When I was a university student in Australia in the early 1990s, Japanese was the foreign language to learn. Japan was a major trading partner and tourists from the Land of the Rising Sun were visiting us in droves. After graduating, I found myself a job in a five-star Great Barrier Reef resort, translating for honeymooners. A midnight call to dispose of a baby crocodile (which turned out to be a gecko) finally drove me to end my short-lived hospitality career. So, with an eye to the future, what is the best language to learn today?
Many of us have dabbled in foreign languages at school and university with varying degrees of success. Our choice was influenced by many factors, and it’s true that the popularity of languages can change depending on where you live and the state of world affairs.
It’s widely agreed that if you speak English, Spanish and Mandarin you can navigate the world easily. Whether it’s because they’re the world’s top three spoken languages, or the geographic spread of their native speakers, it’s these three that are currently capturing worldwide attention.
It’s a given that English is the international language, and vital if you wish to be easily understood throughout the world. However, there are more Mandarin speakers than English speakers because of China’s massive population. The majority of Mandarin speakers are in China and Taiwan, but there is also an estimated Chinese diaspora of 40 million worldwide. The rise of China’s economic and political importance this century has seen Mandarin jump to prominence; and nowhere is this more obvious than in Singapore, where it is one of four national languages along with English, Tamil and Malay.
Spanish is the official language of 20 countries and spoken by over 420 million people, mainly in Spain itself and in many South American countries. Mexico has the largest Spanish-speaking population of any country, around two and half times that of Spain. Brazil is Portuguese-speaking, however, because of its colonial history. Spanish is widely spoken in the US due to its large Hispanic population.
If you were wondering about French, it falls just outside the top 10, but as a legacy of French colonial history, it has a wide geographic reach and is the official language of 29 countries.
A true polyglot
Mònica Castellà is fluent in Catalan, Spanish, French, English and Japanese and describes her Mandarin as intermediate. “Although learning languages is useful from a professional point of view, I’ve always thought that speaking different languages is personally very enriching from a cultural perspective,” she says.
“Through the language you get to learn about a culture different from your own. There is no easiest or hardest language. For me, learning a language is always an exciting challenge.
“Your mother tongue helps you to learn similar languages. My mother tongue is Catalan, and I am bilingual in Spanish. This was an advantage when I took French and English (also Indo-European languages). But my mother tongue did not play a role when I learnt Japanese or Mandarin.”
Why is Mandarin so difficult?
For Mònica, the tones and pronunciation are by far the most difficult aspects, she says. The characters (or hanzi) are not as difficult, because she learnt Japanese before taking Mandarin, was already familiar with a large number of characters and was able to write them.
But for most people, including Mònica’s husband Josep M. Mas who is the director of Las Lilas Language School, writing is a stumbling block. “I didn’t learn Mandarin,” he says, “but as with Japanese, which I studied whilst living in Tokyo, the problem is that I cannot check my learning by reading. A Westerner learns through a romanised form of the language that you don’t see when you’re walking down the street.”
Paul Tan from Academ Asia says it is possible to learn basic conversational Mandarin without learning the characters, but you won’t improve beyond intermediate level due to limited vocabulary. “With continuous practice, learners can pick up the characters, but the other challenging aspect is the sentence structures which are quite different from other languages.”
He estimates that an adult will take two to three years to attain basic proficiency, but to progress to native fluency can take up to seven years of practise based on at least six hours of study a week.
Indeed, the characters are so complex that many Chinese are themselves losing fluency in character recall, relying instead on computer spelling programmes – much like English speakers who fall back on spell-check and grammar functions.
UNESCO estimates: “If nothing is done, half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century. With the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.”
Is Spanish straightforward?
As a Romance language, Spanish is based on the same foundations as French and Italian, and has its roots in Latin. Despite some similarities, English is a Germanic language.
Josep says the difficulties in learning Spanish are the same as with other Romance languages: verb tenses, inflections and accents. Obviously, it being a roman script language helps. He remarks: “Being bilingual (in Catalan and Spanish) was definitely an advantage for me when I was learning English, Italian and German.”
No two individuals learn in the same way, however. Josep says it’s difficult to estimate how long it takes to reach proficiency. A student learning a language on a one-to-one basis may well advance faster than another who is being taught in a group. “The configuration of the group – meaning the number of students in the group; their interest in learning the language; whether they already are speakers of another foreign language – also plays an important role,” he says.
An adult learner will also pick up the language faster if they’re studying it for social or professional reasons, such as an immigrant who needs to improve fluency in order to climb the social or career ladder.
How to choose?
In his blog, American John August (johnaugust.com) suggests the following six questions to ask when choosing which language to learn:
• Number of people who speak it worldwide
• Usefulness in daily life
• Usefulness in international business or travel
• Availability of media in that language
• Applicability to future language learning
• Economic power of native speakers
Children living in Singapore generally have the opportunity to learn one or more languages apart from their mother tongue, and everyone we spoke to highlighted the importance of starting from a young age.
Most international schools offer Mandarin, but the Stamford American International School also offers Spanish. About 60 percent of students choose Mandarin. Both languages are taught daily and Mandarin is offered as an immersion programme, where 50 percent of class time is dedicated to English and the other half to Mandarin. The teachers say this enables students to develop language skills at a faster pace.
“When it comes to deciding, we suggest families consider any prior study and ability in a language; the family culture and background; plus the expected transition from Singapore,” commented superintendent Malcolm Kay from SAIS. “That said, many families choose to study Mandarin because of the unique opportunity that Singapore provides for students to practise the language locally.”
Learn as an adult, or as a child?
Paul says children can pick up the pronunciation, or tones, at a faster rate than adults as they tend to mimic sounds better. “Adult learners have a tendency to use the rules of their first language to acquire languages. So sometimes ‘unlearning’ the rules of the first language and learning like a child is more efficient,” he explains.
“Children also seem to learn better with repetition and visual aids, while adults tend to learn Mandarin via authentic scenarios, with the addition of more complex sentences and vocabulary.”
Josep says children tend to acquire languages in a natural way. “Given the right circumstances, they learn much faster than adults.” When his family moved to Japan from Madrid, their children, then aged five and seven, spoke hardly any English and no Japanese. Catalan was their mother tongue and they’d been schooled in Spanish.
“After barely three months at an international school they were both able to communicate in English and Japanese, and by the end of the academic year my older child was fluent in English and had developed the optimum level of Japanese required by the school,” he says.
Students at the Stamford American International School develop their language skills at a fast pace because of the commitment to daily language lessons. Constant exposure and native teachers means children develop as fully bilingual speakers with a global perspective and cultural understanding.
But Mònica has the last word: “The best way is to learn is to practise as much as you can! Having said that, the student’s attitude and the method of teaching are also essential in learning a language – or any other subject, for that matter.”
* Catalan is spoken by over 11 million people. It is the official language of Andorra and is also spoken in Eastern Spain, in Southern France and in a coastal area of the island of Sardinia.
Where to Learn?
Academ Asia School of Language and Education
Personal, group or online learning in Mandarin from introductory to advanced levels. Business-specific programmes also cover Chinese culture and business etiquette. Corporate training and in-house programmes are available.
Mandarin and English classes for children aged six months to 12 years including total immersion classes, tutoring in the primary school syllabus and intensive holiday programmes.
Las Lilas School
The first school exclusively focused on teaching Spanish language and culture. Las Lilas offers group (five to 10 students) and private classes for children aged two years and above, and adults. Students are encouraged to read magazines, watch films and participate online to “live the culture”. Two-hour classes are available Mondays to Saturdays in the mornings, at midday and in the evenings.
Stamford American International School
The brand new campus features world-class academic and athletics resources. Daily language instruction commences from nursery, and is offered in a choice of Spanish or Mandarin. All aspects including reading, writing and speaking are covered, with a special focus on celebrations and festivals to promote cultural understanding. Visit the new campus on open day, 7 September.
Editor’s note: The BBC has a fabulous website devoted to languages that’s packed with useful information. bbc.co.uk/languages/