The introvert’s guide to choosing a foreign language

Pretty writing
This probably isn’t in a foreign language, but I can’t read cursive so it may as well be.

You want to learn a foreign language, and you’re an introvert.

You don’t need me to point out the irony. There are a maximum of five people in the world you actually want to talk to and they’re all people you’re close to. In other words, they all speak your language.

Okay, I pointed it out. I’m like that.

I’m not laughing at you. I totally understand. I’m an introvert and I don’t even want to talk to anyone in English, yet over the years I’ve attempted to learn at least six foreign languages. As a result, I am currently fluent in one, English. (In case you’re wondering, yes, it is my native tongue.)

The first step in learning a foreign language is deciding what language you want to learn. In this post I’m going to talk about the critical factors that should determine your decision.

1. The prettiness of the printed writing

Clearly you have no intention of speaking to anyone in your new language, which means you’re likely to spend a lot of time reading it. One of your top priorities should thus be choosing a language that looks awesome. Because let’s face it, some languages when they’re written might as well be English, whereas others look totally kick-ass.

Any language written in the Roman alphabet (English letters, that is) automatically loses points. Yes, vowels with hats and kites and horns are marginally cooler than naked vowels, but you can’t honestly tell me they’re half as cool as writing like this:

Unusual script
Elvish? Infinitely cooler than abcde.

2. The ubiquity of speakers

A rookie mistake made by many language learners is picking a language spoken by a lot of people who live in their area.

Picture this situation. You’re at a party, already uncomfortable enough, and you end up alone in a conversation with a person you don’t know. You make small talk: isn’t the rain torrential? Isn’t the music like screeching monkeys? And then you run out of things to say. Panic.

He asks what your hobbies are. In a moment of desperation, you blurt, “I’m learning Scoobylanguage.”

His eyes ignite. “Really? That’s my native language!” He then proceeds to talk to you at length in Scoobylanguage, which you find totally incomprehensible. Your whole body flushes and your heart races like a hunted rabbit.

You have two options. You can say, “I think there’s a fire in the kitchen,” and when he turns to look, run away. Or you can laugh and say in your best Scoobyaccent, “Sorry, I’m not very good at Scoobylanguage yet.”

Sorry, three options. You can just run away, but he might think you’re weird.

Even better is to never get into this situation at all. You can accomplish this by not going the party in the first place (I mean, what were you thinking?). Alternatively, you can learn a language spoken only by a hundred people who live in the depths of the South American rainforest, all of whom are over the age of sixty. Do this and I guarantee you’ll never have to fake a kitchen blaze.

The best way to minimise the risk of meeting a native speaker is to choose a dead language. On the slim chance you do accidentally travel back in time, you’ll have bigger problems than linguistics. Like dragons.

The guy at the pub is unlikely to be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics.

3. Usefulness as a secret language

You’re an introvert, not a sociopath (hopefully), so you do have those five friends you enjoy talking to. What if you could talk to them in public and be certain no one nearby was eavesdropping on your conversation? The idea gives me tingles.

If you both learn a foreign language, it saves you all the effort of having to make up your own language. Then, voila! Secret conversations.

Not so fast. What many rookie language learners fail to realise is that a lot of languages are similar enough to English that a casual eavesdropper will be able to pick up the gist of your conversation. Some people will tell you this is a good thing because it makes learning the language easier, but they don’t understand.

You’re much better off learning a language as dissimilar to English as possible, and with few loan words. Then you can be sure your secret conversations are really secret.

The Jungle Book in Dutch
Dutch works poorly as a secret language.

4. Impressiveness factor

Foreign languages are cool and you know it. What you might not realise is that the coolness goes up exponentially with the uselessness of the language.

Your friends will be impressed if in a casual conversation you slip in a comment like, “or as you’d say in French, [insert pithy remark in French].” They’re your friends, so they’re obliged to be impressed.

But anyone, even a person who considers you pond slime, will be impressed if you can slip into a conversation, “or as you’d say in Swahili, [insert pithy or even lame remark in Swahili – it’s guaranteed no one will know which it is].”

They’ll be so impressed that you’ll have fulfilled your conversation obligation for the rest of the evening, maybe even the week. As a fellow introvert, I know how happy that will make you.

Basically, the more obscure a language, the more points you get for speaking it.

Mongolian entry on the Alaskan ground squirrel
Read all about the Alashan ground squirrel in Mongolian. (Do you think they mean “Alaskan”?)

Now that you’re equipped with this information, it’s time to go out and select the most beautiful language that not a soul in your country will understand. Let me know how it goes, and stay tuned for my tips on the most efficient ways to study your chosen language, coming sometime before 2019 (probably).

Have you tried to learn a foreign language? What criteria did you use to select your language? With the gift of hindsight, what criteria should you have used? Have you ever had to fake a kitchen fire?

One you’ve chosen what language to learn, you might find these tips on how to study it useful.

By popular demand, you can now sign up to either get each of my blog posts by email (= two emails a week), or to get my monthly update (= one email a month). How exciting! I will love you if you do either, and even more if you do both.

Postscript: Please don’t think I’m callous for posting this lighthearted piece in light of what’s happening in America. Even here in New Zealand we’re reeling and apprehensive about what the future might hold for the US and the world. But this blog is a politics-free zone, so I’ll leave it at that.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

11 thoughts on “The introvert’s guide to choosing a foreign language”

  1. Hahaha, this is a delightful post. I love languages! I have tried to learn a whole bunch of them and I’ve definitely by now forgotten most of what I learned. I totally relate to point number 1. because I love anything with an impossible, squiggly alphabet. I’ve studied Japanese, Chinese and Russian simply because they look crazy. Korean is on my list for the same reason, although I probably shouldn’t try to learn languages that I have no real use for. The languages I actually know how to speak are Finnish, English, and German because I come from a small, insignificant country where learning at least one foreign language is an absolute must if you ever want to get out of there. What were the six languages you tried to learn? Six is an impressive number.

    Thank you for keeping your blog non-political. I’m also shocked by the US happenings, but I also want to stick to writing-related topics in my blog and social media.

    1. I love languages too! I’m really jealous that you speak three. I come from a small, insignificant country too, but (un)fortunately we mainly speak English.

      What do you mean you shouldn’t learn languages you have no real use for? That’s just silly talk! 🙂

      I knew someone would challenge me to remember what languages I’ve tried to learn. Okay – Mandarin Chinese, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French (kind of). The number may be be impressive, but how much I can speak of them isn’t.

      1. Yay, Mandarin Chinese and French are on my “tried to learn but can’t speak” list as well. Hebrew appeals to me because of the bizarre alphabet, but I don’t know anything about that language. Don’t worry about not being fluent. It’s commendable for an English speaker to be so interested in other languages and I know it’s insanely difficult to pick up a language if you don’t hear it spoken on a daily basis. I only managed to learn German because I live in Germany.

  2. Haha 😀

    I know you weren’t serious, but it’s still quite an interesting perspective. I never really thought about what it must be like for a native English speaker to choose and learn a foreign language. Mostly because it’s not a very common thing for English native speakers in general I think.

    I never had the choice to decide whether or not I’d want to learn English. I had to. Like everyone else in Europe, and most parts of the world I guess. Not that it’s a bad thing 🙂 For A-Levels we have to choose a third language in 7th grade. Back than the choice was between French and Latin. I took Latin, never regretted it 🙂

    On a different note… The remark about the kitchen fire is funnier than you might have intended 😀 The language in the first picture is German, and it shows part of a recipe for roast hare with vegetables… for some reason 7 – 9 loin ribs seem to play a part in it too. 😀 Useless fun fact: The script itself is called Kurrent.

    1. Sometimes I wish I grew up in Europe (I almost did, actually) and was expected to get fluent in foreign languages at school. My understanding is that most English speakers study a foreign language at high school for a few years, and come away not being able to speak it at all. Hence the jokes about high school French. My high school traditionally offered French, German and Japanese, and then it started to offer Chinese. I started teaching myself Latin when I was sixteen just because I loved it.

      Oh, so it’s not in English! Now I feel less dumb for not being able to read it. (I found that one online – the others are pictures from my library.) That is hilarious! Roast hare with vegetables and loin ribs – sounds pretty good.

      1. The sad truth is, though, that you’d probably still only be fluent in your native language and English depending where in Europe you grew up. ‘High school French’ is a common phenomenon here as well – but I’ve heard the problem rather is that the French you learn in school isn’t exactly close to the one that’s actually spoken in France. But than again a country where a different language is spoken always is just around the corner so there’s plenty of opportunity. I’m at the moment trying to learn Dutch, simply because the Netherlands are just around the corner and you hear people speaking it all the time 🙂

        Either way, you’ll be hard pressed to find a language with the same, self re-enforcing, pay-off English has. It’s not just that there’s sooo much more information available in English, like say: the English wikipedia that’s way larger than all others, or Newspapers, Magazines, Scientific research, etc., it’s entertainment like books, films and TV shows, youtube, twitter, social media and the opportunity to make friends all over the world… that really really seduces you to learn English rather than any other language. Yes there are other cultures with interesting languages and an interesting history and so on, but “unfortunately” you don’t really need to learn their languages to enjoy what these cultures have to offer, since you’ll always find someone from that culture to communicate in English with or things get translated anyway. The temptation simply isn’t the same 🙂

        That being said, since everyone wants to learn English, native speakers have a tremendous introvert friendly advantage: People will always want to find native speakers for language tandems. In fact, you guys are so rare a “commodity” in language tandem programs that you have free choice of how, with whom and what you want to learn. People would still flock around you if you’d say you’d only communicate via massages in a bottle 😉

        Sorry for being so chatty today.

        1. I can see the huge attraction to learning English, but I didn’t realise communication by message in a bottle was an option. From now on, I think that will be my sole way of talking to people. 🙂

  3. I’m learning French currently because I’m living here, but the small talk issue is awesome! Years ago I was living in Spain, but due to work was in France. A guy tried to speak to me in a bar in French, so I told him I only spoke Spanish (my Spanish was basic at best). He then switched to fluent Spanish, followed by English when I looked completely horrified. No way out. I should have gone with ancient Egyptian.

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