A cursory search on twitter reveals that deciding to learn a language is as popular a new year’s resolution as ever. Not everyone has a specific language in mind, though: “Should I start with German or French?” They ask the twitterverse.
The answer, perhaps predictably, is that it depends.
It depends, firstly, on why you want to learn. Is there a particular country whose culture, food, and literature enchant you? Is there a place that you visit often or plan to go to on holiday in the relatively near future? Or perhaps your career prospects would be enhanced by knowledge of a particular language? Then let your reasons for learning guide your choice.
It depends, secondly, on how much of a challenge you are seeking. Learning a language well is, in and of itself, a challenge, so don’t dismiss the “easy” ones if you’re looking to stretch yourself; on the other hand, if this is your first venture into language learning, perhaps you could start with one of those.
Which languages are most accessible? It’s widely acknowledged that among the European languages, Italian is the easiest – and not only that, but because it is similar to other Romance languages – particularly Spanish – it will give you a way in to those, too. Among those, French is the most difficult, though perhaps if you have a background in it from your schooldays that is enough of a base to make up for its inherent difficulty.
German, on the other hand, is in some ways difficult – it has “cases”, which mean the word endings change depending on their grammatical function in the sentences – but it is also very structured and organised (like the Germans themselves, in fact) and it could be that suits you. Russian is harder still, not so much because of the different script – which is daunting at first, but you soon get used to it – but because the grammar and the cases are even more complex.
If you have learned another language, that will often help, too – if you know some German, Dutch will come more easily. Hebrew will help you with Aramaic, and Mandarin with Cantonese. (On the other hand, when languages are too similar, our brains tend to mix them up more, so even that is not as straightforward as it seems.)
Languages can be divided into various families – for example, the Romance languages include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian – and knowing one can help with the others, since the structure, script, and sometimes the pronunciation will be similar. (English, I’m afraid, won’t help you with much – it’s officially a Germanic language, but is so much of a hybrid that it doesn’t ressemble any other language that closely.)
Still confused? Drop me a line in the comments below or use my “contact me” page, and I’ll do my best to help you choose a language that works for you.
— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.