If you google “Which language should I learn??” right now, you’ll likely see a front page full of results analyzing the number of native speakers each language has, how widespread those languages are, and the current need for speakers in the job market (usually aimed at the United States). These analyses are highly dependent on fad-ish excitement over the newest economic superpower, as if you’ll be able to become marketable in that language before the fad abruptly ends.
I think choosing a language should be more than a simple function of population and wealth. It should be function of interest and resources.
Your Interests Matter
If you’ve got an irrational love for a language, that’s fantastic! Ride that as long as you can. That interest will keep you searching for books, radio stations, podcasts, language partners, TV shows, whatever you need. If you’re really into Guarani, that love will drive you to keep seeking out the language, and thus, to keep learning. If you choose a language coldly based on how logical it is to learn it, you’ll have a harder time with this, and you’ll likely give up.
Believe me, I really should learn Chinese, but, despite its enormous population and popularity, it’s difficult to find consistent, high-quality online radio, which is one of my favorite ways to learn. Cartoons and videos are hard to come by on YouTube, considering how it’s blocked in mainland China, and Tudou is a tad hard to navigate when you can’t read Chinese. Rather than muddle through these minor problems, I stop and pick another language, because right now, Chinese just isn’t important enough for me to learn. All the number crunching in the world can’t make me do something that seems like a tedious task towards learning a language I haven’t fallen in love with yet.
But with Dutch, the language of a tiny European country that dubs much of its TV into English, I’m more than happy to dig up whatever I can find. I have one book in Dutch, and I’ll willingly read it again. For some non-rational reason (not necessarily irrational, I tell myself…), I simply like Dutch, and I want to learn it.
On The Importance Of Resources
If you don’t have an inexplicable love for a random language, then let resources guide your way. By resources, I mean the availability (especially in your country/hometown) of radio, books, movies, TV shows, etc., etc., etc. Dutch first captured my interest in 2009 when I could watch Spongebob Squarepants unfettered on nickelodeon.nl. That availability sparked an interest that kept me going for sometime. A huge reason why I’m learning Dutch language over something more logical and more useful, like German, is the availability of two high-quality, consistent news radio stations. (BNR Nieuwsradio and NPO Radio 1). The speakers are lively and there’s plenty of discussion and calling-in. These radio stations only play music (usually in English) late at night or early in the morning Dutch time, so with my 9-ish hour time difference, I’m able to listen to talk radio in the morning, in early afternoon, and then at night. These are all times when I’m free, so this is incredibly convenient. I find German news radio to be monotonous and dry, especially when my comprehension leaves much to be desired.
So, despite the fact that Dutch has a small native-speaking population of which most speak excellent English, it’s still a language that I like to listen to and try to understand. The readily available resources only make this an easier language to choose for myself.
Plenty of languages with small populations have wonderful, high-quality resources. For example, Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Welsh are all languages that are struggling to maintain themselves in an English dominated society. However, due to government efforts to revitalize these languages, each has wonderful resources, radio and otherwise, though the BBC and other organizations. They each also have a strong tradition of folk music, so if that’s your sort of thing, you’ve got plenty of resources right there.
To Sloppily Conclude…
Choosing a language to study, especially if you already speak and understand a major world language, should not be the result of logic and number-crunching. Interest and resources are what will keep you going at the end of the day. Ask yourself: What kinds of things do you like to do in your day to day life? What kinds of media do you like to consume? What excites you? What’s a language you’ve always wanted to learn?
Let those questions drive your language hunt, and achieving proficiency in your next language will only be a matter of time.