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.
- Why Learn Language? (farfromthebigsmoke.wordpress.com)
- Four questions about language-learning, solved here (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- Language Learning Autobiography (cerentutal.wordpress.com)
- What I learned about language-learning: 2012 (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- Language Learning Website Ranks World’s Sexiest Languages (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
- Language Learning in the Village (fivefortogo.com)