Language for the purpose of study, travel and maybe work in Europe.
September 27, 2014 12:04 AM   Subscribe

What European language should I learn for the purpose of higher studies, work, and extensive travelling in Europe? I am a bibliophile, cinephile, and love songs with good and meaningful lyrics. Till now I've been enjoying all these, I mean the ones from Europe, in the form of translations and with the help of subtitles. (I write too; not to publish but it's very important to me).

I am a native Hindi speaker. My English is proficient.

I am going to apply to Europe for higher studies (MS in CS and maybe PhD too). I would be travelling across Europe during my studies (as much as my course load allows) and though I am not planning to stay back after completing my education, I may eventually stay back (at least for some time) if I happen to like it as much as I expect to (and if I would have to take an education loan - irrelevant).

I am planning to apply to Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland. Maybe some from UK, Spanish, French, Italian, Irish (etcetera) universities too, but less likely.

What European language should I start learning so that I can enjoy company of people, my interests in arts, and travels - I intend to be travelling mostly in non-Northern mainland Europe? Even though I know it won't be an admission requirement but I want to learn one anyway.

This is a clich├ęd question and I really don't think you would want me to ask "which is the best European language". As there is no answer to it. I just want to understand the various reasons people have before they start learning a language. I have never experienced those reasons from up close. Being from this part of the world (India), I have never had the opportunity to travel to Europe (I mean it's not that simple a reason as it may sound here) or got to interact with Europeans except few isolated chit-chats (that too obviously in English), that I would have those reasons or convictions to learn any specific language.

So, I'll list some of my needs or plans: (I'll try to be brief; level of preference is descending)
  • Literature and arts in general
  • Meeting people, knowing them, knowing the culture - but one language is not spoken everywhere
  • Learning other European languages (Though I've no solid basis for this but I am sort of stuck b/w German and Spanish; so if it comes to these two how can I make my learning experience more efficient and less time consuming by choosing the appropriate first and next languages to learn)
  • No, I won't be learning in a native environment but here in India, either some coaching or just on my own
  • Getting (some) benefit, if it comes to applying for a job (are there any countries where at least one EU language proficiency or local language proficiency is required, in the Software industry)?
  • In future, if I go outside Europe then how useful that language might be.
To be honest I don't know what I am looking for. Maybe I will have more clarity if people ask me additional questions here and I try to answer them.
posted by amar to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I mean people are basically going to say French or Spanish. I made the choice way back in high school to study French and have never regretted that choice. I can go into detail, responding to every point as to how French fulfills your needs ... but I'm way tired. PM me if you don't feel like others in this thread make a good case for French, because I really am a very strident advocate.

Two things though - one of the UN's official languages is French, and lots of African countries were colonized by the French so many of their people speak French. It's also useful in Quebec , the DOM (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Reunion, etc.) ... those are all that are coming to my mind right now but I'm sure there are other areas of the world where French is spoken.
posted by Devika at 12:23 AM on September 27, 2014


Netherlands, Germany, Sweden

Post graduate studies in these countries, and many/all Universities in your other listed countries, is going to be in English. And, given many of your teachers will speak English as a second language, the best way to really get the most out of your education is to improve your English so it's better than 'proficient'. How well the international staff and students do at the Universities I've worked at in Ireland and Germany depends pretty directly on their English language skills more than any other parameter.

As for travel, English is the most widely spoken language and you will be able to get by in every place you've listed with it to at least some extent. So again, having that as good as possible should be your first step.

Then for getting jobs in software, there are many software jobs in Western Europe in English. However, having even some understanding of the local language will always be helpful. Knowing German in France, for example, isn't going to help you, but knowing it in Germany will. So learn the language of whatever country you end up in. But it's also not always necessary, particularly if you're not able to learn it well enough to speak as your primary language (in which case you're back to English).

If you don't know what country you'll end up in the French and German are the most widely spread. Pick which part of Europe you're likely to go to then choose whichever is most applicable. When you're looking at regions consider that moving from French to Spanish or Italian will be easier, or from German to Dutch or Swedish, in case that helps you decide between the two.

Then when you get here it may be that you've learned the wrong one or whatever. Don't worry about it, just start over with whatever ends up being useful and use the one you learned while travelling. Which language is less important than just choosing one and getting started.
posted by shelleycat at 12:31 AM on September 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think you maybe have a misconception about how widely European counties speak each others' languages. Speaking Italian is only useful in Italy, speaking Spanish only helpful in Spain (and outside of Europe). French is spoken in Belgium, Switzerland and a few others. German will be understood in many Scandinavian countries, though not as well as English is.

Honestly English is the most widely spoken second language. I speak German, Spanish, and bits of Italian and French, and I have never found any kind of use for them in other European countries - if I don't speak the local language (and often even when I do) people speak to me in English.

I would personally learn the language of the country you are going to, as that is likely to be of most use plus you will have a chance to practise. If you want to learn a language just for fun then learn French as it is a Romance language and likely to be helpful for learning others, but don't expect beginner French to do much for you in Spain or Sweden.
posted by tinkletown at 12:55 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I mean people are basically going to say French or Spanish.

Well no not really. Those seem to be the default choices in the US, but in the English speaking nations of Europe, German is at least as common for second languages, and I think more common than Spanish.

What European language should I start learning so that I can enjoy company of people, my interests in arts, and travels?

For better or for worse, English is the shared second language of Europe. Were I picking another in terms of use, I'd say French.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:21 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


If you're based in Germany or Switzerland, I'd say German is worth a serious effort; it is the first language of more Europeans than any other and it has first rank importance in music , literature and other fields. Finnish, Swedish, Dutch, just not in the same league. So if you're not in Germany, you probably want a Romance language instead. I do not think French is the automatic choice it once was, but unless you're particularly keen on Renaissance stuff, it still probably beats Italian. Spanish is a contender, especially given its world position, but for you I don't think it overhauls Italian.

It's true you can get by with English, but you'll get a much better appreciation of European culture if you don't see it from a monotonously Anglophone perspective. Of course you'll want to pick up a few basics in the language of any country you visit; it's handy, polite, and not difficult.
posted by Segundus at 1:44 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


The only way I would be worried about learning a specific non-English European language is if you end up moving to a country where English is not widely spoken among everyday people. In Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and possibly even Germany, English will probably be enough and you would only learn the local language out of enjoyment or to integrate better with the local culture.

If you end up in France or Italy (not sure about Spain?), however, you are going to find a lot of people who are monolingual in the local language, and not knowing any French or Italian at all is going to make life difficult.

So, I don't know, maybe default to French or Italian, and if you end up in a different country, well, hey, you studied an interesting language for a while, so, OK. If you are really seriously not sure at all what country you'll end up in, pick French, because it's much more widely spoken than Italian. If you are very seriously considering Italy, pick Italian, because seriously a lot of Italians speak Italian as their only language, and not speaking it will be a huge problem if you move there. Maybe not in your graduate studies, but certainly for basic things like figuring out a bus route or talking to the neighbors.

If you are very serious about Spain, I would do Spanish, though I don't know that Spain is quite as monolingual as France and Italy tend to be.
posted by Sara C. at 1:53 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, I would say German. You are looking at living in Germany, and from experience, many many many Germans travel around Europe, so people in the service industry tend to have it as a second language. Either that or a English, which you already know.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:27 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


My suggestion: Latin. It will greatly help you with any Romanic language you want to learn later. You don't know where you will end up now. Latin will make you more flexible.

I travelled a lot in Europe. My native language is German, I obviously also speak English, plus some Dutch and basic French. Except English, none of that really helped in other countries, i.e. Italy. Italian would not have helped me in France or Sweden either. Without knowing where you will live and work, there's no telling which language will be "the best" for you to learn.
posted by MinusCelsius at 4:38 AM on September 27, 2014


Post graduate studies in these countries, and many/all Universities in your other listed countries, is going to be in English.

No, that's definitely not true for Germany.

Given the countries you listed, German would probably be the most useful as it one the official languages of Switzerland and widely spoken in the Netherlands and Finland (and also Eastern Europe). Dutch and Swedish are also pretty easy to pick up if you know German and English.
posted by snownoid at 5:21 AM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I lived in Germany for three years and am currently living in the UK. My observations:

Currently, the most commonly spoken second language in Europe is English. I do not know about CS specifically, but in the sciences in general, most conferences etc. that attract an international crowd will be conducted in English. Especially in large cities, English is often (but not always) the fallback language between two people who do not share a native language.

As far as other languages go, even though you say you will be traveling across Europe, I would suggest you learn the language of whatever country you end up residing in. Aside from practical considerations (e.g., you will probably be getting your phone bills, etc., in that language), it's very likely you're going to be doing a fair bit of your traveling, living, and enjoying the arts relatively close at hand. For many people, for every weeklong trip they spend exploring other countries, they'll have done three or more weekend or day trips to interesting places nearer by. And you'll meet more people who speak it as a native language. It's practical and fun!

However, in terms of the spread of other languages:

1) Russian is actually the most widely spoken language in Europe, and has the advantage that, unlike most European languages, it makes a number of other languages relatively comprehensible (many Slavic languages are very similar to each other). However, its main use is almost entirely in Eastern Europe, and based on the countries you've listed that's not where you're mostly going to be, so I wouldn't recommend it.

2) German is a good choice because it is comparatively widespread as a native language (Germany, Austria; large parts of Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein; a small part of Italy) and fairly widespread as a second language in Europe because Germans travel a lot.

3) French is a reasonable choice, since as a native language it gets you France and a few other smaller European countries (such as Monaco, parts of Switzerland, parts of Belgium), and is reasonably widespread as a second language.
posted by kyrademon at 6:39 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just want to understand the various reasons people have before they start learning a language.

Well, what was your reason to start learning English?

I'm on a few language-learning forums and "what language should I learn" is one of the most commonly asked questions. It is also the most unanswerable because no one else can want something for you. One important factor is that a language outside the context of its culture is like a car with no wheels. No one can make an argument for why you should learn German, for example, if you otherwise have little interest in its culture.

As purely pragmatic advice, since the country where you will be living is where you will be spending most of your time, learn that country's national language. It would make no sense to decide upon French based on advice here if you ended up living in Spain. So, I think your question is premature at this point.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:43 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Learn German. Maybe find a good translation of Goethe to persuade yourself of the artistic benefits, before you start?

On the practical side, master's theses from German universities are often written in German. If you're working on a master's project yourself, you might want to be able to look at what other people have done.
posted by yarntheory at 8:25 AM on September 27, 2014


Similar to what yarntheory said, I can tell you that a lot of higher-level music scholarship has been written in German (and hasn't necessarily been published in English translations). Unless you're really into music theory and/or music history that may not be enough of a draw to you, but it may hold true for other academic subjects as well.

For more practical everyday purposes it sounds like where you'll be is the most important consideration.
posted by Starling at 10:13 AM on September 27, 2014


Hi! Fellow Indian here, albeit a native speaker of English.

The one piece of advice I have for you: improve your English. Seriously. A lot of us fall into the trap of thinking English that's good enough for our purposes in India is good enough for studying abroad. It's not.

I'm a native English speaker (I've been speaking it since I was three) who spent most of her schooling in elite private English-medium schools. My American classmates at my current school still have a little trouble understanding my accent. And I see how my classmates who are from countries where English is not their native language struggle to produce quality academic writing, even though they're by no means unintelligent.

So if I were you, I would focus on getting my English from merely 'proficient' to 'excellent.' (If you don't already read National Geographic magazine, I recommend it, it's brilliant and really helped my grasp of the language.)

Honestly, unless you plan on staying weeks and weeks someplace that doesn't speak English, a phrasebook and a few words in the local language is fine. My German is limited to 'Guten tag,' and 'Bitte' and 'Danke' and I got along fine in Frankfurt. Ditto Lisbon, and I speak even less Portuguese. So figure out where you're going to be, and then learn that language. It'll be of more use in the long run.
posted by Tamanna at 11:03 AM on September 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think you maybe have a misconception about how widely European counties speak each others' languages. Speaking Italian is only useful in Italy, speaking Spanish only helpful in Spain (and outside of Europe). French is spoken in Belgium, Switzerland and a few others. German will be understood in many Scandinavian countries, though not as well as English is.

German is actually rather useful in Eastern Europe (Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Romania) where it has retained the lustre of the language of culture in the 19c and people have learned it as a second or third language. I have used German to buy train tickets in Budapest to Romania, for example, because you aren't going to understand a word of Hungarian.

Knowing English and German you can get the gist of Dutch and most Scandiavian languages (Finnish is its own beast, of course), too.

For Southern Europe, I'd recommend either French, because it's the language of culture people from these parts who weren't taught English as a second language learned, or Italian or Spanish since if you know them, you can get the gist of a lot of stuff from Spain to Romania in the same way that if you know both German and English, you can sort-of interpolate Dutch. But as has been said, French is useful if you want to go around Africa, and Spanish is useful if you want to go around Latin America.

Oh, and learning a bit of Latin wouldn't be a bad idea, since it is the trunk from where Romance languages grew. It's just that it has few practical uses if you aren't into 500 year old+ books or don't have the urge to read the inscription on that medieval bridge.
posted by sukeban at 11:18 AM on September 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I agree with kyrademon (German or French), but really I agree with Tamanna: improve your English. Seriously. I mean, I love languages and learning languages (duh), but in your situation the most important thing is getting as fluent as you can in English—no other language comes close in terms of usefulness. You can wait on deciding what other languages to study based on your love for their literature, culture, etc. (I'll put in a plug for Russian just because I love it so much, but as kyrademon says, it's useful almost entirely in Eastern Europe if usefulness is your main criterion.)
posted by languagehat at 12:16 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


You asked: What European language should I start learning so that I can enjoy company of people, my interests in arts, and travels - I intend to be travelling mostly in non-Northern mainland Europe?

You'll probably meet more people who speak Hindi than Russian or (honestly?) Latin FFS.
posted by Segundus at 2:39 PM on September 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ego linguam latinam studiavi. And I did the pure sciences high school route which had only one year of Latin, unlike the liberal arts high school route, which had several years of both Latin and Classical Greek.

I suggested Latin because knowing a bit of where Romance languages come from is rather useful for learning French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Romanian, including the grammatical gender of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, which is where Romance languages differ most from English.
posted by sukeban at 1:45 AM on September 28, 2014


I'm German. First, let me tell you that German is difficult. Seriously, even most Germans suck at it. It is true that many Eastern Europeans still learn it, though. My sister-in-law from Kazakhstan speaks German, but not English. (She also speaks Russian, of course, which I believe is even more difficult.)

Also, German universities are nightmares. I am one of many, many students who waited years to get their grades entered into the system by professors who didn't give a rat's *** about whether we get to graduate (on time or at all) or not. My bachelor thesis counselling was like an hour, once. And then they complain that the students can't write. (I also seem to recall that the paper for Japanese Studies had to be in German or Latin... My paper for English Philology had to be in English, of course.)
When I started my master's in Japan, one of the professors asked me how I survived studying in Europe. That's how bad it is. (On the plus side, they tend to be cheap, which explains a lot.)
Also, you will find very few English programmes. My boyfriend tried and while other countries like Sweden, Switzerland etc. offer them, Germany rarely does. Which is weird, because Germans tend to pride themselves on their English, even those who suck at it. But still, Germany is one of those countries where you can get by easily with English.

Currently, I am living in France. Almost no one seems to speak English. I remember having a similar experience in Spain at the airport once as well. In Italy, a lot of people seem to speak German. (Germans love Italy.) So if you end up in one of those countries, you may have to learn the local language. It really depends on where you will end up. I'm sorry I can't tell you something more definite. Have you tried looking into some of these languages and see which one appeals to you? You will have a hard time learning a language you detest. I learned Japanese way faster than French because I love watching Japanese TV shows. French movies? Ugh.

Spanish could be useful if you end up in South America next. French is, as noted above, an official language of the UN. What do you want to do with your life?

Btw, Finnish is not closely related to Swedish, German or other Germanic languages.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:14 AM on September 28, 2014


Also, German universities are nightmares. I am one of many, many students who waited years to get their grades entered into the system by professors who didn't give a rat's *** about whether we get to graduate (on time or at all) or not.

I was an Erasmus student in Munich in 1999-2000. They tried to get me to fly there in October because after the school year had ended they suddenly decided I had to do an oral examination in one subject.

Also, like all Erasmus I was in the final years of college but they still needed for some reason a copy of my Selectividad diploma, translated to German by a professional translator.

So yeah, I feel you, bro.

Also, you will find very few English programmes. My boyfriend tried and while other countries like Sweden, Switzerland etc. offer them, Germany rarely does.

IIRC Denmark was pretty good at this 15 years ago, and my university has sent some Erasmus to Lulea (Sweden) who seem to manage well in English. But this varies from university to university.
posted by sukeban at 10:42 AM on September 28, 2014


I was surprised that most of the suggestions are directed at or indirectly point to French. Other fora definitely prefer German (and even Spanish) over French.

@Tamanna: Thank you. Yes, I have been working on my English since school days (I come from rural North India so no elite schools for me but I've studied only in English medium institutions since class 7). Never spoke the language at stretch, not even now in Bangalore.

So I would say that my written and listening are "excellent" and pronunciation is something I would keep in proficient bracket. It is definitely not my first language hence the lack of finesse at times (no, not always); and I can feel the rough edges myself. For e.g., I would sometimes pronounce "axe" as I would say "ex" and then I'd immediately realise it was incorrect; sometimes I repeat and correct, or I just skip it. Another example would be "taste" and "test". I know the nuances, I have just never practised to make it muscle memory. That being said I've never faced problems because of my accent and my English is accented. In a nutshell, it's not at all bad.

@Tanizaki

> Well, what was your reason to start learning English?

I am not being cheeky. But the reason was simple - it was really not a choice. It was in the syllabus and I had to. Not that I regret learning it :-)

@LoonyLovegood

> What do you want to do with your life?

Difficult question. I intend to end up as a professor in an Indian campus.
posted by amar at 1:41 PM on October 27, 2014


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