What are your motivations for learning a language?

Today I’m looking at a few different reasons to learn a language, and some of my personal motivations for the languages I’m learning.

  1. For work

Six years ago, my dad’s job decided to relocate him and his family from the UK to Germany. This is a particularly immediate and pressing motivation to learn the language – stat. While there are many countries and cities where you can get by with English in professional life, such as the Netherlands or Belgium; even in a country like Germany where many people speak English, you’ll be at a disadvantage socially and professionally without skills in that language. If this is your motivation to learn, the key is speed and efficiency of picking up the language, and/or focussing on the relevant lexicon. My dad is an engineer for Mars, so his priority was to learn engineering-related vocab to be able to contribute to discussions at work with German-speaking colleagues. Most companies will send you on some sort of training course if they relocate you, and/or recommend you resources to learn the relevant language. These tend to be intensive crash courses that drop you straight in at the deep end with technical or specific vocab. Learning the social side of things might be done through a regular class, e-learning or left up to you to do through books or audio courses.

If moving for work is your motivation, you’ll probably want to

  • Go for a very structured course like Rosetta Stone, one recommended or paid for by your company, or an actual class
  • Focus on the lexical field that relates to your job – be it medical, legal or technical
  • Learn just the basics for conversation and pick up the rest when you get there!
  • Find a mentor or buddy to help you settle in and to offer you support in catching up with the language when you’re there
  1. For job prospects

We all know that speaking a second or third language can boost job prospects, whether you’re thinking of working abroad, want to work in a language-related field like translation, foreign customer support, language teaching or international relations, or you simply want to add impressive communication skills to your CV. The key in this case is to identify your goal: if you’re dead set on working in Spain – get to work on learning spoken Spanish, especially relevant vocabulary for your interests; if you just want to add language skills to your repertoire, then perhaps think of boosting existing language knowledge, or learning a language that is easy to find materials for. If you want to offer a very unusual and lucrative skill – look into learning a globally important language like Arabic, Russian or French.

You’ll probably want to

  • Identify a goal and work towards it
  • Choose a more lucrative and ‘important’ language such as Mandarin, Arabic or improving your English
  • Follow a structured programme to learn grammar and relevant vocabulary in a field you’d like to work in
  • Possibly take a recognised exam in the language to show evidence of your skills
  1. For travel or holidays

This is probably the most common motivation to learn a language and a fun one too. If you’re heading to a country where English isn’t commonly spoken, some basic phrases are a lifesaver. Even if people do speak English, you’d be surprised how popular you’ll be if you can just greet people and carry out simple interactions in the language!

You’ll probably want to:

  • Find an app or online-language program for your chosen language. Choose one that focuses on teaching key vocab and correct pronounciation like uTalk
  • Focus mainly on phrases and basic vocab – don’t sweat it over grammar and advanced language if you don’t think you’ll need it for other purposes
  • Pick up a phrasebook to bring with you
  • Get some conversation practice – find a language buddy or exchange partner, or check out one of the many online language exchange sites that are popping up. You’ll probably want to at least practice basic questions and interactions with a native speaker
  1. For love

Confession time: I am a very unromantic person, but I have a bit of a soft-spot for stories about couples where one or other partner has learned their loved-one’s language. I’m really intrigued by couples who are from very different cultural backgrounds, as I wonder how they manage to resolve all their differences about even simple things such as what to eat for dinner, what time to go out in the evening and how to spend spare time. And how do you decide which language to communicate in? In most cases you probably mainly communicate in whichever language you both speak best, or maybe the language of the country you live in, or where you met.

In my case, this was my motivation for learning Italian, as it’s my partner’s native language. We mainly talk in English because he speaks (much) better English than I do Italian, but it’s still great to be able to understand his language. Oh, and having at least a few languages in common means we can switch to another one if we need to say something in private to one another. This might seem slightly mean – but it can be quite useful! A friend of mine (who I won’t name) has told me that if she and her partner have kids, they won’t teach them their native language ‘so that we can gossip about them behind their backs’ (her words). Worth considering!

Or maybe you’ve actually considered learning another language to get the attention of the object of your affections? Remember the storyline in Love Actually where Colin Firth’s character learns (horrible) Portuguese to be able to ask out his Portuguese housekeeper? This might be just a movie, but I think it’s a really romantic thing to do in real life too. I recently read about a guy who initially caught his Italian girlfriend’s attention by shouting ‘buongiorno principessa’ (if you haven’t seen ‘la vita è bella’, you need to do so now!) at her across their campus, and subsequently learned basic Italian to impress her. It sounds silly, but would probably work on me!

You’ll probably want to

  • Check out the (sometimes quite ridiculous) flirting section on Duolingo for some chat up lines that will at least break the ice, even if they have your crush laughing at you
  • Learn some basic phrases to get a conversation started
  • Learn through speaking and listening

I’ll leave you with a silly but fun video about a friend, Ed, who gets the girl thanks to his excellent Chinese language skills!

Over and out, Alex

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