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March 3, 2009 4:28 PM   Subscribe

What language should we learn?

My husband and I would like to learn a language together. We'd like to learn one that would open up interesting job opportunities, possibly overseas. Two ideas we came up with were Cantonese and Arabic, but we are not limited to those and are open to any language.
posted by Half-a-Dozen Paper Cranes to Education (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by gyusan at 4:31 PM on March 3, 2009

While it seriously restricts your available jobs overseas (seeing as it is a, ahem, unfriendly), I can't help but recommend Farsi. I think it's much more beautiful than Arabic--the alphabet and characters are the same, but it sounds more like French to my ears.

posted by Franklin76 at 4:33 PM on March 3, 2009

The US State Dept. categorizes languages in three categories via their difficulty for an English speaker. Pick one in category one!
posted by kldickson at 4:37 PM on March 3, 2009

Why Cantonese and not Mandarin? There are probably more resources for studying Mandarin
posted by delmoi at 4:38 PM on March 3, 2009

Hmm, need more information:

What are your language experiences? Some languages are easier than others for those who only speak English. Ever tried learning a language before?

What work do you do? If you specifically want to travel and work abroad, some fields have more jobs in certains countries than others. Arabic + graphic design might not be too helpful (or is it?), just as Swahili + computer programming might not get you too far.

What kind of countries do you want to/can you work in? Would you only be willing to live in first world countries? Or countries completely different to your own? Or do you have access to European citizenship that you want to take advantage of?
posted by Sova at 4:40 PM on March 3, 2009

Farsi would be a cool language to learn, but I'm not sure if it will increase your job chances.

It would be better to learn Mandarin than Cantonese, because Mandarin is the standard dialect of China - it's the language of business. Most people who speak Cantonese who you will be doing business with would also speak English.

Hong Kong does have an excellent state-sponsored foreign teacher program. Apparently there is a shortage of foreign-trained teachers in Hong Kong right now, so why not try to get a job at an international school.

Anway, French and English will take you across most of Africa, so my vote is for French.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:41 PM on March 3, 2009

(Oh, personally, I would learn Slovenian and telecommute from Piran or Isola, but you can't steal my dreams! They're mine!)
posted by Sova at 4:42 PM on March 3, 2009

Mandarin is the official language of the PRC and the lingua franca of Chinese speakers in and out of the PRC. (Not everyone can speak it, but it's your best bet.) Unless you have a specific reason to go for Cantonese, Mandarin is the more obvious choice, if your object is employablity.
posted by Zed at 4:45 PM on March 3, 2009

I'd suggest seriously considering German. Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and is in the best position financially to deal with the coming European banking crisis. It's position globally will be even stronger than it is now after this recession/depression/whatever it is shakes out.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 4:47 PM on March 3, 2009

Pick a job first, then decide on a language. As someone who speaks Spanish and Mandarin (not fluently, but lived in China for five years), I've rarely come across any job opportunities where language was the primary qualification. Usually it's a bonus, something that adds something to someone's qualifications and sets them a little bit above other applicants.

If you're looking to travel and work abroad, teaching English is a great way to get started in another country, and doesn't require much foreign language ability. I've got several friends who started out teaching ESL and gradually segued into "real" jobs in business and journalism, based partly on their language ability, but mostly on other skills they already had or had acquired in country.
posted by bluejayk at 4:57 PM on March 3, 2009

From kldickson's comment, Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers: tier 1: Languages closely related to English - 23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours)

German (30 weeks [750 class hours])
posted by filthy light thief at 5:06 PM on March 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Tier 2 requires 44 weeks (1100 class hours), and Tier 3 includes languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers, requiring some 88 weeks (2200 class hours)(about half that time preferably spent studying in-country).
posted by filthy light thief at 5:07 PM on March 3, 2009

I'm taking Mandarin now and I think it is much more useful than Cantonese for jobs in China.

I wouldn't take German since from what I gather most Germans are already pretty strong in English. Plus I took it in high school and didn't enjoy it at all. Too weird.

French is good because the Canada visa point system gives points for French reading/writing/speaking ability.

If you are in a tech field, then Japanese may be a viable choice since I think Japan will have to import more foreigners to fill out their work needs in the future; but getting a good job in Japan will still require near-native Japanese ability, something that takes 3+ years of serious stateside study or 2+ years of immersion.

Arabic would be good for jobs, provided you'd want to work in the Middle East. I'll pass on that.

Mandarin is pretty easy provided:

1) you TACKLE the hanzi (Chinese characters). I mean study 100 a week for months. Knowing the characters (via Japanese) has made my Mandarin studies TONS easier; I couldn't imagine trying Mandarin without being able to at least read the meanings of the characters first.

2) Have a good model to listen and speak. Spoken Mandarin is pretty hard to pick up compared to any other language; lots of homophones and weird-ass vowel sounds plus the 4 tones that change the meaning.

All things considered, Japan is a much better place to live & work than mainland China so perhaps Japanese would be the best. Taking Japanese for a year then going with Mandarin would be a good move if you can learn the meaning of the first 1000~1500 characters during that year -- as I said above this knowledge will "port" well when learning Mandarin.
posted by troy at 5:09 PM on March 3, 2009

Japanese being a Tier-3 language is bullshit. It's not half as hard as Mandarin, and if you take the kanji as a separate study item Japanese becomes rather simple really since the grammar is joyfully logical, efficient, and orthogonal.

Self-study of the kanji is really easy. All you need is 2000 flashcards and about 100 hrs of time to knock back the basic meanings of each character. Beats sudoku as a mental exercise.
posted by troy at 5:14 PM on March 3, 2009

Mandarin, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian
posted by ethnomethodologist at 5:14 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Spanish! many countries use that one, especially the good vacation ones :) (yes I know there are different dialects, but learning one would sure help you learn the subtleties of the others).
posted by lizbunny at 5:19 PM on March 3, 2009

I don't see a location in your profile. But if you're living in North America, Spanish is almost certainly the right choice. Lots of jobs (although as bluejayk says, it's rare for a foreign language to be the sole qualification for a job), lots of people to talk to almost anywhere you go, and it'll help you travel nearly anywhere in the Americas. It's also a good stepping stone to other Romance languages, especially Italian and Portuguese, and it's typically quite easy for English speakers to learn the basics.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:24 PM on March 3, 2009

I spent several years studying Japanese, got to Japan, and realized that it was a wildly different language than the one I learned in the classroom. I know every language is like this to some extent, but as an American with a moderate proficiency in Spanish, I could have spent that time becoming truly fluent in a language that is useful in more than one country instead of cramming kanji into my brain to develop skills that are mediocre at best.

If you're in America, I'd go with Spanish.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:27 PM on March 3, 2009

posted by daisydaisy at 6:37 PM on March 3, 2009

French is fun to learn because when you get it right, it sounds beautiful, and thats encouraging. Its a language you get hooked on and fall in love with. Plus it is spoken in like 40 countries. So if you dont fall in love so much with la France, go to Africa or Tahiti or New Caledonia or something.
posted by osloheart at 6:46 PM on March 3, 2009

The international population in my office pretty much laughed at the idea of learning languages such as Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Arabic, etc in the USA unless you had a native speaker to interact with on a daily basis -outside of class- to support accent, phrasing, colloquialisms, etc. You know, all the stuff needed so that solipsophistocracy's above experience isn't yours too.

They also seemed to think that a woman who wasn't a native speaker and wanted to go overseas better have a pretty specialized job niche in a highly supportive company from her native country or else highly valuable technical skills, considering the number of countries that are already overflowing with well educated young people and may not be be particularly known for good treatment of women in the business world anyway. So yeah, where do you want to go and what do you want to do are probably your first issues to solve.
posted by beaning at 7:37 PM on March 3, 2009

Sorry-didn't mean to sound so negative: my office mates ended up recommending French, Spanish and Russian as good languages to learn for those interested in working with international populations but with no particular country or field in mind.
posted by beaning at 7:41 PM on March 3, 2009

This doesn't necessarily address the overseas part, but ASL (American Sign Language) is FASCINATING! There are a lot of opportunities, especially if you currently have a career where you could continue doing what you do, but for the Deaf community. You'd be surprised how interesting and different Deaf culture is from American culture. A sign language is a wonderful skill to have, you can practice it anywhere, and generally, strangers who sign will be more than happy to sign with you! There are lots of Deaf community and signing events in many towns. (I'm in San Francisco and found a group that meets regularly at bars and restaurants to practice with each other - all levels welcome. They even do a weekly yoga class in ASL!)

What are the possible job fields you are interested in or have experience with? What countries would you like to visit? And remember that your enthusiasm and motivation will be your best boosters for successful language acquisition. There's 7000+ of them to choose from, all wildly different. I'm excited for you both!
posted by iamkimiam at 9:34 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

1) you TACKLE the hanzi (Chinese characters). I mean study 100 a week for months. Knowing the characters (via Japanese) has made my Mandarin studies TONS easier; I couldn't imagine trying Mandarin without being able to at least read the meanings of the characters first.

I think it would be nearly impossible to really even study Chinese without learning the characters. All resources (books, websites, etc) are based on the characters.

The nice thing, though, is that you really only have to learn to recognize them. Most computers use standard querty keyboards and pin-yin for entry, and you're not going to need to write on paper too much these days.

A lot of people with a background in Japanese think "kanji" is difficult, but when you're only learning Chinese they seem natural since you don't have the 'crutch' of hiragana/katakana.

Learning the characters isn't hard.
posted by delmoi at 6:55 AM on March 4, 2009

German. Useful over a lot of Central Europe, plus a lot of Eastern European countries (and easier to learn for an English speaker than Russian.) Also for a few random other nations. It's a pretty common second or third language, and can be of general use when you travel. Plus, cool culture with great places to visit/live (Berlin! Munich! Zurich! Hamburg! Vienna!), biggest country that speaks it is a vibrant nation that's the economic powerhouse of Europe, there's lots of incredible literature, etc. You'll also get a leg up on the Scandinavian languages.

Super bonus points if you like chemistry, because there's a lot of chemistry published in German, both historically and today. In fact, there's a huge amount of chemistry, materials science, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and biochemistry in Germany today. If you're involved in any of the above, being able to speak the language would definitely help in being able to find a position over there. (Yes, most Germans speak English to some extent these days, as do most highly educated people world-wide. However, being able to speak the local language means you'll get to learn a lot more about the culture, have better opportunities within your organization, etc.)
posted by ubersturm at 12:09 PM on March 4, 2009

Response by poster: To be clear, neither one of us really has an established career. We're both in our early 20s without much spoken language experience. My husband studied many years of Latin, and I only have a couple years of Spanish that I really haven't been practicing.
We both have experience living and working overseas. Together and separately we have both visited first and third world countries.

Why Cantonese and not Mandarin? There are probably more resources for studying Mandarin

That was a screw-up. I meant Mandarin, sorry.

What kind of countries do you want to/can you work in? Would you only be willing to live in first world countries? Or countries completely different to your own? Or do you have access to European citizenship that you want to take advantage of?

We aren't limited to first world countries, and we aren't limited to countries completely different. I would prefer a country that isn't too expensive to live in.

Thanks everyone for all the advice. I hope this post clarifies things a bit.
posted by Half-a-Dozen Paper Cranes at 4:50 PM on March 4, 2009

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