Corinne McKay, a translator whose blog I’ve been reading for a while, has a post on which language is “the best” to learn. She approaches it from a translation perspective (no surprises there, since she works as a translator), but the entire post got me thinking about the question from a more general perspective.
There are definite advantages to studying what I call world languages – those that are spoken by such a large number of people are widely studied throughout the world. Examples would be Spanish, French, and German. To a lesser extent, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese qualify, too. I know from personal experience that the first three are very commonly taught in the United States and the latter three commonly taught in other parts of the world (or so I’ve heard). These world languages have a wealth of learning materials available and one can often meet speakers of these languages around the world. (Of course, English qualifies as world language, too. But since I’m an English speaker, I wasn’t really thinking of learning English when writing this article.)
Unfortunately, the world languages are often perceived as the most useful, so they are often the only languages students have exposure to. If students don’t like these languages, they often give up on language learning altogether, even though there are so many other languages out there, the ones categorized as less commonly taught. These languages have a wide variety of characteristics. Ukrainian is a less commonly taught language, even though it has approximately thirty-five million speakers, making it the third-largest Slavic language by number of speakers (first and second place are occupied by Russian and Polish, respectively). Catalan would also qualify as a less commonly taught language (when have you ever heard of someone studying Catalan?), and it has only eleven million speakers.
Ultimately, I agree with what Corinne said in her post: the answer to what the best language is is it depends. Really, it depends on what’s right for you. To sustain the momentum needed to learn a foreign language (remember, this is a lifelong journey – you’re not going to learn a foreign language in three months, despite claims to the contrary), you need to have an obsessive love for the language. This love has to be passionate and undying, or else you’ll just give up in frustration.
I studied languages in school for years before I found one I loved. I liked French and Spanish, but I never had an undying passion for either. It was only when I discovered Russian that I truly began to realize what was needed to learn to speak a foreign language. Russian is the best language for me because I love the language, the culture, the countries where it’s spoken. I love reading it, writing it, speaking it, listening to it. I don’t love any language as much as I love it (though Ukrainian, Belarusian,* and Serbian all have a very special place in my heart), so it’s just right for me.
What do you think? Is there one “best” language? Why or why not?
*Note: I’m semi-embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t know how to spell Belarusian in English. I had to look it up because I’m so used to seeing it in Cyrillic.