Why learn a language?
Even a little knowledge of the language can make a difference in attitude when you meet people from other countries. Speaking another language helps to break down barriers.
Work and business
It can help you give an added advantage in your career if you work for an international firm or a company with international customers or contacts.
Music, film, arts and culture
If you like literature, films or music from other countries, learning the language will help your appreciation and understanding.
Around 75% of the world’s population don’t speak a word of English and a grasp of a different language improves your abilities to use your first language and explore other cultures more successfully.
According to research, on average, people who use languages in their jobs earn around 8% more!
Many scientists also believe that knowledge of another language can boost your brainpower. A study of monolingual and bilingual speakers suggests speaking two languages can help slow down the brain’s decline with age. And to quote Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Knowing how to go about learning a language can make all the difference to how successful you are. There is, however, no single ‘correct’ way of learning; everyone is different and you’ll soon find that some strategies work better than others. Get some
- Be your own teacher
- How to practice simple or common vocabulary
- Help someone and help yourself
- Create a routine
- Do crosswords
- Keep a check on your progress
- Set short-term goals
- Don’t worry about mistakes
- Use the spell-check in word
- Get yourself a penpal
- Use your subconscious
- Try to find the literal translation
- Always read the small print
- Work with cognates
- Take a walk and memorize words
- Don’t rely on translations
- Visualize words
- Puzzles and games
- Learning numbers
- Buy a magazine of your special interest
- Highlight words in the dictionary
- Word jars
- Make learning a part of your life
- Make a point of speaking the language you’re learning
- Repeat activities
- Surround yourself with the language you’re learning
- Use real idioms
- Don’t only use a textbook
- use spread sheets
- listen to songs
- Associate similar words
- Use pictures to learn vocabulary
Speaking and listening
- Realise you can’t understand everything!
- Let your subconscious find the right words
- Listen to native speakers using audio and video clips
- Talk to native speakers
- Record radio news
- Record your voice
- Be brave
- Get the pronunciation right
- Use real receipts in the classroom
- Memorise the alphabet
- Use sentence structures from the language you’re learning
- Practice pronunciation through music
- Watch out for key words
- Read poetry and nursery rhymes
- Talk to yourself
- Don’t get stuck on forgotten words
- Don’t let grammar worry you
- Understand the grammar of your own language
- Learn a noun together with the article
- Choose a topic you’re interested in
- Learning genders
- Try out your new language at every opportunity
- Listen to tapes while doing household chores
- Make the most of your DVD collection!
- Read comics
- Free supermarket magazines
- TV news, soaps and films
- Listen to sports events on the radio
- Languages on devices
- Use captions
- Use teletext
- Learn pronunciation through music
- Follow the local media when abroad
- Watch cartoons
- Read electronic newspapers
- Watch advertisements on TV
- Surf the net
- Children’s books on CD
- Change the language settings
- Listen to native speakers
- Watch soap operas
- Use material from the local library
- Use your mobile phone
- Use computer games
- Watch TV quizzes
Which language to learn? Which is the easiest/hardest?
In general, the more similar a language is to your own in terms of sounds, grammar or vocabulary, the easier you’ll find it to learn.
Different languages pose different challenges for each individual.
For example, you may find vocabulary easier to learn in one language but its pronunciation harder. With another language you may find the opposite.
The world’s most spoken language by total speakers
- English (1,000 million)
- Mandarin (1,000 million)
- Hindi/Urdu (900 milllion)
- Spanish (450 million)
- Russian/Belarusian (320 million)
- Arabic (250 million)
- Bengali/Sylhetti (250 million)
- Malay/Indonesian (200 million)
- Portuguese (200 million)
- Japanese (130 million)
Most widely spoken language by number of native speakers
- Mandarin (1197 million)
- Spanish (406 million)
- English (335 million)
- Hindi-Urdu (260 million)
- Arabic (223 million)
- Portuguese (202 million)
- Bengali (193 million)
- Russian (162 million)
- Japanese (122 million)
- Javanese (84.3 million)
Languages of the internet
An interesting way of looking at the development of international languages is via internet usage.Internetworldstats.com aggregates information from various sources to create a list of the internet’s top languages by number of users.
- English (27.3%)
- Chinese (22.6%)
- Spanish (7.8%)
- Japanese (5.3%)
- Portuguese (4.3%)
- German (4.0%)
- Arabic (3.3%)
- French (3.2%)
- Russian (2.5%)
- Korean (2.1%)
Languages of publishing
UNESCO measures the number of books published by each country per year. Correlating the data for various countries, the British Council gives the following figures:
- English (28%)
- Chinese (13.3%)
- German (11.8%)
- French (7.7%)
- Spanish (6.7%)
- Japanese (5.1%)
- Russian (4.7%)
- Portuguese (4.5%)
- Korean (4.4%)
- Italian (4.0%)
The data are from a couple of years ago but English remains by a long way the number one language of international publishing
How to learn a language
There’s no single universal foolproof method to learn a language. Try different ones and use the one that works for you, or a combination.
Little and often is best. Ten minutes every day tends to be more effective and manageable than a longer session once a week.
Mistakes are part of the learning process. Have a go and you’ll learn much more quickly: most native speakers will already appreciate you making an effort.
Listen to language learning CDs or podcasts during idle times, such as when travelling to work.
Watch TV and videoonline in the language you’re learning. You may not understand much of it but it will help you get used to how the language sounds and, with the help of the visuals, you’ll pick up odd words and phrases.
Write words on post-it notes and stick them around the house.
Say phone numbers out loud, make shopping and other lists or memorise orders in a bar or restaurant.
Repeat activities to consolidate what you’ve learnt.
Visit to a place where you can use the language you’re learning – if anything, it will keep you motivated.
Find a learning partner.
Go back every now and again to something you did early on. You may be surprised at how much you’ve learnt.
How many languages are there?
It’s estimated that up to 7,000 different languages are spoken around the world. 90% of these languages are used by less than 100,000 people. Over a million people converse in 150-200 languages and 46 languages have just a single speaker!
Languages are grouped into families that share a common ancestry. For example, English is related to German and Dutch, and they are all part of the Indo-European family of languages. These also include Romance languages, such as French, Spanish and Italian, which come from Latin.
2,200 of the world’s languages can be found in Asia, while Europe has a mere 260.
Nearly every language uses a similar grammatical structure, even though they may not be linked in vocabulary or origin. Communities which are usually isolated from each other because of mountainous geography may have developed multiple languages. Papua New Guinea for instance, boasts no less than 832 different languages!
Which are the hardest languages to learn?
The ease or difficulty of learning another language can depend on your mother tongue. In general, the closer the second language is to the learner’s native tongue and culture in terms of vocabulary, sounds or sentence structure, the easier acquisition will be.
So, a Polish speaker will find it easier to learn another Slavic language like Czech than an Asian language such as Japanese, while linguistic similarities mean that a Japanese speaker would find it easier to learn Mandarin Chinese than Polish.
Dutch is said to be the easiest language for native English speakers to pick up, while research shows that for those native English speakers who already know another language, the five most difficult languages to get your head around are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
The best way to learn a language
The first language you learn, your mother tongue, usually comes with little conscious effort. If you’re lucky, you might even acquire more than one language in the so-called ‘critical period’ of language learning, believed to end sometime between ages 4-12. After that, it doesn’t come so easy, as you might have found out at school.
Something that might help is finding out about your learning style: are you a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner?
The visual learner might benefit from writing down words and phrases over and over again.
The auditory learner could gain from reading out loud or recording their own vocabulary lists and listen back to them.
The kinaesthetic learner may enjoy learning in a group or using flash cards or anything else that satisfies their hunger for ‘experience’.
Finding what works for you could speed up your language acquisition – or at least make it more enjoyable!