The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #23 September / October 2016
Six Ways To Choose Which Languages To Learn
by Teddy Nee
September / October 2016 | 

Most of us usually learn foreign languages at school. Some learn only one language, some learn even three languages (like me, I learned English, Chinese Mandarin, and German). Not everyone succeeds in learning languages at school, so some will choose to leave it. If you are one of a few that still want to continue the learning, congratulations, because it is really not easy to maintain the motivation.

In my case, English and Chinese Mandarin are mandatory courses, and German and Japanese are optional courses. Students are allowed to choose only one of either German or Japanese, or both. I chose German believing it must be easier to learn than Japanese because German uses Latin alphabets, and my English was better than my Chinese Mandarin.

Let’s put aside the school story and say you are done with school language course and want to learn the next foreign language. How will you make the decision to choose which language to learn? I have compiled six references that can help you decide your next language.

1. Similarity

Learning available languages in your surrounding lets you practice the language in real life even without leaving your area or country.

I am on a vacation in Malaysia as I am writing this article, and I can go anywhere easily by speaking only Indonesian. Languages spoken in Malaysia are not only Malay but also Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, English, etc depending on the area. Malay and Indonesian are very similar, if not identical. However, speakers of both languages can still notice distinct differences, such as accent and vocabulary.

You can choose to learn languages that are similar with yours or the ones you already know. You can even understand large portions of the language before learning it, and using the word “to learn” is actually not correct because in fact, you just need to adjust yourself to the target language.

The advantage of learning similar languages is saving time and the disadvantage is you will tend to mix words from both languages.

2. Prestige

Believe it or not, some of us learn a certain language because knowing that language brings prestige. For instance, many of my female friends think that being able to speak French is so amazing because the language sounds romantic. Another example is being able to speak a certain language means that you have a higher social status.

Prestigious languages are usually major or popular languages. Be it English, French, or the others, you can learn them easily right now on the internet. You can search for any language classes, learning materials, or even native speakers.  

3. Importance

One of many reasons to learn a foreign language is for job purposes. You should put this language on top of the list if you need it at work. There are many foreigners in Taiwan that work as overseas sales officers because their language skill is a valuable assest, supplementing their knowledge of the countries of the foreign market where the company does business.

If you are not a native English speaker, and you work as an overseas sales officer, English would likely be the language you use to communicate with foreign clients. In this case, improving your English should be your priority. If you are a native English speaker, you may choose not to learn foreign languages because everyone is learning and would be happy to speak English with you, however, I still encourage you to learn foreign languages because it is always better to know more languages.

4. Availability

Check if any nearby public libraries or community centers offer language courses, or if there are any language institutions near your area. You can enrol yourself in the language course because learning in the class doesn’t only provide you with a teacher to help but also classmates that you can practice with. Because everyone in the class is still learning the language like you, you won’t feel as much pressure when using the language since your classmates will also make mistakes.

There are many Southeast Asians from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines working in the city where I live in Taiwan. Some of them even married the Taiwanese and run restaurant businesses. In this case, I can speak these Southeast Asian languages with them every time I visit their restaurants.

Learning available languages in your surrounding lets you practice the language in real life even without leaving your area or country. Imagine how convenient it is! You can go to restaurant “A” and speak language “A” today, and go to restaurant “B” and speak language “B” tomorrow. It is also fun to do.

5. Same language group

Languages from the same group usually share similar characteristics. Several examples of language groups are Romance, Slavic, Germanic, and Austronesian. One of my native languages, Indonesian, belong to the Austronesian group, which is the same group with aboriginal languages of Taiwan, Malagasy in Africa, and even Polynesian languages in the Pacific Ocean.

Countries that are located nearby to each other usually have languages from the same group. If you find the same languages spoken by countries separated so far away, it is because of colonization or migration. For example, Dutch is also spoken in the Caribbean countries and Suriname in South America besides the Netherlands; a Dutch creole, called Afrikaans, is spoken in Namibia and South Africa; and according to what I have read, there are even endangered or extinct Dutch creoles in Java.

You can find some advantages of learning languages from the same group such as what you can have when learning similar languages, with a wider scope of languages to choose. However, note that languages from the same group are not always similar.

6. For fun

Why don’t you learn languages for fun? It may sound like a daunting task to do because learning one language is already difficult, but believe me, the more you spend time to learn a language, and the more you use it, the more you will be motivated to learn more languages. It is because once you know a language, it is easier to learn another. This is because you would have understood about how languages work, and learn the similarities with other languages.

Some people like to create languages, so called constructed languages (conlangs). The fun behind creating conlangs and knowledge sharing is the motivation for some conlangers. Some examples of conlangs are Navi, Klingon, and Elvish, which are created for movies or books. There are also languages created for academic purposes, like Toki Pona and Lingua Franca Nova (elefen), and created as auxiliary languages, like Esperanto, Interlingua, Novial, and Volapuk.

Esperanto is by far the largest constructed language ever used on the earth. There are even native Esperanto speakers!

Teddy is an avid language learner, blogger, engineer, and a collector. He has a dream to make this world a better place through language learning. Apart from learning languages, he also likes reading and playing ukulele. You can speak with him in Medan Hokkien, Indonesian, English, Chinese Mandarin, Spanish, and Esperanto. Visit his blog at

Six Ways To Choose Which Languages To Learn
Writer: Teddy Nee
Petey: All images used are Public Domain

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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