“A frog in a well does not know the great ocean.”
– Japanese Proverb
Living a good life is directly associated with how we think of ourselves, how we perceive the world, and how much compassion we have for others. The quality of our lives is affected by our willingness to face our problems, overcome challenges, and accept failure without letting it stop us from trying again.
All these things are the product of our minds. In other words, the mindsets we develop over the years more or less control how we live. For instance, a growth mindset means someone is eager to learn new skills and improve their performance. Such people are more likely to succeed in their lives and achieve their dreams, whatever they happen to be.
On the other hand, constantly focusing on what is wrong is a destructive mindset that stops us from seeing and living the beauties of the world.
To develop good beliefs and mindsets, we need to constantly improve our brain function, which can occur by acquiring new skills. Playing a musical instrument, reading, writing, or doing jigsaw puzzles, for instance, are excellent skills that keep our brains active.
But do you know what has a better effect on our brains and a greater impact on our lives and future? Learning languages.
What is language learning?
Languages are the means through which we communicate our thoughts and express ourselves to others. They help us connect with other people, build relationships, make friends, and understand the world.
Learning our native language starts right after birth or maybe even before that, as unborn babies can hear their moms’ voices at around seven months of pregnancy.
After birth, babies start to hear different sounds. So, their brains gradually start associating every word with its corresponding sound and trying to make sense of them. Then, babies begin to move their tongues the same way as their parents to make the same sounds and, therefore, speak.
Learning a native language is spontaneous. No matter how easy or hard it is, every baby will eventually learn their parents’ first language, as long as they do not have any physical or mental impairments that prevent them from doing so.
This form of learning is called instinctive learning. It happens spontaneously without us thinking about it or being totally aware of its happening. That is because we are exposed to the language all the time. So the brain grasps everything quite quickly. Instinctive learning is at its best in children.
The other form of learning is intentional learning. This is when we decide we will deliberately learn something, for instance, a new language. That means we make a conscious effort in order to acquire that language. As a result, we study grammar, memorise vocabulary, read books, listen to talks, and speak with others.
Why is language learning important?
As you may have guessed, intentional learning is more demanding than instinctive learning. And harder things usually require more effort as well as discipline.
We can easily understand how beneficial it is to acquire a second language when we see someone moving back and forth between two languages. How fast do you think their brain has to work to do that? If we try to break down the process of saying a sentence, any sentence, it will probably be something like that:
- The brain decides which thought or notion it wants to express.
- It searches for the correct words to imply the meaning of that thought.
- It arranges these words using proper grammatical rules to produce the intended meaning.
- Then, it will make the sounds that will eventually deliver the notion to the other person in the form of a sentence.
We do this process entirely effortlessly when we speak in our mother tongues because we have learned it instinctively.
Yet, more effort must be made when the brain has to do the same process with a language learned by the heart. And the more complicated the language is, whether in its grammar or pronunciation, the harder the brain has to work to practise it.
All this translates to better brain function. The more a foreign language is practised, the faster the brain works and the more developed it becomes.
Such a development of the brain empowered by the progress we make in learning languages does have remarkable effects on other things too. For instance, people who are getting better at learning a new language can experience
- Improved focus
- Better study sessions
- Better conversation skills
- Better self-expression and articulation
- Easiness when learning a third language
- Ability to communicate clearly with others
- A higher level of creativity
Learning languages was also found to increase brain size, which, in return, improves academic performance, boosts memory, and enhances focus, reasoning, decision-making, and problem-solving.
In other words, those who learn new languages are generally more likely to live a better life than those who do not.
How to decide which language to learn
As of 2022, over 7,100 languages are spoken worldwide. Some of them are more famous and much more widely spoken and others are near-extinct.
For instance, English is the number one used language worldwide and is now a top priority for anyone who wants to have some kind of contact with the outside world.
Mandarin Chinese is the second most spoken language in the world, with a total number of native and non-native speakers of 1.117 billion, most of whom live in Asia.
Besides the ability to communicate with millions of other people, Mandarin Chinese is crucial for anyone who wishes to find a job in or do business with any of the thousands of Chinese companies which have been taking the world by storm. In fact, China has had the second-largest economy in the world, after the US, for the past 30 years.
Does that mean we should learn the most famous languages?
Well, this indeed is something to consider while choosing which language to learn, but it is not the only thing. There is a list of things we should think about before attempting to learn a new language.
These things are entirely related to the learner and will definitely change from one person to another. Someone who lives in the Japanese countryside and has no interest in getting out of their village will not need Spanish in any of their daily interactions. But they may choose to learn it only because they love the sound of it or are interested in exploring Spanish culture.
So, to choose a language to learn, here are a few questions we should ask ourselves to help guarantee an enjoyable and prolonged learning experience.
1. Why am I learning this language?
Believe it or not, asking about the reason for or what purpose we seek from doing something should be the first question we answer before doing anything. It helps us make sense of what we do and will push us to keep going at times of low progress, plateau, demotivation, or even desperation.
Yet, there is a difference between reasons and purposes. Reasons usually come before action, while purposes follow that action, or to be more specific, are what we hope to follow the action.
In other words, reasons are mostly related to the present, while purposes are always about the future.
Interestingly, there are no specifications for the benefit we seek from learning a specific language. For example, people may choose to learn it
- Because they love how it sounds.
- To communicate with family members who live in that country.
- Because they want to travel to that country one day.
- Because this language is hard, and they want to challenge themselves.
- To ace the SAT and enrol in a good college.
- To have good jobs in the future.
- To improve their memory.
Whatever your reason or purpose is, you need to know that it is valid and must not be subjected to anyone else’s judgement. But what you also must make sure of is that your reason is entirely related to you and only you, not anyone else.
For instance, choosing to learn Korean only to impress others does not sound very genuine enough and is less likely to push you to go on with your journey.
2. What difficulty level does this language have?
Another thing to research before choosing a certain language is how easy or hard it is to learn. But again, this is quite relative. So here are a few things to consider when answering that question.
a. What kind of learner am I?
Languages can be easy or difficult for someone, thanks to how their brain is wired. Some people may have a natural gift for learning languages. They can easily mimic different sounds and have a strong memory of remembering thousands of words fast.
Others might find a language hard either because their learning process is inefficient or because their brains are designed differently to process and retain information. In that case, they know they should make an extra effort to acquire that language.
Consistency also influences the learning process. The more consistent one is, the more used to the language they get and the easier it sounds to them.
b. How close is this language to my mother tongue?
A language difficulty level also changes based on every learner’s first language. In other words, some languages are easier for specific native speakers than others. That is because they, the first and second languages, may have many common words, similar grammar, not-very-different or maybe easy pronunciation, and indeed the same alphabet.
Spanish is relatively easy for native English speakers. Though both languages come from different linguistic families, they use the same alphabet and have many words in common with almost the same pronunciation.
For instance, words like famoso, normal, ordinario, universidad, exacto, and perfecto in Spanish mean, sound, and spell almost exactly the same as famous, ordinary, university, exact, and perfect in English.
The opposite is also true. Languages coming from utterly unrelated language families are typically harder to learn. Examples of such languages include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Russian. They are characterised by different alphabets. Consequently, it will take more time and effort to learn how to draw and recall the sounds of these differently-looking characters, let alone memorise words or study grammar.
The same goes for pronunciation. Many learners find specific languages hard because they have to make new sounds that they are not used to or have not produced before in their native language. Having to move the tongue differently is of course challenging for many.
So, does that mean we should choose easy languages and skip difficult ones?
Not at all.
But defining how difficult a language is will directly influence the learning process. It will also teach the person a lot about themselves. At least, it will prepare them in some way for what they are going to encounter. Therefore, they are more likely to put more effort into learning.
3. Are there enough learning resources available?
The availability of learning resources can encourage or discourage us from learning specific languages, even if we have partially made up our minds by answering the previous questions.
A language such as English has infinite resources in libraries and online, from self-study books, dictionaries, offline classes, learning groups, and private tutors to everything else available on the Internet. So if someone does not like English that much but still needs to learn it for their work, the availability of resources shall ease their learning process.
On the flip side, the absence or rarity of resources hinders learners from taking the learning process seriously or starting it altogether. An example of a low-resource language is Ume Sámi. This language is spoken in parts of Sweden, Norway, and Russia by a minority of people.
Most people might not have heard of that language because it has insufficient resources, and almost no one is learning it anymore, including the new generations of its native speakers.
The scarcity of resources and people’s disinterest in learning some languages endanger them, in a way that will cause them to go extinct, just like animals.
4. Are these resources suitable for my learning style?
So you have checked that many resources are available for the language you want to learn and that these resources are easily accessible to you. Well, that is great.
Now the next question is, will I be able to use these resources? Are they suitable for my style of learning? Will I be able to use them properly?
We learn in different ways, and what is suitable for someone might not be efficient for someone else. Some need a native private teacher to guide them through their journey and help them stay disciplined. Some like to go to a classroom to engage with other learners. And others are good at self-learning and can use online resources effectively.
Finding resources that match everyone’s learning style highly influences which language they choose as well as the progress they hope to make in their journey.
Learning a foreign language is a vital skill. Besides widening our perspective and helping us develop better and positive mindsets, it changes the structure of our brains and how they operate. This, in return, improves our focus and academic performance and teaches us problem-solving and decision-making.
In this article, we discussed how to choose which language to learn through some questions we need to ask ourselves beforehand. We must investigate the reason why we are learning the language, how close to or far from our native language it is, and whether or not suitable materials are available and accessible to learn it.
By answering these questions, whose answers must be entirely relative to ourselves, we can hopefully make the right decision for what language we choose to learn.
Which Language have you decided to learn? English, French, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic and Hawaiian.
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