That old dilemma: which language?

So you’ve decided to learn a foreign language, but which one?  Every language has its advantages and drawbacks to learning, and for centuries linguists have argued over the criteria for choosing which language (or languages) to invest time and effort into studying.  While everyone’s advice is different — and of course if you have a passion driving you towards a specific language then by all means follow it — it can be helpful to analyze what motives you have for learning a language.  Professor Alexander Arguelles, a lifelong devotee to language learning, has gone one step further and laid out what are, in his opinion, the four classifications of languages everyone should endeavor to learn. He harkens back to past centuries, when speaking multiple languages was the norm for educated people, and he offers six languages as a reasonable goal for polyglots.  However, understanding the differences in people’s motivations and time schedules, he states four as the stark minimum.

The first of Arguelles’ crucial four languages for an educated person to learn is the classical language of their society, so they can fully understand the development of their own language as well as read classic works of literature in their original words.  For example, a native speaker of English should learn Latin and Greek, giving them access to the etymology of the romance languages as well as the literature and mythology that formed the basis of western society and thought.


Next, Arguelles argues that one should learn two or three of the major languages of one’s broader culture, which for English speakers would be Spanish, French, and German.  The benefits of this are obvious in terms of communication with a wide scope of people, ability to educate oneself on staples of modern western literature, and travel opportunities.

Once these fundamental languages are out of the way, one should focus on learning the international language, that is, English.  For those who already speak English, Arguelles states that they should learn a “semi-exotic” language, that being a language from outside their immediate sphere of influence.  For a westerner, this might be Italian, Swedish, or Arabic.

Finally, Arguelles states that one should learn an exotic language, one from a culture far removed from their own that they might never encounter, such as Swahili, Korean, or Quechua for English-speakers.  Ideally, this will help the learner to broaden their cultural horizons while giving them an understanding of a language they might not have had any contact with otherwise.

While Professor Arguelles’ criteria certainly are food for thought, when it comes down to it the key decider in whether you pursue a language should be that you have an interest in it.  Irresponsible though it may be, I have zero interest in learning either Latin or Greek.  The classics of Ancient Greece and Rome that I’ve read I never felt were relevant to me—there were never enough active, interesting female characters in them—and learning Latin certainly won’t help me communicate with people while traveling, unless I travel to the Vatican City.

Learning an exotic language like Swahili helps broaden cultural horizons

Learning an exotic language like Swahili helps broaden cultural horizons

Similarly, how can you discern an “exotic” from a “semi-exotic” language.  If I taught myself Spanish for travel and Russian so I could fully appreciate its literature and cinema and then wanted to learn Irish simply for aesthetic reasons, would that not be “exotic” enough to pursue?  Perhaps it would be less frivolous to learn Mandarin Chinese, but without a strong drive to speak or read it, I’m convinced I wouldn’t get very far.  When it comes down to it, language-learning is a very subjective experience, and everyone’s passions and motivations will be different.

What reasons do you have for learning a language?

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