If you live in the United States, learn Spanish before any other second language.
Many people who are drawn to foreign languages are immediately drawn to the exotic ones.
I once met a young woman who—for her first foreign language—decided to learn Estonian.
The young woman lived in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I don’t mean to insult any Estonians who might happen to be reading this. But there are only about 1.1 million native speakers of Estonian at present. And almost none of them live anywhere near Cincinnati, Ohio. (Estonia is a northern European country that was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.)
Oh, and Estonian is difficult. Estonian nouns and adjectives decline in fourteen cases.
Why would you want to put yourself through that from the get-go, for a language spoken by 1.1 million people who don’t live near Cincinnati, Ohio?
Some language-learners, in their desire to be “exotic” overlook the obvious.
I know that I’ve kind of picked a straw man with my example, Estonian (though I really did meet a young woman who decided to learn it, for no reason that either of us could discern).
Many language learners are flocking to Mandarin. I have nothing against Mandarin. It can be a very useful language.
But we’re talking here about the first foreign language you actually learn well. (No those two years of high school French don’t count, if you can’t actually function in French.)
Are you sure you want to start with Mandarin? Because Mandarin, as anyone who has mastered it will tell you—is hard.
Here’s an obvious, and (I think) commonsense suggestion: If you live in the United States, learn Spanish before you learn any other foreign language.
Why? Let’s start with the most obvious reason, and work our way down:
1.) Spanish is the unofficial second language of the United States.
There is a lot of controversy right now about the issue of “official English”, and I’m not going to address that here—not very much, anyway. Suffice it to say that I believe everyone who desires long-term residency in the United States should learn English.
But I don’t feel the need to politicize absolutely every decision I make. From a practical perspective, a lot of Spanish is spoken in the United States.
I’m sure you’ve encountered one of those automated telephone menus (perhaps when calling your insurance company) where a recorded voice says, “por favor, oprima numero dos para español.” I would be willing to bet you have never encountered a telephone menu in the U.S. in which a recorded voice has prompted you to press two for Estonian. You get my point.
Depending on how you tally up the numbers, there are between 50 and 60 million native Spanish-speakers in the United States.
That’s right: 50 to 60 million. That number is larger than the entire population of many European countries. The United States has more Spanish-speakers than any other country in the world, save Mexico.
With so many native Spanish-speakers in the United States, the odds are very good that you’re going to encounter one, sooner or later.
And probably more than just one.
As I’ve mentioned, I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. And I hear Spanish spoken practically everyday.
Go to Miami, Florida, or El Paso, Texas, and you can spend the whole day speaking Spanish with people. I probably don’t need to point out that there is no city in the United States where the same can be said about Estonian.
2.) Spanish-speakers are open to speaking their language with you.
In my long experience, not all native speakers are equally open to speaking their language with English-speaking language learners.
Germans are among the snootiest in this regard. (In defense of the Germans, many of them speak fluent, or highly proficient, English.)
The Japanese have a reputation for being suspicious of non-Asians who speak Japanese—regardless of how well the Japanese person in question happens to speak English. Young Koreans of the professional class are so eager to practice their English with you (it’s a big thing in Korea), that few of them have an interest in wasting the opportunity by speaking Korean, even if your Korean is serviceable.
Spanish-speakers are extremely open, however, to speaking Spanish with you—once you’ve advanced to a level where you can actually hold a decent conversation.
I recently met a young woman from Venezuela. (Like many Venezuelans, her life was overturned by the bumbling mismanagement of that country’s socialist government.)
When it became clear that she spoke only minimal English, I addressed her in Spanish. (My Spanish is pretty good, having studied the language for more than thirty years, and having used it extensively in Mexico.)
My Venezuelan interlocutor didn’t miss a beat. She didn’t even comment on the fact that I spoke Spanish. She just continued our conversation in that language.
Does this mean that native Spanish-speakers are inherently nicer than native-speakers of Japanese and German? Wow, that’s a question that could earn me some hate mail. While there are doubtless readers who would make that argument, I attribute the openness of the native Spanish-speaker to a less contentious factor: Spanish, like English, is a major world language.
When we meet a person from Sweden, South Korea, or Taiwan who speaks English, we aren’t exactly shocked. This is because English is both widely spoken and widely studied. Few of us will even comment on the fact that the nonnative speaker has addressed us in English. We just continue the conversation as if nothing unusual were taking place.
And so it is with Spanish. Spanish has been an international language for centuries. (More on that shortly, as it relates to Americans.) Spanish is the official language of twenty countries. There are, at present, slightly more native Spanish-speakers in the world than native English-speakers, in fact.
English still trumps Spanish as a lingua franca that people learn as a second language. But many people around the world who weren’t born to it do learn it, nonetheless. Around 21 million people—twice the population of Greece—study Spanish worldwide.
While people do study German and Japanese, the numbers aren’t anywhere near that large.
This means that there is nothing particularly unusual about a nonnative speaker of Spanish who nevertheless has some proficiency in the language. Hence the openness of native Spanish-speakers to communicating with us in their language.
3.) Spanish is (comparatively speaking) easy for native English-speakers to learn.
Have you ever tried to learn Arabic, Korean, or Mandarin? Those languages are hard to learn if your native language is English.
Spanish is comparatively easy. Spanish is a Romance (Latin-based) language. English also has significant Latin roots, both through Latin itself, and also through Norman French.
Spanish shares many cognates with English. This means that you already know quite a few Spanish words: crisis, plaza, región, tropical, and many, many others.
Spanish grammar has a few tricky aspects—like gendered nouns, and the subjunctive verb tense. But these are nothing like the mind-bending contortions you’ll face when learning Arabic grammar, for example.
Spanish pronunciation requires some practice to master. It is still a foreign language, after all. There are a few unusual sounds, like the double-l, or elle (ll) and the n with tilde (ñ). But these are cakewalks compared to the tones of Chinese or Thai, for example.
4.) There are plenty of learning materials available.
Remember that number: 21 million students of the Spanish language worldwide. This means that the study of Spanish has become an industry—not on the level of smartphones or automobiles, but large enough to produce some economic incentives for publishers.
Visit Amazon, my favorite bookstore, and you’ll find no end of books, audio courses, and flashcards designed to help you learn Spanish. And more are constantly in production. Because publishers know that the market for Spanish learning materials isn’t going anywhere.
Ah, capitalism!…or capitalismo in Spanish.
5.) Spanish has a long history in the United States.
Spanish colonization of the Americas began in the 1500s. While much of this occurred south of our borders (in present-day Latin America), there are huge swaths of the United States that used to be Spanish territory. At one point, New Spain covered most of the present-day United States west of the Mississippi, plus Florida.
As you study the Spanish language (and American history), you’ll learn that many U.S. states (Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, etc.) have Spanish names. Ditto for many U.S. cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and so on. This is because of these places’ long association with Spain (and later Mexico, in many cases).
If you live in the United States, and you’re motivated toward language learning, there is simply no reason not to learn Spanish.
When people begin the study of a foreign language, one of the first questions that often arises is, “Will you actually use that?”
If you’re studying Spanish, you can answer unequivocally in the affirmative. You will almost certainly have a chance to use your Spanish.
Spanish, all things being equal, offers the best effort-to-rewards ratio of any foreign language for the native English-speaker living in the United States.
Learn it first, unless you have an immediate and compelling reason to start with some other language.