I’ll be blunt with you. I don’t care who you are or what you think, if you’re constantly surrounded by people who speak a language you don’t understand (e.g., you’re living abroad), then you must absolutely learn that language.
Not only is it a requirement, but it makes the entire experience much more pleasant and rewarding. While most of the world speaks English to a certain extent, in a non-English speaking country English is only good for quickly getting directions when you’re lost, or clarifying something with a waiter at a restaurant. Outside English-speaking countries (and Scandinavia), people speak English at a basic level at best, so forget about forming deep connections in English.
English is always a poor choice for flirting with the opposite sex, regardless if you’re on the beaches of Rio, the streets of Barcelona or the posh clubs of Moscow.
When I lived in Thailand, I met lots of expats who either just moved with an intention of living for a few years, or those who’d already lived there anywhere from three to five years. The surprising part is that not even a single one of them made an effort to learn Thai. All they did was complain how difficult Thai language is, and that’s a complete pain to learn. They had about zero motivation to learn the native language of the country they were inhabiting.
During my travels, learning the local language has been extremely rewarding. When I lived in Mexico, I learned Spanish (with a Mexican slang). It was useful later in Argentina, Peru and Colombia, all the countries where I lived later on. When I moved to Brazil, I immediately started learning Portuguese. Three months later, I understood almost everything and could communicate without falling back to English.
I could never imagine spending more than 6 years in Latin America while only speaking English. That’s like admiring a BMW M5 gracefully moving along the street from your apartment window without ever physically getting behind the driver’s seat and actually driving the beast. The difference in experience is paramount. (If you visited/lived in Brazil without speaking Portuguese, your trip doesn’t count; you owe it to yourself do it over but this time speaking exclusively in Portuguese).
I continued picking up languages when I moved to Europe. When I lived for several years in Lithuania, I began learning Lithuanian, one of the hardest European languages. While I can’t say I’m fluent, I’m at a point where I can have a basic conversation and understand some of the online news.
Last year, I began exploring Asia, with an initial stop in Bali, Indonesia. There, I began studying Bahasa Indonesian. It also proved a deeply rewarding experience.
When language isn’t a necessity
Often times, you don’t necessarily need to learn another language. Maybe you’re living in America and don’t have an option (or desire) to live in another country. Thus, learning another language isn’t a necessity; you can get by in English (or the native language in your own country). Still, you’d be doing yourself a huge favor if you made an effort to learn a new language.
But which one?
It’s a common fact that some languages are in higher demand than others; they’re spoken by more people than others. Unless you’re planning to move to, let’s say, Hungary, it would make little sense to expend energy learning an esoteric language like Hungarian, one of the hardest languages in the world.
Spanish, on the other hand, makes much more sense. It’s a language that’s spoken by almost the entire South American continent except for Brazil. It’s also a relatively easy language to pick up and begin speaking in.
Spanish is also a gateway to a family of Latin languages: Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and regional ones like Catalan. That’s pretty much most of Western Europe right there. By leveraging the fact that some languages are similar, you’re able to quickly pick up a whole set of new languages with minimal effort.
Once you learn Spanish, learning Portuguese becomes simple and fun. The two languages are extremely similar. Furthermore, it’s pretty much a necessity if you ever plan to step your foot in one of the greatest countries in the world, Brazil.
Once you know Spanish and Portuguese, understanding French and Catalan becomes infinitely easier. Knowing those two Romance languages also helped me in unexpected places: understanding Romanian while I lived in Bucharest several years ago.
Another important language to learn is Russian, my native language. Russian is an extremely rich language, blessed with lots of legendary works of literature such as War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and many others.
Russian is more difficult than English, Spanish, Portuguese or even French. But those who make an effort are handsomely rewarded. They’ll be able to travel around the former Soviet Union countries—pretty much all the former 15 republics speak Russian to some extent.
Like Spanish, Russian is also the gateway to a family of languages, namely Slavic. Once you learn Russian, you’ll be able to understand other Slavic languages with varying degrees of difficulty such as Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian, Slovakian, Croatian, Slovenian, Slovak, Czech, etc. That almost covers the entire Central and Eastern Europe.
When I lived in Belgrade, Serbia, I was pleasantly surprised how similar Serbian is to Russian. Walking around the streets of the Serbian capital, I could read and understand almost every word. Although I had trouble understanding spoken speech (I wasn’t used to the pronunciation), I was told by Russians who’d been living there for many years that, with the knowledge of Russian, it would take me only around 3 months to learn Serbian. And Serbian being similar to Croatian and Bosnian, that means quickly picking up three new languages in one fell swoop.
I’d say it’s pretty good when you can move to a new country and pick up their language in as little as a couple of months.
If you’re looking for a more exotic language, I would choose something like Chinese or Japanese. Of course, that’s a given if you’re living in China or Japan, but even if you didn’t, it would be pretty cool to learn a language that’s completely different from European ones. Both languages have a certain form of appeal. Each also enjoys a relatively large population. It’s safe to say that learning either one would never be a waste of time.
A cool thing about learning new languages, is that, each new language becomes incrementally easier to learn. Bilingual people have a much easier time picking up a third language than those who only know one language; trilingual people tend to pick up a fourth language quicker than bilingual people.
Additionally, studies have shown that those who already speak a few languages have developed a more dense neuron connectors which, in turn, enables them to be more creative all-around thinkers. As someone who speaks several languages, I find that absolutely true. At times, I’ve found myself looking at various problems from different angle, something that I do when I switch between languages.
Actually, I’ll even go further: comfortably speaking a different foreign language makes me feel superhuman.
Whether you’re living abroad or not, you don’t need an excuse to start learning a new foreign language. It’s one of the greatest things you can do for yourself. I’m currently living in Kiev, Ukraine. The other day I met a Mexican guy at a coffee shop. As soon as I discovered he’s Mexican, I instantly switched to Spanish.
Merely speaking the language made me feel as though I was back in Mexico, a country where I’ve lived before: either relaxing on a beach in Playa del Carmen or hanging out in the chic Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
We finished the conversation and parted ways. Half an hour later, I entered one of my favorite restaurants and sat down. When the waiter approached me and asked for my order, I switched back to another language: Russian. In an instant, I became a local.
That would never happen had I spoken English both times, first with the Mexican guy and then with the Ukrainian waiter.
So, which language should you learn? If you’re an expat who’s living in a foreign country, then the choice is clear: start learning the country’s language.
If you’re someone who isn’t living abroad, the key is choosing a language that appeals to you the most. It’s much easier studying a language that you find cool and interesting than being forced to learn a language you don’t want and don’t care for.
Start with that one. Then work yourself through its language family. Or go crazy and learn a completely new language that’s radically different from any of the other ones you’re familiar like Japanese or Arabic. Rest assured, communicating in a different language will help you connect with the locals in ways you’d never before thought possible, thus making your life infinitely richer and more fulfilling.
James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.
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