What makes a language useful?

What motivates your language study?
What motivates your language study?

Recently a friend of mine asked what the most useful language to learn is.  I think he was assuming useful for business, so I addressed this assumption.  I responded that the language you learn depends what you’re learning it for.  If you’re planning on working in China, Mandarin is very useful; Mandarin would not be useful at all if you work extensively in India, though.  But Hindi is not useful outside of India.  If you’re planning on working in Minnesota, Spanish and Somali would be very useful.  You can only judge “useful” with respect to some concrete goal.

The goal of language-learning determines what language one studies and how one studies it.  One friend studied Russian to do business there.  Another wants to learn Tamil in order to enjoy his extended stay in Southwest India.  A third wants to learn Arabic because of family ties and love of the culture.  One blogger I read is learning Pitjantjatjara in order to see the world through a different set of eyes.  For all of these language students, their language is the most useful.

The reasons for learning a language determine not just the language, but also what you focus on in learning.  For business in Russia, much of the business will probably be in English, so small talk will be the most important.  Moreover, much of your studying will be done at home, in between trips to Russia.  For Tamil, you would learn what you could now at home–basic pleasantries–before taking it up in earnest in India.  Once you got there, you would be surrounded by media in Tamil and native speakers, and you would try to speak to the people around you.  For Arabic, listening to music and watching films would help, and then making attempts to find Arabs to speak to would bring the passive knowledge into an active register.  For Pitjantjatjara, probably the only source of the language would be native speakers, so study would be intense conversations, and then studying on your own the words and phrases from those conversations.

For one person, Russian is most useful, and probably Rosetta Stone or an on-line resource like Livemocha.com would be most helpful.  For another, Pitjantjatjara is most useful, and conversing with people may be the only language resource.

Often, when I’m asked about the most “useful” language, the asker assumes that this is an economic question; in other words: What language will make me the most money?  But we see above that the question of what language to learn and how emerges from various motives, many of which are emotional and not economic.  Unfortunately, I think many institutions assume that economics is the most important question.  For this reason, some universities closed their Classics departments.  In addition, the economic question does not always lead to a single language.  As I said, above, economics may lead you to learn Chinese, Hindi, or Russian.  Recently I read that some Chinese people are learning Shona in order to do business in Zimbabwe.  This choice came because of increased economic ties between Sub-Saharan Africa and China.

So experience shows that the assumption that economics often does not motivate someone to learn a language.  Even if economics does motivate someone, economics does not always lead to the same language.

Why are you studying or want to study your language?  What means are you using to study them?  How did you choose those means?  Please add your answers to the comments section.

Photo credit: opensourceway / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

22 thoughts on “What makes a language useful?

  1. I’ve been involved with Spanish off-and-on out of laziness. I chose it out of laziness/convenience ten years ago and now I’m slacking on it out of laziness :p Russian is my second language of study and it’s more essential to my everyday life. In America, my in-laws only speak Russian, and now that I live in Ukraine, I need it to communicate to the outside world. And, of course, there’s Latin. Every now and then I crack open a Latin textbook and just study for the joy of it. Latin is such a pleasant and useful language, dead or not!

    This was a very thoughtful post, really enjoyed reading it! : ) Thanks!


    1. You say you learn out of laziness, but you keep coming back. What keeps you coming back to Latin and Spanish? I think dead languages are just as fascinating as spoken languages. I love to speak–that’s my passion. But when I read ancient texts I get a wonderful experience of connecting with another culture.


  2. Great post, as usual. Personally, I think, for most people, more than just an economic incentive is required. People start learning a language because it might be advantageous for their professional lives, but then they give up once they realise just how hard it really is and how much commitment it takes. I see this all the time here in Spain. I think there needs to be some passion behind it, some other type of reward on an emotional level, for people to push beyond lower intermediate level.


    1. Thank you! I think that language is about connecting with other people. It’s hard to connect with others half-heartedly. Just like knowing you need to network, but not being able to bring yourself to, knowing you need to study language, you may not be enthusiastic about it. We need something that will motivate us to learn language.


      1. Spot on! I often think to myself that learning Latin might be useful in helping me understand the workings of Latin-based languages on a much deeper level… but who would I be talking to…? The Pope??? Well, since he’s going to have a lot of time on his hands soon, it might be worth a shot 😉


      2. With Latin you can connect with individuals from a past civilization, with many differences from and much in common with our own people and civilization. I find reading ancient texts fascinating in seeing myself among people long dead. Dead languages are cool, too!


      3. You might be onto something there. At least they don’t interrupt. And neither do they charge…! Somebody should set up a Skullpe service. As long as the video option remains disabled. “Talk the arse off the dead, free of charge”.


  3. I think English would be the first choice of many learners, because it’s international with lots of speakers. I extremely needed English for reading my textbooks and papers. Now I’m at a level that can easily read technical texts. But it doesn’t stop me from learning more, as it wasn’t my main reason. The main reason is simply ‘love’.
    I use any text or podcasts from the net as resources. I also use italki (as you know), LingQ and your blog (though you may not know!).


    1. I think that English does provide economic incentive to learn for many people all over the world. In addition, I think that a lot of people are fascinated by US and UK culture, which provides another incentive to learn, wouldn’t you say?

      And I’m glad my blog is contributing to your language learning. Is it helpful just as a resource to read and practice with, or are the tips helpful for when you study on your own?


      1. Yes, it’s interesting for me to build familiarity with other cultures including US and UK culture.
        I do use your blog as a resource for reading. I also take your tips, but more than that it helps me know ‘about’ languages, like the relationship between cultures and languages.


  4. Pingback: Firms succeed offshore by cultivating cultural intelligence at home | Loving Language

  5. Pingback: Why Somali is harder than your language | Loving Language

  6. Pingback: Your brain loves language–feed it more | Loving Language

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