Linked to recent posts on here, and also an article in The Economist two weeks ago, is the question of which language a willing learner should choose.
Experts in The Economist made the case for French (on the grounds it is still widely spoken as an administrative language in various parts of the world), Spanish (on the grounds of rising numbers of native speakers and access from it to Italian and Portuguese), Brazilian Portuguese (this one lost me a bit so we will leave it there!), Mandarin (on the grounds of the rise of China) and Latin (as a conduit to lots of other languages).
Of these, I find only the case for Spanish convincing. On top of that, one obvious candidate was missed – German.
The article was extremely good but one really obvious issue – touched in last week on this blog – was missed altogether. You have to assess how motivated you will be to learn the language.
Are you really going to learn Mandarin? I mean, really? This cannot reasonably be done taking half an hour in the evening to do an Internet course from a flat in Bristol. It will require spending a considerable length of time in (a relevant region of) China – like, living and working there – and even at that being committed to immerse yourself rather than just seek out Westerners while teaching English to get by. Even in hugely favourable circumstances with real dedication, you will still probably come away with at best conversational proficiency (and very limited literacy), which you will then have to dedicate yourself to maintaining (by regular trips back to China, in all likelihood). How likely is that?
The same applies, in a way, to Latin. It appears more familiar of course, but in its case you really have no way of using the language (unless for some reason you have engaged in learning a language to reading fluency just to read ancient literature). I am not against a grounding in Latin by any means, but the best language you can learn? Dubious…
French is, of course, a fascinating language, but is at an immediate disadvantage because historically it differs markedly from other Latinate languages (with one consequence that it is difficult, objectively, to pronounce), so is limited in being a conduit towards them. Furthermore, the case for its geographical extent is limited, covering only North Africa and, at a push, Indochina. Compare that with the social and economic might of the whole Spanish-speaking world (or even the Portuguese in the longer run), and it comes out unquestionably worse. It has its uses no doubt (not least its retention as a formal administrative language by the likes of the UN and IOC), but its practical 21st century extent is restricted.
There is undoubtedly a case for Spanish. First of all, there is the motivation almost no matter where you are in the world – both Europeans and North Americans can find it instantly useful at a range of common holiday destinations for a start. Secondly, it has remained fairly close to Latin, as have Portuguese and Italian, and is thus a useful conduit to them. Thirdly, it is also relatively simple to use after just a little learning. Best of all is our exposure to it – it is quite common for Spanish-language hits to make it into the US or UK charts, and Spanish is increasingly used in US drama series (the main language of “Narcos”, a significant language in “Power”, and a peripheral but important one in many more). Nothing succeeds like exposure! Tie this to a large and growing number of native speakers with increasing economic influence, and the case for Spanish being the language to learn is close to unanswerable.
However, there remains a case for German. Approached the right way (as per the link), it is not as inaccessible as the scary word order and complex case system initially suggest. It is also, by far, the language I have found most useful – I have found it necessary to fix electronic items (shipped with menus set in German), to set up TVs (I received one with instructions only in German), help out tourists (both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere), operate on holiday (this year in Italy German was a lingua franca at our site and locations around it), and manage business (there may be something of a bias here, but I am asked for German translations or courses more often than any other, by far). This is scarcely a surprise. German is the most commonly spoken mother tongue in the world’s largest trading bloc, and the language of the world’s second biggest exporter – and is thus of vastly more significance than French and potentially ahead of Spanish (particularly from a European perspective). It is also a conduit to Dutch, and to some extent to Scandinavian, thus covering all Europe’s most prosperous economies. It is important to maintain motivation (so that visits to Germany or Austria result in you practising German on the natives and not natives practising English on you), but there are a lot of reasons for doing so.
Faced with the choice between Spanish or German, a lot of other considerations come into play. However, on the basis of geographical proximity, social use, economic value and linkage to other languages in the longer run (and thus basic motivation, the most important thing of all), the “language to learn” is definitely one or the other of those two.