What language should I study?
May 7, 2007 11:02 PM   Subscribe

What language should I study?

Currently I'm a first year freshman at a CSU. Next year I'll finally have some room in my schedule to take a language. I had always planned on taking Japanese but now I'm considering maybe German or Chinese. I have a equal cultural interest in all three so I'd like to pick a language that would be most benificial in the future. I'm currently studying graphic design and I plan on studying abroad.
I know Chinese and Japanese are more difficult writing-wise, but which one is the most difficult to learn speaking-wise? Which culture is most tolerant of non-native speakers? Are there other languages/cultures I should consider since my decision will play a big role in deciding where I study abroad?
posted by ad4pt to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
As I understand it, spoken Mandarin is more difficult to pick up than spoken Japanese.

Another factor to consider is what opportunities these languages will open up for you in the next ten years; here are a few thoughts, but others are certainly more knowledgable on this than I am:

China is an expanding economic force whose role on the world stage will become much larger over the next 20 years or so. They will probably be aggressively seeking westerners who can help; foreign companies and embassies will be expanding there over the coming years.

Japan is currently a huge economic powerhouse, densely populated, high cost of living, with a highly educated workforce. But they also probably have better educational programs for design than China, and more modern design companies if you're looking to work abroad in your 20s.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:35 PM on May 7, 2007

I had always planned on taking Japanese, but had to sacrifice it in lieu of Organic Chemistry. I'd waited all through high school for college to roll around, for Japanese classes. And then college time came, and the only language class that fit my schedule was French or Spanish.

I enrolled in French: I had an interest in it (though not as much as Japanese), it's chic, I love French movies, it's a Romance language, my father had taught me elementary French as a child. As for Spanish, I figured I could pick up Spanish from friends and teaching myself, seeing as I'm living in California right now.

Long story short: I have a W in French. I'm enrolled in Japanese now, and having a blast. I say enroll in the language you want the most.

As for studying abroad. They say there's quite a bit of racism in Japan, especially if you're one of the other Asian races. Oohs and ahhs all around if you're a Japanese-speaking Caucasian. Keep in mind that this is just what I've heard, not anything I know firsthand.

Chinese is tough, due to the tonalities - but once you get the hang of it, it's actually not that bad. Japanese would be less tricky in the pronunciation department.
posted by Xere at 11:47 PM on May 7, 2007

I studied Japanese, speak Japanese, and am currently living and working in Japan.

I would recommend Chinese. I think it would give you more opportunities for future work.

However, go with what you want to learn. I studied Japanese and I enjoyed it. I'm satisfied with the way things turned out. However, if I had to do it all over again, I would've studied Chinese and tried to work in Hong Kong.
posted by m3thod4 at 12:21 AM on May 8, 2007

Chinese is problematic due to the lack of a phonetic writing system, which is why they have horrible adult literacy rates. Japanese is much better as far as learning the writing system goes. Kanji are still logographic, but you can get by with katakana and hiragana for the most part. In chinese, if you know the word but not the symbol, you're stuck.

I took german myself, and am quite happy with that choice so far. As far as it's practicality goes, it's one of the major languages of the EU (wikipedia statistics: 51% of the EU can speak english, 32% for german, 26% for french). English plus german will get you understood in nearly all of europe if you're planning on going there. (Map of english speakers, Map of german speakers)
posted by Arturus at 12:31 AM on May 8, 2007

I learned French and German at school and am currently learning Japanese at evening class. I wanted to learn Chinese but the class was full, so I went with Japanese and I'm enjoying it very much.

I would say German is easier to learn than French, and is more forgiving of a less-than-perfect accent. Japanese is very straightforward and the grammatical construction is simpler. Our class didn't go down the romanised route and we learned to write and understand Hiragana and Katakana pretty quickly.
posted by poissonrouge at 12:43 AM on May 8, 2007

Japanese gets a bad rap for difficulty, but its pronunciation is pretty cake, easier than Spanish (same phonemes).

The writing system is complicated, but not difficult, if that makes sense.

About 1/5 of the [daily-use] language is katakana english loan-words anyway so you already know more Japanese than you would think you do.

Japan has interesting demographics in that they really need to start thinking about opening their economy to foreigners, so being a young-un now I think your prospects in Japanese are bright.

I faced this same choice in 1989 and don't regret my choice of Japanese -- it served me well -- but for the 21st centuri I've got to suspect Mandarin is the way to go for the maximal of opportunities.

I chose Japanese because of the existing body of culture I wanted to get into, and it remains to be seen if China can start getting into Japan's "Gross National Cool" here.

Being a Japanese speaker I find Chinese an absolute daunting task as far as listening and speaking goes. The hardest words for me to say with good intonation in Japanese -- eg. "ryokan" -- are Chinese loanwords that are even harder to say in the original Mandarin.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:28 AM on May 8, 2007

If you are only going to take a few classes in college, I would strongly recommend a romance language. My five semesters of Spanish prepared me enough to have real conversations at a basic/intermediate level when I finally went abroad.

Non-Romance languages are obviously much harder, and I really question how useful it is to take 4 semesters of regular college level Chinese or Japanese, unless it's in a program like Middlebury or a study abroad situation. I've lived in China for about 4 years, and my Chinese is crappy, but functional now, without any full-time study. But, I've met a lot of people who have studied for 1-2 years in college, then came here and could not communicate at all. Not because they're dumb, or didn't study hard, just their study environment couldn't really prepare them for the realities of oral communication.

Not to say that studying Chinese/Japanese is a waste of time in college, but I think you'll get much more bang for your buck, time and effortwise if you stick with a language like Spanish that you're likely to have a lot of opportunity to use in America.
posted by bluejayk at 1:52 AM on May 8, 2007

bluejayk: I found my 2 years of general college Japanese about right to land on my feet in Japan. 2 years is enough to get the end-to-end scope of the language; daily practice is what fills this frame in.

I wasn't native enough to actually work in a Japanese-only environment initially, but I generally knew what I didn't know, which made child-like osmotic learning possible.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 2:01 AM on May 8, 2007

Not that it should be a major part of your decision, but I would also look into the professors teaching the different languages. A professor who loves one language will be better then one who hates what he/she is doing.
posted by debit at 2:48 AM on May 8, 2007

1/6th of the world speaks Chinese. Learn Chinese.
But if you're unsure: http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/e/languages/index.html
posted by greytape at 3:14 AM on May 8, 2007

Pick a language that can benefit you in the long run. Chinese and Japanese would be my first choices if I could go back in time to my freshman year. English language ability in Japan is substantially lower than in other industrialized nations (and plenty of "third world" nations as well), so it's very useful at least if you ever decide to go to Japan. As for Chinese, I don't think it'll be the global language in 50 years that some people seem to think, but, again, if you visit China it's invaluable. Also, Japanese uses Chinese characters to a large extent, and a full explanation of this is complicated, but suffice it to say that if you learn Chinese, you get a bit of a head start on Japanese, and vice versa.

I took German at university and spent 3 months in Germany actually using it. Trouble was, I constantly ran into Germans whose English was better than my German. Since university, I've had almost zero opportunity to speak it (though if I had become truly fluent it could've helped me career-wise, but there's not much demand in the US for German speakers). I enjoyed learning German, but it's not very applicable.

Spanish is a good choice for Americans, plenty of opportunity to use it in the States, especially in the southwest. French much less so, methinks. European languages in general are spoken by folks who probably speak good English as well, so it's kind of like swimming against the current. Pick a random Dutch person or Scandinavian and their English will probably be very, very good.
posted by zardoz at 3:20 AM on May 8, 2007

I don't think you need to learn a language that will benefit you in the long run (I think learning a language is a benefit in itself, not least for what it teaches you about your own language), but otherwise I agree with Zardox. Younger Germans speak pretty good english (because they learn it for 12 years), and all scandinavians speak excellent english (because they can't afford to dub the the American TV shows)

I would suggest that you make your decision based on two factors:

Firstly, learn a language that you can practice with somebody. ie, a language that one your friends is fluent in (or even better if it's their native tongue). It really isn't much fun if you can't practice with people, and the going is much, much slower.

Secondly, pick a language that is spoken in a place you would want to visit someday, even if it's just for a holiday. I always wanted to learn Spanish because I want to see South America one day, but I'm sticking with German for now (baby steps).

Viel Glück!
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:05 AM on May 8, 2007

Chinese is the hot new language, it's also not going to be very useful from just college coursework alone. Take something that will be useful but doesn't have as many people studying it right now, like say Arabic (outside of military/intel circles), Portuguese or Russian.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:17 AM on May 8, 2007

You didn't mention it, but did you take any language in high school? I took Latin and high school and took German in college; it was easier for me than it was for the other Romance language kids because of the grammar, and additionally, when I did need to read 30-page technical articles in a Romance language, I managed to slog through with a dictionary. So what I'm saying (and I'll get beaten up for it by the language purists) is that if you've already taken one Romance language, and you aren't obsessive about fluency, don't take another.

That being said, if I could go back to college, I'd've complained like hell to the Hebrew/Arabic teacher and done more than one year of Arabic, or taken Mandarin. German's not as painful to pick up on your own, but when you have the benefit of a native speaker and college resources, go with the tough ones.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:03 AM on May 8, 2007

I'm a Japanese translator. I also took a semester of Chinese in college.

Japanese pronunciation is, apart from a few patterns, not that hard. We English speakers tend to mangle the vowels by diphthongizing them until we get the hang of it. Chinese pronunciation is much more complicated, with four tones, two different "sh" sounds, other sounds that don't exist in English, etc.

However, Chinese grammar is much simpler than Japanese, and more intuitive to an English speaker, so in that respect it's much easier to pick up, and in the long run, I think that makes a bigger difference.

Arturus is exactly wrong about the writing systems. You cannot "get away" knowing only kana in Japan, and Chinese characters make more sense in Chinese because, well, that's what they're suited to; the way kanji were adapted to Japanese is much more confusing. Despite the complexity, and despite being a nation with 1 billion peasants, China has a literacy rate of 90%+, Japan's is nearly 100%.

Everything I know about German I learned from Mark Twain
posted by adamrice at 7:37 AM on May 8, 2007

If you have an interest in studying languages generally, you might want to take a semester or two of Latin. You don't study it the same way as modern languages—the emphasis is on reading, not fluency when speaking—but because of Latin's precision, you'll learn a lot about languages that will help you with any future language study. Classical Greek is even more precise, but you probably don't want to deal with the alphabet and accents if you're just dipping your toe in the dead-language waters.
posted by stopgap at 8:12 AM on May 8, 2007

I studied Japanese and Chinese, but Japanese for much longer. It's easier to pronounce at first, but Chinese is more similar to English grammatically speaking. It's also about a thousand times more useful. Chinese, all the way.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:57 AM on May 8, 2007

Definitely pick the language you have the most passion for. I've noticed many people who begin learning Chinese (or some other language) for purely economic reasons and fail miserably, because they lose their motivation. Also think about which country out of the three you'd like to visit most and spend a decent amount of time in - China, Japan, Germany? Myself, I speak both Chinese and German fluently, and once did a stint of studying Japanese. If you really feel equal cultural interest for all three, I would recommend Chinese. The tones are difficult for some people, while others don't have problems; the grammar is easy at the beginning level, and the writing system is terribly difficult, as we all know. China is an emerging economic power, but that's not why I'm learning it - China is simply an amazing, incredibly diverse country with so much history. Ignore any naysayers and go there if you ever can. Learning Chinese will be one of the most rewarding things you ever do.

Also, be forewarned that if you take Japanese, about 90% of your class will be anime fanboys.

German isn't bad, although I don't feel it's very much of a challenge for English speakers, and it's not terribly useful from a business perspective.

As for reactions to native speakers, Chinese are always incredibly surprised and happy if you can just speak a few words of the language, Japanese more or less ditto, while Germans/other Europeans don't seem to care too much.
posted by pravit at 9:28 AM on May 8, 2007

Having studied Chinese for about 10 years or so, let me add some of my own humble insights.

1.) Don't study it because it's the hot, new language. It's pretty rough-going at the beginning and only some sort of enthusiasm for the language itself or interest in Chinese culture/history/etc. is going to pull you through it.

2.) Be aware that it takes longer. I talked with someone who learned Chinese through the Foreign Service and he told me that the amount of Chinese he learned in two years would be the equivalent to the amount of French he would learn in six months.

3.) You are not going to get a good job related to China having only Chinese. Make sure you develop some other primary skill (law, business, engineering, etc.) I'm learning this the hard way. I can speak fluently about monetary policy in Chinese, but with only my BA I won't be able to get a good job past low-level translating or teaching English until I get an advanced degree.

4.) Chinese people are very tolerant of people learning their language. Tolerant to a fault I would say. If you live in China, you'll soon find out that everyone will lavish compliments on you no matter how mangled your Chinese is. For many people, it gets to be annoying.

5.) If you do choose to study Chinese, you've definitely got to live there, whether it be as a semester abroad or a couple of years after graduation or whatever. If I had quit after studying two years in the States, it would have been a bitter experience (all that work for nothing), but even just spending a semester in Beijing and traveling around for a couple of weeks would give you some incredible experiences.

6.) To be blunt, I don't find the Chinese arts all that interesting. I minored in modern Chinese literature in college and while some stuff like the May 4th movement literature is interesting in its historical context, in and of itself modern Chinese literature pales in comparison to Russian/German/French/Spanish literature. If I had to choose whether I could read Lu Xun or Gabriel Garcia Marquez in their original language, I would definitely choose GGM.

Chinese is problematic due to the lack of a phonetic writing system, which is why they have horrible adult literacy rates.

Chinese orthography is a pain in the butt, but it was terrible economic conditions, not the difficulty of hanzi, that was the cause of China's horrible adult literacy. Both China's and Taiwan's (who didn't simplify their characters) adult literacy rates today are basically equivalent to the West's.
posted by alidarbac at 8:12 PM on May 8, 2007

I speak German, but I never use it, except when I am in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was looking at the Cleveland State University webpage (that's what CSU stands for, right?) and they apparently only offer Spanish.

Have you considered Korean? The written language, when not borrowing from the Chinese, is incredibly scientific and easy to learn. Maybe they have a graphic design scene in Seoul.

And finally, if graphic design doesn't work out, you could make US$187K a year speaking Arabic, while getting shot at.
posted by billtron at 12:05 AM on May 9, 2007


Illiteracy Jumps in China, Despite 50-Year Campaign to Eradicate It

To quote Victor Mair, "With alphabetic literacy, one can forget how to spell a word properly but still get one's idea across by misspelling it. If one forgets a crucial character, like the TI4 of DA3 PEN1TI4 打喷嚏 ("sneeze"), which very few Chinese know how to write, you're stuck."

His full commentary. Don't belive all the statistics China puts out.
posted by Arturus at 12:09 AM on May 10, 2007

Ooh, Korean is cool! Grammar-wise, it's pretty difficult, and it's pretty hard to pronounce, too, but they do have a cool writing system. And the language has a ton of loanwords from Chinese (some huge amount like 60% of their vocabulary has Chinese origins), which can help in learning if you already speak it.

Arturus: It's true few people know how to write those characters off the top of their head, but almost everyone can at least recognize those characters. I think it's a bit unfair to measure Chinese literacy based on how many characters you can write, since the number of characters you can recognize will always be way higher. These days, with cellphones and pinyin IMEs, writing by hand in Chinese is getting a bit phased out.
posted by pravit at 10:27 AM on May 10, 2007

Also, literacy rates in Taiwan, HK, and Singapore are pretty comparable(sometimes higher) to countries which use alphabetic writing systems.
posted by pravit at 10:29 AM on May 10, 2007

Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard
posted by mingshan at 1:12 PM on May 10, 2007

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