What language should I learn?
March 16, 2007 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Given the timeframe of a year, what European language should I begin learning (the basics, anyways) to assist me in communication?

A band I manage has a good possibility for doing a stint in Europe (1-3 months). We'd be hitting places in Italy, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, etc. (they are a metal band, and the scene over there trumps the US metal scene by miles, especially on the festival circuit). I'm fairly proficient in Spanish (I can follow conversation and engage on a passable level).

I realize that a good majority speak English, but I'd still love to be able to pull it out if need be.
posted by chrisfromthelc to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I found the basics of German easy to learn when I studied it in college. A lot of English words have roots in German, so many words will seem familiar. The grammar gets a little tricky, but becomes more intuitive with practice.

Before taking German in college, I had studied Spanish & Latin, so that's a similar language background to you, it seems.
posted by tastybrains at 10:17 AM on March 16, 2007

If you have Spanish background, the Italian pronunciation will probably be the easiest to pick up. Followed by German.
posted by chundo at 10:18 AM on March 16, 2007

Whatever you do, don't study Italian unless you're really fluent in Spanish already. The two languages are similar enough that studying Italian when I had just an intermediate level of Spanish totally confused me about which word belonged in which language.
posted by MsMolly at 10:20 AM on March 16, 2007

If you are proficient in Spanish, Italian is really easy to pick up. The biggest obstacle is getting over the initial language-confusion when you speak because they are so similar. So Italian would be my pick for ease of learning within a year.

Alternately, I've not studied German, but would think it would be very useful in the destinations you're headed to.
posted by ubu at 10:21 AM on March 16, 2007

The Danes, the Finns and the Swedes (and the Dutch, and the Norwegians) generally speak excellent English. Seriously. In Germany and Italy you'll have more trouble. With Spanish, you'll be able to read a bit of Italian. So I would go for German.

To be honest, being able to offer any language other than English is a bonus: conversations always go so much better if you can say "Do you speak English? No? How about Espanol? Deutsch?" It has the effect of making it clear you've made an effort, and increases the chance of meeting someone who speaks a bit of one of the languages you can get by in.
posted by handee at 10:23 AM on March 16, 2007

Italian and Spanish are almost interchangeable, really. I was able to use Italian in Spain and be understood without any problem; I've seen Spaniards use their native language in Italy without any problem.

Most Germans and Swedes I've met have spoken better English than most native English speakers, but I haven't traveled in either of those places so I don't know if that's true throughout the countries.

So, to maximize your time: You seem to have Spain and Italy covered, with the Italian. I'd assume you have Germany and Sweden covered, with the English. Where else are you going, where you'd be unlikely to find English or Spanish speakers?

(What would trump all this, though, would be whether any of these languages particularly appeals to you. Wanting to learn the language will make learning it much more pleasant, and easier.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on March 16, 2007

Sorry, that should have been, "You seem to have Spain and Italy covered, with the Spanish."
posted by occhiblu at 10:28 AM on March 16, 2007

In my experience people in a lot of those countries (esp. Denmark) speak very good German as well, so that might be a good secondary language. Of course it will probably turn out they opeak English as well as you do...
posted by Artw at 10:28 AM on March 16, 2007

Response by poster: @handee:
That's exactly what I want to be able to do.

Luckily, my work has a copy of Rosetta Stone (the full version), as a couple of our people travel to Taiwan, China, and Veitnam for electronics trade shows. Hopefully, it'll come in handy.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:29 AM on March 16, 2007

Oops, should have previewed. I totally agree with MsMolly--it can be confusing to learn both Spanish and Italian at the same time. But you can probably overcome it in a year. . .

Re your comment, I have a lot of confidence in Rosetta Stone--haven't used it, but met a Russian last year who didn't speak a word of English and after using it, she was chatting really well with me in English when I saw her again last month.
posted by ubu at 10:34 AM on March 16, 2007

Response by poster: @occhiblu:

My main concerns were the Nordic countries, as that's where the biggest festivals (and fans of our style) are. And yes, I'm definitely interested in learning regardless. My goal in 5 years is to spend a year in Europe (though, I'm not sure where exactly just yet).
posted by chrisfromthelc at 10:36 AM on March 16, 2007

I know that, in Sweden and Norway at least, most people speak at least passable English, as well as Spanish, French, and/or German. So instead of learning a bunch of different northern european languages (it seems pretty rare for someone from Norway to be conversant in Swedish, for example), which may be similar but are just different enough to be confusing, it would probably be best to pick either German or French and focus on that.
posted by muddgirl at 10:48 AM on March 16, 2007

Well, if you're thinking Nordic, you'll probably find Swedish the easiest, and most practical.
The Norwegians and Danes all seemed to think Swedish sounded a bit funny when I was there, but most everybody could get the gist of what you were saying if you spoke Swedish.
And yes, the Scandos' English is impeccable, but do recall that in Finland, most everybody speaks Swedish AND finnish, so I found their English markedly less polished than the Danes, Norwegians, or Swedes. And Finnish is probably going to be significantly harder for you to tackle than Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish.
Go with Swedish! They love that metal.
posted by conch soup at 10:52 AM on March 16, 2007

I found that swedish wasn't so hard for the Norwegians to get, but I could be wrong. Yes, Norwegia is written more like Danish, the pronunciation seemed alot more like Swedish.
I think the reason Nor\wegians aren't going to be exceedingly conversant in Swedish is that the crossover is so close, why bother?
posted by conch soup at 10:54 AM on March 16, 2007

jeez, gotta preview. sorry.
posted by conch soup at 10:56 AM on March 16, 2007

I actually meant to say it the other way around: Swedes didn't seem to know much Norwegian, although you may be right that they languages are so similar that someone can muddle through both languages. (Like people who know Spanish can muddle through Italian).

Anyway, I think Swedish is a beautiful-sounding language, and I for one would love to learn it someday.
posted by muddgirl at 11:06 AM on March 16, 2007

I've been learning arabic by taking a class and doing rosetta stone. In my experience I wouldn't ONLY use rosetta stone if you REALLY want to learn a language because you don't learn about how the language is really structured, it's just learning by osmosis. (In the beginning, you're really just guessing at the answers and then by repetition you start to learn.) It doesn't teach you how to form new sentences or how the language is broken down. It's very helpful though.

I used to be semi-fluent in german and it's really helpful in a lot of those countries. Languages like dutch have a lot of germanic roots so it will really help to know a bit of Deutsch. Plus if you try to speak or understand a little of someone else's language, they will try harder to use what they know of yours in return. Spanish & Italian really are similar, as everyone is saying. So you should get along okay there... even though the languages are different, they are very connected.

Anyhow, there are many free online resources to learn german. If you went through a few of those and added Rosetta Stone, you'd probably pick up a lot. Good luck!
posted by miss lynnster at 11:09 AM on March 16, 2007

For your basinc touring needs, english should be enough. Since bans sing in english, the fans, catering people, festivla, steff etc. will be able to explain in english where the lavatories are, etc.

German will be useful in germany and austria.

But you will find that engllish the modern european esperanto.

Disclaimer : I'm french-speaking, english is not my mother tongue.
posted by Baud at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2007

young people in Germany generally have many years of English in school as well as what they pick up from American culture but the older people may not speak any English, so it depends who you're dealing with.

don't know much about other countries/languages though it's probably similar.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:16 AM on March 16, 2007

I live in London and speak both Spanish and German. I've done biz across Europe and it seems if people don't speak English then German is the most common. I've rarely, outside of Spain or Portugal, run across Spanish speakers.

But I've used German as far east as Moscow.
posted by Mutant at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have to echo what a few people said. Spanish is limited almost completely to Spain, except it does help make some sense out of Italy.

German is very widespread, as is French. Having lived in Europe for a year (also because the scene was so much better for my music), I ended up learning German and it worked out great. I barely ever used my Spanish, but I did find people who spoke German as a second language and really no English, though they were rare.
posted by atomly at 11:59 AM on March 16, 2007

Reminds me of a time I was in Konstanz in southern Germany, on the swiss border. I met someone who needed directions, and I spoke only English and German. She spoke only French, Spanish, and Italian.

If the goal is to learn another language, by all means French or Italian would be easier for you. If you are staying in Western Europe and would like to have meaningful conversations with people there, become fluent in Spanish or learn French.

If the goal is to increase the chances that you can communicate at all with the greatest number of people in Europe, then learn German. If your travels take you east of Germany, consider Russian. (This will be harder)

My understanding is that, aside from english, French, German, and Russian are the most common second languages in Europe, depending on Western, Central, or Eastern Europe.
posted by cotterpin at 1:29 PM on March 16, 2007

I've found that German and Russian will get you much further than English once you're outside the cities, even with young people.
posted by cmonkey at 3:29 PM on March 16, 2007

The Dutch seem to have English, German and French in their arsenal, and probably a few more hidden away. As Mutant said, that will get you pretty well into central Europe -- I coped in Budapest by travelling with a friend whose German was better than mine, Hungarian being one of those languages. For this particular tour, I'd go with picking up as much German as you can.
posted by holgate at 9:15 PM on March 16, 2007

Even in Turkey I got by on part english & german. It's very helpful sometimes!
posted by miss lynnster at 9:33 PM on March 16, 2007

Especially in the age range you'll be mostly interacting with as a touring metal band, Nordic people are extremely likely to have fluent or near-fluent English. I think German would be most useful for you, especially given that it's still useful if you end up wandering east of Germany & Austria (where there's not the same money in touring, but the livin' is easy & cheap).
posted by allterrainbrain at 10:04 PM on March 16, 2007

German, definitely, and some Swedish maybe. I've recently begun learning Swedish and am finding I really wish I had a background in German. I'd guess that Germanic languages are easier to pick up once you know one. Finnish is an entirely different beast, however.

The Swedes and Norwegians I've met almost all spoke perfect English (and were lovely, friendly and helpful). That said, do at least learn how to say 'please', 'thank you', and 'sorry, do you speak English' in each language. Politeness and effort goes a long way. I am freakish in that I will usually not visit a country if I can't make a basic effort in the language and when I'm there I'm terribly ashamed of being stupid and English and unable to speak the language.

One of the reasons I'm probably moving out to Sweden in a few years is the metal scene. Have fun!
posted by corvine at 3:01 AM on March 17, 2007

I'd guess that Germanic languages are easier to pick up once you know one.
corvine, anyone reading this knows at least one :-) . Though I agree, I have found myself understanding a little more of written Swedish since I got my German together.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 5:51 AM on March 17, 2007

German, definitely.
I used to work for a Scandinavian company that required a lot of travel to northern Europe and you do need more than English to get around outside the major cities. Even in some of the major cities supermarket clerks don't necessarily speak English. But a combination of German and English will allow you to decipher signage and communicate much better than with English alone. And you really do need to know German to get around in Germany - I found Frankfurt manageable with English and a rudimentary knowledge of Swedish vocabulary, but elsewhere English speakers were not prevalent.
(Spanish did come in handy at a Tapas bar in Stockholm, where the bartender and I communicated in Spanish since he spoke no English and my Swedish was almost non-existent :) )
posted by needled at 6:14 AM on March 17, 2007

you got me there, Aidan. :) I tend to think of English as being a bit of a freak of a language, (me being stupid anglocentric again!) but you're right, there's quite a few Swedish words I've recognised from English too.
posted by corvine at 7:02 AM on March 17, 2007

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