requirement, in part because its very nature precludes it from having a body of literature. However, that perception is changing and now, many states and colleges accept work in ASL for academic credit.20 If the academic credit is important to you, be sure to check with your state or the colleges where you plan to apply to make sure that American Sign Language fulfills their requirements.
From a practical standpoint, knowledge of American Sign Language allows you to communicate with between 500,000 and 2,000,000 people in the U.S. alone who consider ASL their first language. In fact, ASL is the third most commonly used language in the U.S.21 ASL is also a three-dimensional language requiring body movements that translate into a graceful form of communication that can be used when silence is required. This physical aspect appeals to more active students. The rudiments of ASL are easy to pick up, but the language is far more complicated than it appears. True fluency requires extended study and practice. However, study of this language expands your opportunities to help others and to find employment in fields that require regular contact with the Deaf community.
Difficulty Level: Moderately difficult
Interests: Interest in the Deaf community; medical and social work; special needs education; ministry and volunteer opportunities; working as a translator.
These languages represent just a few of the many options available to you. There are a great many more. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, is the most common primary language in the world, though its characters and complexity make it difficult to learn. The study of ancient Greek and Hebrew helps equip students more accurately translate the Scriptures for themselves. If you are interested in other options such as these, you should take time to research them for yourself. Remember that the goal is to find both a language you can learn and a language you can love.
Amelia Harper is a homeschooling mother of five and a pastor’s wife. She is also the author of Literary Lessons from the Lord of the Rings, a complete one-year literature curriculum for secondary-level students. In addition, she is an English tutor and a freelance writer who contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines. For more information, go to http://www.HomeScholarBooks.com/.
Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Winter 2010-11.
Used with permission. Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com and view a sample copy of the magazine.
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