As the creator of the Langfocus Youtube channel and the owner of this site, I get a lot of messages from language enthusiasts around the world. Some people just want to say hello, some have requests, and others ask questions. One very common question that always surprised me a little is “What language should I learn?” Some of the people are trying to choose their first foreign language, and others are trying to choose their next foreign language. Some of them are dabbling in a few different languages and have trouble choosing one.
Obviously you need to choose a language that you are motivated to learn, because there are times when you don’t feel like studying, or you want to give up entirely. There are two basic types of motivation: intrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivation.
Generally, it’s best to choose the language that you are most intrinsically motivated to learn. Intrinsically motivated means that you personally want to learn that language, even if you don’t have to learn it. Intrinsic motivation to learn a language is often tied to an inexplicable interest or fascination with a specific country or culture. If you learn the language of that culture, you can understand it more deeply and participate in it more fully.
This was the case with the first foreign language I ever learned outside of school, Modern Hebrew. I didn’t exactly know why, but I was deeply fascinated with Israel and with Jewish history and cultures, and I didn’t have to force myself to study Hebrew. I was excited to drive my parents’ car to the library and check out Hebrew books and audio programs (this was back when the internet was not such a useful tool). I would spend hours every day studying it and not think about anything else.
Similarly, I know people here in Japan who are in love with the Korean language. Learning English would be more “useful” but they don’t care, because they have an inexplicable interest in Korea and parts of its culture (these days it’s often an interest in K-Pop music), so they love studying Korean. If there is any language or culture that you feel this way about, then you should probably choose that language. If you choose any other language, you will always wish you were studying the one that grabs you, the one that touches your emotions.
The other kind of motivation is extrinsic motivation. That is motivation that comes from an external source, like a goal or outcome that you want to achieve. If you want to learn French so you can apply for a good job in Paris, that’s extrinsic motivation. If you want to learn a language because it’s spoken in more countries that you want to travel to, that is extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation can be powerful too, if your desired goal or outcome grabs you emotionally.
If traveling around South America is your dream, and learning Spanish will help you do that, then you can use that motivation to fuel your study efforts even if you are not deeply interested in languages. Personally, I was extrinsically motivated to learn Japanese. I really wanted to live and work in Japan, even though the language itself did not fascinate me as much as some others. But I was setting up an entire lifestyle in Japan and knowing the language was a part of it. So, a language you are extrinsically motivated to learn can also be a good choice.
The trouble comes when you are extrinsically motivated to learn one language, but intrinsically motivated to learn another. When people ask me what language they should learn, it often seems like they are torn between these two types of motivation. The question is, which is stronger? If your extrinsic motivation is tied to your dreams for the future, then it might strongest. But if your extrinsic motivation is not well-defined and you just want to learn a useful language just in case, then it will be no match for strong intrinsic motivation.
If this sounds like crazy talk and I’m not making sense, then just ask yourself what language you would most love to be able to speak, just emotionally without thinking about the reasons. That will probably give you the answer to your question.
My very first video on the Langfocus channel was on this topic. Check out the video for more thoughts. This is old school Langfocus with no editing!
* “job interview” image by Ludovig Bertron used under creative commons license. https://www.flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05/2962194797/