which language should I learn?
August 5, 2019 4:20 AM   Subscribe

I am frustrated by only knowing one European language, but I can't decide which language I should focus on learning. Should I go for ease of learning or practical value?

I am bilingual but my mother-tongue originates in an entirely different part of the world. I am fluent in English but embarrassed and frustrated by not having any other European language. I'd like to learn the following languages but I can't figure out which to prioritise or a game plan.

(1) Spanish: I learned some Spanish at university. It seemed fairly easy to master both grammar and pronunciation at the time and I enjoyed it. I can still understand very simple Spanish. I feel like I could get back into this and achieve some proficiency quite quickly. Also I found it easy to pronounce which meant that I don't have the usual crippling embarrassment I experience when trying to speak in a foreign language with a terrible accent. But Spanish isn't particularly useful to me: I don't get to visit Spain often, don't have Spanish-speaking friends etc. I am not based in the US, where I understand that Spanish is widely-spoken.

(2) German: I have family in Austria, and visit very often, like every few months - having some German would be of great practical use. But apart from the isolated words one picks up from travelling a lot in a particular country I find German very difficult to parse, even if I know all the words in the sentence I can't put the meanings together. I feel like learning this would be a major endeavour because I can't understand the meanings of words as intuitively and I can't figure out how to pronounce them.

There is a third option, Italian, which would be of limited practical use to me but feels appealing although as difficult as German. I visit Italy frequently enough that it would be of more use than Spanish but not as useful as German.

I don't have a lot of free time so learning a language would be a serious commitment. I guess I need to work on getting over the embarrassment of having a horrible accent as this feels like it's holding me back.

I think the most practical and useful option would be German but it just seems really hard and like it would take ages to get anywhere. And the easiest/most fun would be Spanish but it doesn't seem particularly useful. I could do with some advice as to which to prioritise or maybe I'm looking at the whole thing wrong?
posted by unicorn chaser to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The good part about having some knowledge of Spanish is that there are lots of cognates with Italian and you will find it easier to learn that other European or even other Romance languages.

But yes, learn the language you expect to use more in your daily life.
posted by sukeban at 4:28 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you have any desire to travel to the Spanish speaking parts of South America Spanish gives you a far greater area and variety of landscapes/cultures that you could visit and speak the language for. This was a big consideration for me.
posted by neilb449 at 4:32 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

With a lot of things in life (forms of exercise for example) it's the one you enjoy that is sustainable. I have a bias towards Spanish as I have enjoyed visits there and still enjoy even though now it's just at night classes in my home country. I only ever had a few lessons in German but it seemed a bit heavy going. Again it's a bias but unlike French (which sounds very romantic when I hear it in films) or Spanish (which sounds extroverted when I hear people speaking it), German sounds a bit harsh to me. Those both sound silly examples but would affect my motivation to study. Also as someone in the UK who sometimes slips into slang, the German people I have known typically spoke English better than I do as they didn't know slang alternatives and in the UK grammar was not emphasised during my school years (I'd don't know what many verb tense names mean, for example). So when visiting Germany obviously it's polite to have a few words but I'd be surprised if nearly everyone you met didn't have a pretty good English level.

If you are at this "toe in the water" stage maybe it would help your decision to watch a few Netflix or DVD films in the three possible languages and see which one you enjoyed hearing the sound of the most. From there, the company The Great Courses occasionally has good discounts on their online/ DVD courses which are taught by professors - typically ones who have won awards for their teaching.

Good luck and most of all enjoy this process!
posted by AuroraSky at 4:37 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Usage of a language is important both to improvement and to your motivation to learn so on that basis I'd say German. Personally (as a native English speaker) German feels quite similar - certainly in pronunciation it feels to me like a "more regular" version of the sounds I'm used to + at least to start with a lot of basic vocabulary has close English cognates. I think you could get some basic working knowledge quite quickly and then see if you find it interesting enough to continue.
posted by crocomancer at 4:51 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you're in the US, I'd say Spanish because it's the second-most common language here. If you're in the UK, which your past profile indicates, I'd say go for German since you'll be using it so much.
posted by bile and syntax at 5:19 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Personally, I've found it easier to study other Romance languages (Spanish, Italian) after learning one (French) than to study other Germanic languages (Dutch) after learning one (German). So I'd suggest something Romance.

Realistically, though, why decide? Download Duolingo and try a bunch of different languages. I've started eight different languages, dropping some (Russian sucks, Danish is just meh, Italian is pretty boring to me even though I can pick up grammar and vocabulary easily from other languages) and sticking with others. The reality is that pretty much everywhere in Western Europe will understand English, so there's no actual need for another European language. It's just for fun, really, and as such, you should pick the one that's most fun for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:18 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

try to find a language that you can use most often. Immersion is one of the best ways to learn, followed by some sort of constant use outside of the classroom / private study hours. Find some way to incorporate the new language into your daily life and just keep at it. Yes, you also have to get over the embarassment and the baby steps needed to get to a higher level of grammar, vocabulary and accent. This is *inevitable* so get over it :) If you ahve family with a desired language then go for that! and practice practice practice
posted by alchemist at 6:38 AM on August 5, 2019

I'd say German, because nothing beats the enjoyment and motivation of having a reason to use the language, and hearing it in use regularly is invaluable. I once lived in a country while learning the language (Estonian - I don't like to make life easy!) and there was a very distinct pattern to my learning that I noticed:

1. Start studying a new concept/vocabulary, find it totally alien
2. Still find it alien to use, but start to recognise it being used out in the wild
3. Use it, tentatively, myself, in conversation
4. Hear it popping out of my mouth spontaneously, in the right place, without me even thinking of it consciously.

And I think stage 2 is incredibly useful - overhearing it being used in context and getting the motivational buzz that you've just learned something new. I really miss it now that I'm studying Spanish in the UK and have to try and replicate the experience by listening to podcasts etc. Not quite the same.

You say you don't find German instinctive the way you do Spanish, but I wonder if what you're assuming is an instinct for Spanish is actually the fact you've studied it in the past. I did some high school French, and can probably hardly say a word these days, but I'm always amazed how much I can unexpectedly understand or work out when I read it, because of the passive knowledge sitting in the background. Which, if you were to start with German, you'd soon gain there.

FWIW, I've been told that Spanish starts easy (because there are so many cognates) but gets harder the further in you get, as grammatical concepts start to diverge from English the further into studying it you go (and I can well believe it, having been stuck at intermediate level for what seems like forever!). So just finding Spanish easy when dipping your toe in the water doesn't necessarily mean it'll be easier the whole way.

At the end of the day, depending on your age, you probably have time to spend 2 or 3 years on one language, and then start another, either instead of or as well as the first one.
posted by penguin pie at 6:56 AM on August 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

It may depend a bit on how you are planning to study. If you are going to have an actual teacher, I think the problem with grasping meaning in German will resolve in a satisfactory way. I'm less sure of that for self-study programs.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:06 AM on August 5, 2019

In my life I chose Spanish and am very happy with that choice: I have travelled in the US, South America, and Central America, plus my appearance blends into many Latinx populations and I enjoy not looking like a tourist, plus it allowed me to learn some Portuguese quite quickly and understand a little Italian so I was able to socialize with some elderly monolingual people in my neighbourhood.

In your life, most of the corresponding reasons probably point to German.

But honestly learn either, they’re both cool. And I’ve travelled in Germany and found it pretty easy to get by with English, even in more rural areas, so if you choose Spanish you’ll still be ok in Germany.

(Also you sound really hard on yourself for not speaking a second Euro language... it’s ok!! You’re still a good person if your Spanish is crappy :)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:14 AM on August 5, 2019

Depending on your age and career choices, German could be good because it is extremely sought after. My daughter, who speaks fluent German, had a very interesting job-offer before she even graduated because of her language skills. The German-speaking countries are very important in a lot of different ways, and although they speak English, they really appreciate it when people speak their language.
posted by mumimor at 8:20 AM on August 5, 2019

I don't want to put you off German as it does sound like it would be the most useful, but I would note that some Austrian accents can be quite difficult to understand. Normally, you're taught "Hoch Deutsch" or high german (the equivalent of BBC English). After over a decade of living in Germany and speaking German, I still have difficulties understanding a couple of my Austrian colleagues (I have at times had to basically repeat what they said mentally, but switch a couple of pronunciations around to make it comprehensible.)

This may make it that little bit more difficult to get to penguin pie's Stage 2 - it's harder to link what you are learning to the words that you are hearing as they won't always be pronounced the same. But it's all the more satisfying when you do understand something.
posted by scorbet at 8:21 AM on August 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

German definitely sounds most useful for you right now, since you have family there. And already knowing people who speak it is a big bonus.

But I'll also say that once you get into a language, you'll be getting more contact with that culture and you might find it grows on you. So if you did decide to choose Spanish, because it's easier and more fun to learn, you might start wanting to visit Spain to get more contact with it, and make some new Spanish-speaking friends, etc.
posted by Gordafarin at 8:57 AM on August 5, 2019

Italian. It’s the best of both worlds - more useful to you than Spanish but easier/more enjoyable than German. I loved learning German but it is one of the harder European languages to master and you don’t seem very interested. Your background in Spanish will make Italian a little easier to learn and the pronunciation is similar (that being said, German pronunciation is very standard/phonetic and very easy once you learn the rules, so take that into account, but I still think Italian has the most pros for you!)
posted by sillysally at 9:13 AM on August 5, 2019


I studied both German and Spanish at the same time for years and I have no regrets. I think they complement each other; deeper knowledge of them together can lead to a deeper knowledge of English, as English is a chimera of Romance and Germanic languages.
posted by Glomar response at 9:34 AM on August 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

If you're feeling embarrassed over not speaking another language, I'd ask who you're embarrassed in front of and what they speak? Because if the problem is your family in Germany razzing you about being monolingual, they may actually mean "we wish you could speak to us in our preferred language".
posted by Lady Li at 10:01 AM on August 5, 2019

How much time are you planning on devoting to this? Because you could give German 6 months, see how it goes, and evaluate whether you want to continue or switch to another language.

Kind of joking but not entirely: watch a bunch of movies/TV episodes in all three languages, pick the language with the shows you'd be most happy rewatching often. (On preview, what AuroraSky said)
posted by trig at 10:41 AM on August 5, 2019

I'd go German for fun because it's subject-object-verb so is a sort of weird that English/Spanish/Italian (subject-verb-object) don't do much. But I guess the "where in the world would it come in handy" would go to Spanish (even though the dialects and accents are so wide that an old girlfriend from Spain had a bit of a problem talking to US Spanish speakers, YMMV). Spanish gets a plenty of places around the world, German gets some places (and is learning a SOV language which may help for other SOV languages in the future so at least it is novel.), Italian I'm not so sure is used anywhere but Italy??

(Says the person who studied Japanese just because it was hard/weird... (and SOV)).
posted by zengargoyle at 1:11 AM on August 6, 2019

Thanks all for your input. I think I'll go with German as the opportunity to practise it and hear it spoken will come more frequently; but if that all goes well maybe I will learn Spanish for fun, after I have achieved a modicum of proficiency in German. Interestingly my mothertongue, Bengali, is also Subject Object Verb in its most simple present form.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:09 AM on August 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some German pronunciation guides: consonants, vowels, spelling. The IPA symbols Wyner's using for pronunciation are used in most German dictionaries I've seen.

Wyner also sells 'pronunciation trainers' which he mentions in the videos. My understanding is these consist of pre-made Anki flash cards to test yourself on German words that English speakers have trouble telling apart. An example would be Biene (bee), Bühne (stage) and Buhne (breakwater). Biene and Buhne are easy to tell apart, but English doesn't have an ü sound, and Bühne sounds kind of in between the other two. So you'd practice till you can reliably hear that that was definitely Biene, not Bühne, and so on.

However, I think having native or fluent speakers around who can correct you when you mispronounce something accomplishes the same thing as using pronunciation flashcards. Having friends who were native French speakers certainly helped me a lot when I was learning French, which also has tricky vowels. I think using pronunciation flashcards is mostly useful for people who don't have this kind of help. (Another good reason to go with German!) Good luck!
posted by nangar at 8:41 AM on August 6, 2019

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