Patricia is one of our most hard working uTalk challenge participants, learning Basque, Czech, Farsi and Kazakh since January (and let’s not forget Icelandic, Esperanto and Latvian last year)! We can’t wait to hear which language she’ll choose next…
There are many reasons why I love learning languages, including popular ones such as improving my résumé or getting by on a trip (and yes, I’ve got another trip to Iceland lined up, það er spennandi!). However, today I’d like to share with you one reason that is perhaps a little less obvious.
Due to an unexpected flight delay on my way from Pittsburgh, I recently overnighted in Toronto. The airline provided us (wonderful) accommodation in downtown Toronto and I shared a cab ride with two other stranded passengers. The cab driver had a talk radio station on, but it was not in a language I immediately recognized. Curious, I asked the driver which language that was. He told me it was Amharic, one of the languages of Ethiopia. I excitedly told him it was a language that was on my uTalk Challenge list and that I would learn it soon. Promise. He laughed and told me a little about Ethiopia and the Ethiopian community in Toronto. He taught me how to say “Hello” in Amharic and said I was brave to take on a new language every month. He then asked which language I was learning at the moment. I told him I was learning Persian (Farsi) and loving it.
The other two passengers in the cab then turned to me and said “well maybe we can help you then”. I lit up and proudly said “shabetun bekheyr”, “parvaz”, and “ba t’akhir” – “good evening”, “flight”, and “delayed”. They smiled and asked me what else I knew and if I had any questions about the language. And from there on, we talked about the old Persian script, Noruz, the influence of French, various historical events, Persian poets, and many other things. When I had left my house that day, I hadn’t expected to learn so much from people who, up to that taxi ride, were perfect strangers.
And that’s exactly the point: learning languages, even at a rudimentary level, opens you up to the world because it fuels curiosity. I didn’t converse in fluent Persian with my fellow passengers – I just let them know that I was interested in it and the culture and history that surround it (but it was very nice to hear that my pronunciation’s lovely!).
On that night, immersed in the vast multiculturalism of Toronto, I suddenly felt extremely connected to the world. And that’s the feeling I keep seeking over and over again in my language-learning journey. Perhaps it’s one of those “chicken or egg?” things, where it’s unclear whether learning languages opens up your mind or if it’s the curiosity that encourages you to learn languages… but whichever one came first for me, I’m certainly happy they keep feeding off each other.
So go ahead, tackle a new language, just start with a few words – you never know where it’ll take you.
We’re now into the third week of our uTalk Challenge! Over 350 people are taking part and over 40 languages have been chosen to learn! The most popular languages are some of the most spoken ones in the world like Polish, Spanish and Japanese.
Interestingly, we also have some endangered languages chosen. UNESCO publishes a list of the languages that are classed as endangered; there are five different levels, from Vulnerable (most children speak the language but only in restricted places) to Extinct (no one speaks the language anymore). Some of these surprised as me as Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish are all on the UNESCO list. Hawaiian is on the list as ‘critically endangered’, which is one level away from being extinct, due to the speakers of the language being the oldest generation of the family.
When it comes to our uTalk Challenge here are the four of the endangered languages that have been chosen:
There are around 660,000 speakers left of this language and although spoken in Europe it’s not classed as the Indo-European family of languages, potentially due to it being totally unique, with no similarities to any other languages. There are many theories on where the Basque language comes from, but none of these have conclusive evidence. One of our uTalk Challengers, Patricia, is learning Basque and quickly selected ‘garagardoa’ as her favourite word for beer in any language! Find out why in her video.
It is quite clear that Scottish Gaelic is spoken in some parts of Scotland, mainly in the Western Isles. It is one of the three languages in Scotland, with English and Scots also being spoken. Scots is also classed as an Endangered language, but on a lower level than Scottish Gaelic. There are around 60,000 people who speak Scottish Gaelic still. However, across many Scottish schools the introduction of Scottish Gaelic began in the 1980s, with it now being taught across primary and middle schools.
Welsh is Britain’s oldest language, dating back to around 4,000 years ago. Today there are 750,000 speakers; this is around 20% of the Welsh population. Welsh is most popular in the west of the country; however, there is evidence that more schools in Wales are now teaching the language. Within Wales there are two main dialects, North and South Walian. It is hard to establish where these two dialects cross over, as they both have different accents, vocabulary and grammar points. Liz and Nat from the EuroTalk office are learning Welsh for the challenge (in fact Nat’s already completed the app because she’s much better at languages than the rest of us!).
This is one of the six main languages in Senegal. Originally written with an Arabic alphabet, it was then standardised using the Latin alphabet. A lot of Wolof speakers use French loan words when speaking the language, which could be one of the reasons Wolof has become an endangered language. In certain urban areas of Senegal people use a mix of Arabic, French and Wolof but in Gambia they use English words as loan words instead.
Do you speak any endangered languages? Please let us know on Twitter or our Facebook page. Or if you’d like to learn an endangered language, you can find all of the above and more in our uTalk app.
Everyone’s always talking about how useful it is to speak another language – and they’re right, for so many reasons. There’s lots of advice too on how to get started and how to stay motivated when it gets tough. But the first question any aspiring language learner should ask themselves is, ‘Which language do I want to learn?’
Sometimes this is easy, because you’re moving to another country, or you’ve met a new partner who speaks a particular language. Even if this means you end up learning a language most people would consider unusual, to you it has a purpose and that makes it anything but obscure.
But what if you’ve just decided you want to learn a language, because you’ve heard that people with a second language earn more, or that learning a language makes you cleverer, and don’t have a particular one in mind?
At EuroTalk, we offer nearly 140 different world languages. It’s a pretty daunting selection to be greeted with when you’ve just Googled ‘I want to learn a language’ and stumbled on to our homepage, or downloaded the uTalk app. And that doesn’t even come close to the total number of languages spoken in the world. So how is anyone meant to choose one to learn? Do you just close your eyes and point at one?
Well no, we don’t recommend that approach; you could end up with something really fun that way, but at the same time, learning a random language just for the sake of it, when there’s very little chance you’ll ever get a chance to speak it, seems a shame. Half the fun of learning a language is getting to share it with other people.
So here are our recommended criteria for choosing a language:
Number of speakers
Generally, a language with more speakers is going to be more useful to you, because you’re going to have more opportunities to speak it. According to Ethnologue, the top five most spoken languages in the world are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic, with a total of 2.4 billion speakers between them, so knowing one of these languages is going to guarantee you lots of people to talk to.
On the other hand, it depends on your reasons for wanting to learn a language. If it’s to make friends all over the world, one of these five languages will stand you in good stead. But if it’s to improve your employment prospects, bear in mind that you might face more competition if you’ve chosen a popular language. I studied Spanish at university, which is in great demand with employers. But so did lots of other students. We’ve got five people who speak Spanish at EuroTalk – two of them are native speakers (there are less than twenty of us in total, to put that in context) so it’s rare for me to be called on to use my language skills. Something like Portuguese or Japanese, which are still in the top ten in Ethnologue’s list, might offer fewer opportunities but when one comes along, you’re probably not going to face as many rivals for the job.
Where it’s spoken
Another important factor. Firstly, you don’t want to learn a language that’s spoken in a country you never intend to go to, or in which you’ve no interest. Secondly, some languages, like French, Arabic or English, are spoken in many different countries. So if you’re going travelling and want a language you’ll be able to use in more than one place, one of these will be more useful to you. But if travel’s not top of your agenda, this might not be such a big consideration.
Similarity to other languages
Most world languages are organised in families, which means they come from the same root as the other languages in that family. This means often, although you may only speak one language, you can probably at least make yourself understood in another. Hindi and Urdu, for example, are mutually intelligible, as are Czech and Slovak. If you know Spanish, you can make a reasonably decent attempt at Portuguese or Italian, and although you might make a few mistakes, chances are you’ll be understood. I’m not suggesting you should go around speaking the wrong language at people, but if you do make an honest slip-up, or just can’t think of the right word, you’ll probably be ok. I’m fairly sure I spoke quite a bit of Spanish when I was in Italy earlier this year, but everyone seemed to understand what I was getting at.
Some languages, though, don’t have any close neighbours, or indeed any neighbours at all. Basque, for example, is what’s known as a language isolate, as is Korean. This means they don’t belong to a family, but stand alone, so if you’ve chosen one of these languages, it’s worth remembering that it won’t help you with any others.
Partly, this is to do with your travel interests. If you’ve a particular interest in Russia, for example, we’d recommend you learn Russian. But even if you’re not particularly interested in travelling, there are other things to consider. Are you a fan of opera? Maybe give Italian a go. Anime? Japanese. Star Trek? Klingon.
Or maybe you’ve got a particular interest in endangered languages, in which case you might want to learn Cornish or Sardinian, not necessarily for the wealth of communication opportunities it offers, but to help save a valuable world language from extinction.
You know yourself better than anyone. How motivated do you feel? Is this just a passing whim that you’re likely to give up the moment it gets difficult, or are you prepared to stick at it? The fact is, some languages are harder than others, and this is different for everyone, depending on your native language. For Europeans, Dutch is considered quite an easy language to learn, while Mandarin Chinese is very difficult. But someone living in Japan may find Chinese much easier to learn than any European language.
So if you’re living in Europe and intending to learn Mandarin, you’ll need to be pretty dedicated. And if you know you don’t have it in you, it might be better to try something else rather than face disappointment when it doesn’t work out. Nobody’s bad at all languages – you just need to find the right one for you.
If you’re still undecided, and in need of some inspiration, take our quiz – it’s not at all scientific, but might give you some ideas!
If you have any other tips or suggestions for readers trying to choose a language, please share them in the comments.
A quick quiz question for you: what language is spoken in France?
Like many other European countries, the French once spoke a wide range of regional languages and dialects. However, during the Third Republic, the French government made French the only official language, and outlawed use of regional languages such as Breton and Occitan in schools and institutions. The underlying idea of creating national and linguistic unity may have been well-intentioned, but as a result, most of these regional languages are now endangered.
Nowadays, Occitan is spoken by around 1.33% of the population (in the Occitania region in Southern France), whilst Breton is spoken in Brittany by around 0.61% of the population. These languages are recognised by the government, but not considered official languages, and therefore given minimal support and opportunity for use.
The situation is a little more encouraging in Spain, where Basque, Catalan, Valencian and Galician are recognised as co-official regional languages, and a thriving community of native speakers exists in each of these regions.
This rather cool map shows how the areas over which each of these languages is/was spoken has changed over the last 1,000 years.
Over time, due to globalisation, mass media and government drives for national unity, the national languages in Spain, France and many other countries have established dominance and pushed smaller regional languages onto the sidelines. However, there are still communities of native speakers of each of these languages, and many people are passionate about passing on the language and culture of their region to the next generation.
Regional languages are often closely tied to the culture and identity of a region: the Catalonians I know are proud Catalan speakers, and often much of an area’s history, literature, music and so on is written in the regional language. These languages may be small, but they are certainly worth learning and preserving!
In fact, we have produced our Maths, age 3-5 and 4-6 apps in both Basque and Catalan, and uTalk is currently available in Galician, Basque and Catalan. And for anyone interested in regional French languages, why not learn a few phrases for free in Occitan, Breton, Alsatian or Provencal?