Many of you have always known which language you wanted to study when you got the chance. But not me. I speak a little Hebrew and some French. I love French, but where I live, there are mostly Spanish-speakers. And they make up most of my private students (not on italki).
So I’m in a quandary (difficult situation). And I hope some of you will give me your opinion. Basically it comes down to this: should I take French that I love or Spanish that would be much more useful (or practical) to me? If you need a certain language for your work, then you don’t have much choice. But you and I both have a choice, and I don’t know which way to go.
So, here are the pros and cons of studying a language that your heart tells you to follow--or the language your mind says is more practical.
If you follow your heart
You’ll make more progress if you take a language you love. As the saying goes -- it will be a labor of love. You probably won’t mind putting in the hours it takes to learn a language because you want to move ahead, and you’ll probably be less shy about speaking.
If you finally get to the point of having a good working knowledge of the language, you’ll be very proud of your accomplishment. And pride in something is very important for the quality of your life.
You’ll enjoy meeting internationals who speak your new language. I bet you’ll enjoy the interaction so much that your confidence will grow more than you imagined when learning your target language.
If there are no people you know who readily speak your language, there are clubs in most places that do. It’s a good place to practice your language skills, and pick up some new friends who share your interest and passion.
If you need your new language for work, you’ll be even more inspired.
With a language you love, ironically, you may not improve so quickly because you don’t see it as much as a challenge. You may end up feeling too relaxed.
You may think you’re mastering more than you actually are. Just because you speak a language that you love doesn’t mean that you’re close to being fluent. You may get very disappointed when you realize how much more there is to learn.
You may not appreciate the culture. While language has some association with it’s culture, you might find them very different. You just may not find the culture to your liking. If you don’t admire -- or you plainly dislike -- the culture’s music, the people’s attitude or behavior, then what do you do? Continue with a language that has lost some of its value for you?
If you follow your mind
If you learn to speak a language where there are many native speakers, you don’t have to search for people who speak the language; many or most people do.
You’ll most likely to be less inhibited about making mistakes if you happen to live in a place where the predominant second language is spoken. Even if you’re not crazy about learning the language, people who do are often happy to correct you and will even encourage you to progress. Please note that some cultures really appreciate when you try to speak their language. Others are impatient with ESL students and are not shy in letting you know. They may stop you in the middle of a sentence or indicate they can speak your native language and would rather do so for the sake of efficiency.
Taking on a language you hadn’t intended to (like me with Spanish instead of French) will demonstrate that you can learn -- and maybe even appreciate -- something you thought would be boring or not useful. If you live in a location where the second language is predominant, or better yet, native, it may be easier to make friends when you’re speaking the language.
Surprisingly you may discover that you love the culture that speaks this language. You may discover that you love the music, the food and most importantly the people.
If you plan on traveling a lot, picking a language that is commonly spoken in the countries you’re thinking of visiting may make it more pleasant to travel to those areas.
If your mind tells you to study the language, but you can’t stand the sound of it, this language may not be a good match for you. This happened to me, in fact, when I lived on a small island in the Mediterranean. When a man asked me if I planned to learn the local language, I said no. He asked why, and I said I don’t like how it sounds. He replied in a frank way, “You’re never going to last here”. I thought that was ridiculous. But he was right. I left only a couple of years later. I know there were other factors, but the language was definitely one of those factors.
If you take the language for practical reasons but don’t really want to study it, you may resent it because you’ve always wanted to study your first choice.
Taking on a language which is widely spoken in your area may impress people, but if your heart’s not in it, you may find it very hard to learn it.
If you’re taking a language because you think it will look good on your resume, that may be true. But afterwards you may regret that you didn’t study the language you really wanted to.
So there you have it. Your heart begs you to take the language you’ve always wanted to; your mind says no! Take the one that you can really use in your life. Either choice is good. It all depends on what you want to get out of it.
Tell me -- which should I take? French, which calls my heart, or Spanish that my mind says, “Just do it”. So, some advice please: what you would do in my situation?
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki tutor in English. She teaches intermediate, upper-intermediate and upper-level students, including advanced and proficient. She has been a writer for national magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and author of The Diary of an American Expatriate. Please visit her website at Chocolate.English.eu.