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How to choose the right foreign language to study?

I assume that you are serious about learning a foreign language. If you really are, then please read the points listed below. I hope they can help you choose the most suitable foreign language to invest your time, energy and money. On the other hand, if you just want to learn how to say “I love you” in different languages, then you don’t really need to know how to choose the right foreign language and thus won’t benefit much after reading this article.

Enough introduction. Just read.

1. How much free info can you get? Or how much money do you have?

Learning a foreign language can cost you a lot of money. The classes are expensive. Tutors are expensive. Even self-learning CD’s are expensive. So before deciding which foreign language to study, you must make sure you have enough money to finance your course. Or, if you don’t have too much money or just don’t want to spend it, you need to check (Google recommended) how much free information you can get, both online and offline.

You must also pay attention to the range of the free information. Does it cover beginner’s as well as more advanced levels? Does it have reading as well as audio materials? If you can find a lot of free materials on a target language, but all of them are of beginner’s level, then I don’t recommend you to study that language. Sooner or later you will face a big bottleneck and may be forced to give up.

Usually, big languages such as French, German and Japanese have a lot of free online materials. Less popular languages such us my mother language Cantonese do not have this advantage.

2. Do the native speakers of your target language speak your language?

The title is a little bit confusing. What I mean to say is that if you are a native English speaker and planning to study Russian, then you need to investigate if the Russian people generally can speak fluent English.

If they can, then you must think twice before embarking on your study of Russian.
If they can’t, then it is a very good reason for you to learn their language.

Why? Because if a lot of Russian people can speak your mother tongue, then learning their language will not give you any edge when you are seeking a job. And they will have a tendency to speak English with you, especially when their English is much better than your broken Russian. So you will have a very hard time finding an environment to practice your spoken Russian.

Of course, in real life, English is not that common in Russia. But it is very common in Hong Kong, the city I live in. Almost all Hong Kongers are learners of English and can speak at least broken English. Most of us are eager to find a native English speaker to practice our conversational English. It is a very bad environment for you to learn the local language here (Cantonese in this case). And it will make it very difficult for you to jump from intermediate to advanced level.

On the other hand, Japanese does not have this problem. Many Japanese people can write understandable English. But very few can speak or are brave enough to speak. And even if they can, they will be more than happy if you speak Japanese with them. With such an environment, i.e. native speakers of your target language tend to speak in the target language when they are talking to you, if you study hard, success is guaranteed.

3. Does your target language have a lot of fun stuffs?

By fun stuffs, I mean comics, movies, games and other things that are for entertainment. The world is not fair. Some languages are “dryer” than the others. For examples, video games are usually in either English or Japanese. The so-called multilingual version usually just has subtitles in various languages. The audio language is still English or Japanese.

Why are fun stuffs so important? It’s because learning a foreign language is NOT an easy process. There are joy and satisfaction. But there are also bottleneck and frustration. Foreign language study means that you need to do within three to four years what native speakers of your target language do within ten years in school. In other words, you have to work much harder than you do learning your mother language. When you are facing difficulties and want to give up, those fun stuffs will help you big time. And if you can find a way to learn through the fun stuffs, your whole learning process will become much less painful.

It may sound like I’m selling you to learn Japanese, but Japanese is really a very good choice if you are planning to learn a foreign language. It is because the Japanese people have created a lot of entertainment such as comics (they call it manga), anime and video games. They did help me get through when I wanted to give up.

4. Can you manage the pronunciation system?

I always want to learn Spanish but never really try, because I cannot pronounce Spanish R. I have tried many times but the pronunciation is just not right. And I decide not to “go too deep” into Spanish until I can manage the R. I don’t want to be a fluent Spanish speaker with 1 out of 5 words mispronounced in every sentence.

You can learn grammar by rote. You can memorize a whole dictionary. But your tongue is sometimes beyond your control. There are sound elements in other languages whose difficulties are beyond your imagination. For example, when I was learning English as a native Cantonese speaker more than ten years ago, I was facing a lot of sound elements that didn’t exist in my mother language. Cantonese does not have any voiced consonants, so I needed to learn things as simply as “B, D and Z”. If English were not a requirement in job interviews in Hong Kong, I wouldn’t have chosen to learn it. I needed to give 3~4 times more effort in learning English than learning other languages that have a relatively easier sound system, such as Japanese.

Finally, it makes me sad that so many people do not think before choosing a foreign language to learn. Usually, they change horses on a regular basis and after a few years they will become beginner’s level learners of several languages. Such language skills can let them do nothing but impress people from time to time. If they had chosen the right horse on day one, they would have already become a fluent advanced learner of one single language, which could be a plus when they are looking for a job or doing business with foreigners. Also, the more languages you study unsuccessfully, the more self-confidence you lose. Many people have even given up on foreign language study once and for all. For me, it’s like being kept in a jail cell made of language barrier.

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