Studying or dabbling, or both?

Do you think it better to learn many languages to a basic level, to concentrate on a few and learn them in much more depth, or to learn a few languages well, and to learn the basics of others – perhaps many others?

It will probably depend on what you want to do with each language.

In my case I’ve studied nine languages in depth, and speak four of them fluently (plus English), and can get by in the others, more or less. The ones I’ve spent most time on are Welsh, Mandarin Chinese, French, Irish, German, Japanese, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish and Manx, and they’re the ones I know well or fairly well. I’ve been to and/or lived in places where they’re spoken, done courses, and do my best to maintain them and use them whenever I can, especially the Celtic ones and French. I’m also learning Breton and Russian at the moment. I’ve dabbled with quite a few other languages, for trips to other countries, to try different languages courses, and out of interest. I don’t actively maintain them.

Recently I’ve been thinking whether I really want to learn any other languages – there are plenty I’d like to know, but I’m not sure whether I have time to learn them, and to maintain the ones I already know. I’m not interested in learning many languages just for the sake or it. I learn each one for a variety of reasons and don’t tend to get very far it I don’t have much interest in the language itself, and/or in the culture of people who speak it. With Breton I will finish the course I’m working on, but may not continue with my studies, unless I find an aspect or aspects of Breton culture that really fascinate me and/or appeal to me. The same is true of Russian.

As well as learning languages, I also play quite a few musical instruments, particularly guitar, piano, recorders, tin whistles, mandolin and ukulele. I used to play the clarinet, but have played very little since leaving school and have decided to sell it. When I mentioned this to a friend he asked me what other instrument(s) I will buy with the money from the clarinet – I haven’t decided yet whether to concentrate on the instruments I already play, or to do that and to get a new one.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Music.

3 Responses to Studying or dabbling, or both?

  1. Shimmin Beg says:

    For me maintenance is probably the biggest factor. There’s always more languages I’d be interested in learning, for a variety of reasons, but it’s a struggle to maintain them unless you’re getting practice more or less effortlessly, just by getting on with life. Once you have to set aside time specifically to maintain a language (as opposed to doing something you enjoy through the medium of the language), it becomes a bit of a burden and a drain on limited time.

    So for example, I gave up attending a couple of language/culture societies because while the practice was useful, I wasn’t interested in most of the events and didn’t have much in common with other members. I struggle with maintaining Chinese because I haven’t been able to track down material that I’m particularly interested in, so it always feels like study. In contrast, there are a couple of fun podcasts I found that happen to be German; there’s minimal cost to listening to them in place of an English podcast, and because I enjoy the material it’s all quality time.

    There’s also a sort of weighing up: am I actually going to use this language? For example, if you just have one friend that speaks it, then a lot of the time you can’t use it because you’d exclude other people. Or that colleague will move jobs just when you’re getting comfortable conversing. That doesn’t mean it’s definitely not worth it, but worth considering.

  2. Magnus says:

    I’d opt for both/and rather than either/or, i.e. concentrate on a very small handful of languages in depth but also aim for a basic working knowledge of quite a few other languages.

    That’s pretty much how my language study has panned out so far, although I generally start studying a new language with the best intentions of getting totally fluent at it).

    Apart from my native English, Welsh is the only language I speak fluently although my French and German have been reasonably good at times and I can still understand them (especially French) reasonably well in written form and get by in speaking, listening or writing them. To a lesser extent the same is true of Russian (which is currently my no. 1 language of study again) and Spanish. There are quite a few other languages for which I have got some study materials and varying degrees of interest in learning.

    Apart from cases where I have a particular interest in a given culture, or some aspect of it, and want to learn the language (or at least have some acquaintance with it) to deepen my cultural understanding, I am quite fascinated by the way languages work and I particularly like to explore languages which offer new and different features to what I already know.

  3. MadFall says:

    I tend to be initially attracted by the sound of a spoken language. Some attract me a lot others not at all. Welsh attracts enormously, Italian and German not at all, though Dutch does a lot. I also find that this attraction to the sound diminishes a bit the more I get inside the language. Hence, my Dutch is pretty minimal and I want it to stay that way, so as I don’t lose that frisson I get when I hear it. Weird.

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