What is the Best Language to Learn?

I don't like Ukrainian quite as much as Russian, but it's a close second.
I don’t like Ukrainian quite as much as Russian, but it’s a close second.

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.

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6 thoughts on “What is the Best Language to Learn?

  1. Thanks Natalie, glad you liked the post! I think it’s an interesting question, also because most people automatically assume that “the best” language to learn is the one that’s most common in your country (for example in the US, it would be Spanish if you already speak English). But in terms of competition and rates, you actually want to aim for something where there’s a lot of work, but not a huge amount of competition. Thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Corinne. I definitely agree: you need to be able to find work in the language, but ideally not have it be so saturated. I also think you need to have the motivation to actually learn the language to fluency, so you have to consider emotional factors as well (such as, do I actually like this language enough to spend the time learning it).

  2. After having read the original post by Corinne, I think we (i.e. those who translate into or out of English) are a bit biased in that we think of combinations involving English only. For example, I’m sure a Japanese to Arabic or vice versa translator might be able to make a good living, or a Russian to Hindi translator, as I saw recently on ProZ. I think, as per one of your previous posts, it all depends on how much time you’re willing to invest in learning languages – I mean, Japanese took me four years of occasional studying and four years of constant, virtually daily practice and learning – and I still feel like I’m light years behind 🙂 Sure, it is a language pair (JP-EN) with a great deal of earning potential, but you also have to rack up a good number of years of experience in the translation industry. Currently I’m working on perfecting my German and starting to learn Russian, and I’d like to see where I’ll be going from there – I’m thinking Finnish… actually, having said all that, the best language one can learn is to master one’s mother tongue to a freakishly high degree of fluency – I find myself learning new English words every day, despite having spoken it every single day for 30 years.

    1. Sarai, I definitely agree. To be honest, I haven’t given much thought to non-English combinations, which is quite silly. Now that I think about it, I met someone via Twitter who worked from Russian into Spanish. As far as I know, she makes a pretty good living doing that.

      Good luck with your Russian! 🙂

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