2016-12-31

Choosing a second language (for an English speaker)

I have been dabbling in foreign language study for a few years and this has led me to ponder what makes a good second language. I published some previous thoughts on the subject in 2013, 2014, and 2015. The relentless march of bad news over the last few years has soured my attitude, though, and I find it increasingly difficult to make allowances for the external problems of various languages. I have updated my 2020 chart to reflect these increasing concerns. It is harder today to argue for any Asian or semi-Asian (Turkish, Russian) language.

2020 Estimate
Language Pop.(m)/FSI Ratio Problem
English 748.7 / 00 = ...
Spanish 412.0 / 24 = 17.17 ...
Mandarin 1448.2 / 88 = 16.46 totalitarian
Portuguese 215.5 / 24 = 8.98 recession
Malay 207.1 / 36 = 5.75 religion
French 123.8 / 24 = 5.16 ...
Russian 188.1 / 44 = 4.28 totalitarian
Hindi 150.3 / 44 = 3.42 English
German 96.7 / 30 = 3.22 ...
Italian 62.0 / 24 = 2.58 ...
Arabic 224.2 / 88 = 2.55 religion
Turkish/Azeri 103.6 / 44 = 2.35 totalitarian
Dutch/Afrikaans 37.2 / 24 = 1.55 ...
Japanese 124.3 / 88 = 1.41 xenophobia
Persian 61.9 / 44 = 1.41 religion

I have spent a lot of time with Mandarin Chinese. Sometimes I pursue things simply because I expect them to be hard. I thought Mandarin tones and characters would present an extended challenge. Tones turned out to be less of a problem than I expected. The characters are a challenge, but not of difficulty, simply of time and tedium. In the end, though, it is the grammar that worries me the most. There are so many elisions, so many places where a listener is encouraged to "fill in the blanks," that I feel the language suffers for lack of clarity and precision. This conclusion was reinforced by the post "Is English more logical or precise than Chinese Mandarin?" Added to these linguistic issues is a growing chorus of voices that tell me that mainland China is becoming less attractive as a place to do business, to retire, or even to visit. Attitudes are changing in the government and on the street. See, for example, Bill Bishop on leaving China (podcast), Growing Nationalism in China (video), China is my Favourite Restaurant! (video), and China's Great Leap Backwards (James Fallows in The Atlantic).

Russia and Turkey also have political problems. Authoritarian governments have sufficiently isolated their populations and made those countries increasingly unsafe for outsiders. This is depressing. I visited the west coast of Turkey in 2014, shortly before the Syrian refugree crisis became headline news, and my experiences were very positive. However, every political story from Turkey in the past two years has eroded my interest in returning there. In addition, all Muslim-dominated languages experience a problem with religious extremism. How can there be peace or prosperity in any society built on a violent medieval ideology? Any type of ethnic or class dispute will eventually metamorph into religious violence, and then there are no limits on the level of injury or destruction. Turkey could have been an exception: a nominally Muslim but secular state that could exert a liberal influence on its neighbors. (See How Turkish Soap Operas Took Over The World.) The policies of the AKP have derailed that vision. I worry that post-coup measures will destroy the very culture that has made Turkey and Turkish media so interesting. Does Erdoğan care that if he is successful, he will snuff out the spark of Atatürk's revolution and he will end up as just another despot, holding power over an unhappy population by military force? We may soon look back on the last decade as Turkey's Golden Age.

I suspect that Japanese is capable of more precision than Chinese, but I need to do more research. Japanese has a prolific media market: film, anime, manga, and books. Japan would be a fascinating place to visit. Anthony Bourdain's favorite country is Japan. Japan has some serious problems though. Their culture suffers from xenophobia at multiple levels: If you don’t feel accepted in Japan, join the far-from-exclusive club. Its population is aging faster than any other country on the planet, probably due to the ridiculous work hours and broken social relations. Japan may be the most exotic of the developed countries, but once the novelty wears off, its seems like it would be a depressing place to live.

Hindi is a national language of India, a thriving democracy with a strong economy, but it has a weak publishing environment because Indian authors often publish in English. Also, some Indian states are actively hostile to the imposition of Hindi as a national language. India does have one of the largest film industries in the world, although as a matter of taste, I just do not like Indian vocal music. India has significant levels of poverty which limits its utility for employment. If you imagine learning Hindi to go work in India, consider that you are going to be competing against more than 420 million native speakers with a lower average standard of living. At the same time, many educated Indians are going to the USA or Europe or the Persian Gulf for better pay. That would not get my hopes up. Another risk is the dispute over Kashmir where India faces two nuclear powers.

Most European languages avoid problems of religion or ideology and they tend to be much easier than Asian languages. I like the colonial Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, and French) for their relative ease and wide geographic distribution. I have found that even after years of intermittent study, I still struggle with the problem of categorical hearing in both French and Spanish. At a subconscious level, many sequences of sounds in those languages tend to get reinterpreted as English sequences and interfere with fluid recognition. I have been thinking about trying Italian because it has much less liaison of vowel sounds than the others. I have not evaluated Portuguese in those terms, but Brazil's 2014-2016 recession and political problems have severely tarnished the luster of their language.

The other choices are Germanic languages, primarily German and Dutch. Germany does have low unemployment and free higher education for qualified applicants. I worry about the level of social cohesion now under the pressure of mass Syrian immigration though. I also think that German and Dutch and Scandinavian cultures are just too close to my own culture to keep me occupied. The Mediterranean lands of wine and olives are inherently more interesting than the northern lands of beer and sausage. That sounds very superficial, doesn't it? It is still true that Germanic Europe has less healthy cuisine except for imports like chicken tikka masala or rijsttafel.

In summary, western European languages have obvious appeal, and former colonial empires make French, Spanish, and Portuguese excellent travel languages. Asian languages have greater levels of political or religious risk, which makes it harder to invest time in them. The overall size of the Mandarin-speaking population is tempting, but there is so much uncertainty. Will the mainland becoming more closed to foreigners? If one discounts the mainland population due to political or pollution concerns, the interesting population shrinks to perhaps 27 million speakers in Taiwan and Singapore. Taiwan is a fascinating place that blends cultural elements of China and Japan with modern technology, but then there are the political questions. How aggressive will the PRC act towards Taiwan, Japan, and various China Sea nations? I don't know how to judge that. Is it worth the risks to you?