(This is a guest post by A.D. Giovanna)
If you have made the commitment to yourself to learn your first foreign language, but still need to decide which one, you have a wondrous world of possibilities ahead of you. Sometimes there is a natural choice because of your job, such as the medical professional who needs basic fluency in Spanish. However, you can also decide to pick a language with the possibility of transitioning your career in the future, or for entirely non-work-related reasons.
If you are looking for a language that could open up career horizons, you need to balance your decision between (1) the easier, more common languages that you can acquire more quickly but which will not distinguish greatly from your peers, and (2) the harder languages that imply a larger time commitment to gain professional fluency, but which open up more lucrative career paths.
I would place Spanish for the U.S. and French for Canada in the first category. Easy languages more similar to English, lots of language-learning materials available, and the end of the tunnel within sight. Depending on your field, you may be able to be clever and get ahead with a simpler but less frequent language, such as Portuguese for the burgeoning Brazilian market. In the second category are the tougher languages that may be prized by the government (Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Urdu and Hindi among them) and that will get you bonus points for hiring. I would also add business languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, to that category. These languages require a longer and deeper commitment, but the potential pay-off in real terms is greater.
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It will help your decision if you accept that your first foreign language does not have to be your only foreign language. Learning a romance language (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese or Romanian) or a Germanic language (German or Dutch) will help to get your brain ready for the tougher acrobats ahead in a language that does not resemble English. Because yes, foreign languages are a thrilling type of brain-stretching activity! You will find parts of your brain that you didn’t even know were there! Your “starter language” will also help you learn English grammar, which many Americans don’t learn well at school. Having a strong base in English grammar will help you with all the foreign languages you will learn.
However, if you are motivated to dive right into a harder language immediately, by all means, do it! Interest and drive to attain anything will help you reach your goal much more so than doing something just to do it. So if learning Farsi has always been your dream, embrace it and skip my advice on starter languages!
You should also do a little reconnaissance on whether the language is grammar-heavy or not; whether it is written with our alphabet, a different alphabet, or characters; whether it is tonal or has other sounds way, way outside the realm of English. Those difficulties might be the points that attract you or that put you off, but at least you’ll know. I can do heavy grammar and non-English sounds, so Arabic was within my realm of possibility.
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On the other hand, I am completely and totally tone-deaf. People cringe uncontrollably when I sing Happy Birthday. Mandarin and Cantonese have very little grammar, but the former has four tones and the latter a mind-boggling nine tones. If you can’t hum a tune acceptably well, don’t take a tonal language unless you are prepared for a serious uphill struggle. I am a real believer in playing to your strengths. If you have perfect pitch, you can be that person to master Mandarin like a native. If you are artistic, Chinese characters may be an added bonus part of the joy of the language. Know your learning style, know your strengths, and take that into account when you are picking your target language.