For most Americans seriously attempting to learn a second or third language, adopting the mentality of a self-educator or self-directed learner is mandatory, even if it is unconscious: most school districts and colleges do not insist that their students become genuinely proficient in a world language, so students themselves must take the initiative to enroll in classes, study abroad, and otherwise create their own opportunities for language study. Language study is not for everybody. But it is much more fun, interesting, and feasible than most people think.
My own interest in self-education began as an interest in world languages. I started learning Japanese through books, audio, Internet resources, a summer abroad in the Tokyo area, and friendships with native speakers in middle school and high school. My experience learning Japanese and gaining access to Japanese culture was so exciting and opened so many doors that I decided, as I was entering my junior year of high school, to learn French and Spanish as well. I completed eight "years" of the high school language curriculum - French 1 through 4 and Spanish 1 through 4 - in two years, a fact that suggests that highly-motivated high school students can learn languages much more quickly and effectively than the standard curriculum expects them to. In college, I took classes in Japanese (advanced), Italian (high-intermediate), Norwegian (high-elementary), German (reading/translation), and Latin (elementary).
Language study continues to play an important part in my self-education. My current focus is on advanced Japanese, intermediate Chinese, and beginning Polish. I am reading Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, a classic of Japanese literature, one paragraph at a time with help from an online dictionary. I plan to do the same in Norwegian with Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
There is a large, vibrant, and growing online community of language learners - self-educators who have decided, for whatever reason, to take up the study of foreign languages as a hobby, an academic interest, or a career decision. Two particularly recommended websites are Unilang and How to Learn Any Language; I also give the highest recommendation to Barry Farber's book How to Learn Any Language, which was a major inspiration for me. In the near future, this blog will be interviewing Professor Alexander Arguelles, one of the world's foremost language learners - you can read about Professor Arguelles' astonishing accomplishments on his website.
I have always enjoyed reading arguments for learning particular languages, so I've put my own list together of suggested languages for English-speaking high school students, college students, and self-educators of any age who are considering taking up a second or third language.
These are in a very rough order according to how strongly I recommend them for most English-speaking Americans. Should you choose to begin studying another language, your personal needs and interests should be the decisive factors in your decision. The absence of a language from this short list should not be taken to mean that that language or its people and culture are unimportant.
-Chinese. It's by far the most-spoken language in the world; it's not quite as difficult as it looks and seems, as its grammar is fairly simple; and Chinese speakers are spread across the world, with their voices and influence growing very rapidly. From a career perspective, the work opportunities for Americans fluent in Mandarin Chinese are limitless. The economic, political/military, and cultural growth of China has been arguably the single most important historical development of the last few decades.
-Spanish. It is probably the easiest language for native English speakers to learn; the number of native Spanish speakers in the U.S. is outpacing the number of native English speakers; the literary achievements of the Spanish-speaking world are incredible and growing; learning Spanish can help non-Spanish-speaking Americans build their empathy with and connections to the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S.; and students can travel cheaply and easily to Latin America to study, work, and serve as they work to become fluent.
-Arabic. The primary language of the Arab peoples of the Middle East and North Africa as well as around the world, and the language of the religion of Islam. Of enormous importance in the realms of business (think Dubai and oil), religion, and, above all, global peace, understanding, tolerance, and security. Arabic is also the most-spoken language in Africa, followed by Swahili.
-German and French. The languages of many of the most important and impressive works of scholarship, literature, and culture of the Western world. Germany and France, along with the U.K., are also the powers at the heart of the European Union, a major and growing force in world politics and business.
-Russian. The language of the world's largest country, of enormous consequence in the worlds of politics and global security, literature and culture (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tchiakovsky, Shostakovich, and so many others), and business (Gazprom, etc.).
-Hindi/Urdu. The primary language of India and Pakistan - a region of massive and growing importance in the worlds of business (IT and so much else), culture (Bollywood and literature), religion (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism), and global security (India/Pakistan, India/China, Kashmir, nuclear weapons and proliferation).
-Japanese. My adopted second language and the language of one of the most influential countries of the world, especially in the realms of business (automobiles, electronics) and culture (manga, movies, music, literature, food).
-Portuguese. The language of Brazil, home to the 2016 Summer Olympics, the heart of South America, and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. As Brazil continues to grow, the importance of Portuguese as a world language will grow as well.
-Korean. Don't be fooled by Korea's size: visit any U.S. university town or major city, and you will a vibrant community of Koreans. The ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and brilliance of the people of South Korea has made them a major force in global business (automobiles, electronics), scholarship, and culture. Korean history and literature are incredibly rich areas of study that most Westerners remain entirely unaware of. And North Korea continues to present one of the most pressing global security and human rights challenges of our time.
-Italian. One of the most beautiful languages in the world, and the language of an incredibly rich culture. Italian literature and film help to constitute one of the most important cultural traditions in the world. Dante is only the beginning - think Primo Levi, Eugenio Montale, Umberto Eco, and Federico Fellini, for starters.
-Swahili. The primary language of eastern Africa, and an important language to learn for those wishing to connect with, work with, and assist some of the most destitute and voiceless communities on Earth, including the people of Rwanda and the Congo.
-Hebrew, Biblical and modern. The language of the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the "Old Testament") and of the state of Israel. Of enormous importance in politics and peace, culture and literature, and religious studies.
-Norwegian or Swedish. These Scandinavian languages are not too difficult for English speakers to learn, and each of them has a rich and underappreciated literary tradition waiting to be discovered by the curious reader. These countries are also famous for their political systems; they are regularly cited as the countries with the highest standard of living in the world.
-Polish. Polish is very difficult, but Polish literature is one of the most important and least-appreciated literary traditions in the world. I study Polish in the hopes of reading the work of Czeslaw Milosz, my favorite writer, in the original.
-Farsi/Persian. The language of the people of Afghanistan and Iran. Of enormous and growing importance in the world of global security and peace, of culture, and of religion. If the U.S. and the West can achieve a comprehensive peace with Iran, the role of Persian as a world language could grow considerably. In the meantime, studying the language and literature of Iran can serve as a reminder of the common humanity we share with the Iranian people.
-Greek (Attic, Koine, and Modern) and Latin. These "classical" languages were the heart of the education of well-read Westerners for centuries, and they remain popular among high school and college students interested in the humanities. Arguments for learning them include the ability to understand English word roots and the ability to access the classical literary and philosophical traditions (Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Virgil, Cicero, etc.), the New Testament, and the language of Europe and the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in their original language.
-Turkish. Turkey is in many ways the bridge between the West - the U.S. and Europe - and the Middle East. It is an important and often overlooked part of the "equation" of peace and security in its region. And economic growth has elevated Turkey's importance in the global economy.
Feel free to create your own lists, or link to alternative lists, in the comments - I would love to hear others' thoughts.