Hey fellow language learners! Welcome to Cultured Simplicity– a language learning site for creatively inclined aspiring multi-linguists. If you’ve clicked on this article, then you must be in the process of making a very big decision. One you’ll need to commit to for years to come.
You’re getting married! Just kidding… it’s probably too soon in our acquaintanceship for me to be cracking jokes. You might not be tying the knot, but you’ve made the decision to learn a whole new language. But not just any language. An Asian language.
If you didn’t already know this, most Asian languages are among the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. Well, I won’t say “hard,” they’re just typically more time consuming when trying to reach fluency. This is by no means said to scare you. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
But don’t start having second thoughts now. I want you to join me in my Asian language learning journey. It’ll be kinda lonely without you. Plus, by learning an Asian language, you’ll be finally opening yourself up to the other half of the world. Unless you’re from Australia, chances are your contact with the eastern hemisphere has been limited at best.
I know mine sure was before I started learning Vietnamese. If I’m being totally honest with you, I was even a bit ignorant. Basically the epitome of the American stereotype according to the rest of the world. All I knew about Asian culture was what I either saw on the media or learned about in History class.
So… basically nothing.
I feel like in the United States, we know more about the continents of Europe, South America, Australia, and North America (duh) than we do about Asia and Africa. And I do believe this is due to the imbalance between developing countries and developed countries– also known as third-world and first-world countries.
Personally, I think this issue is significantly more profound with Africa, but that’s a discussion for another time. The 3 Asian languages that English speakers typically tend to flock to– Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean– come equipped with economic benefits.
China is basically the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, Japan is the only Asian country considered to be “high-income,” and South Korea has experienced dramatic growth in industrialization that has allowed it to achieve a pretty high level of prosperity. But I may be getting a bit ahead of myself here; I’ll save the rest of the things you should consider for the actual article.
In today’s post, I’ll only be addressing questions to ask yourself before learning an Asian language. Because I myself am learning an Asian language and genuinely only consider myself to be adequately knowledgable in my understanding of languages from that continent.
I’ll apologize in advance for not directly addressing each language you could possibly learn that’s spoken in Asia. But since Asia is home to about 4.46 billion people speaking nearly 2,300 languages, I’m sure you can forgive me.
Plus I have a pretty good idea of what languages you’re actually debating about learning. After a lot of internal debating, I decided not to include Russian as one of the Asian languages I’ll be addressing.
Although the language is spoken in Central Asia, Russian was not only born in Europe but is the largest native language in Europe. So it would more adequately fit in a list of questions you should ask yourself before learning a European language. If that’s a let-down, I’ll make it up to you by helping you score 25% off Lingualift’s immersive program for Russian. Just use the code courage to get your limited-time discount.
As for the main languages I’ll be addressing today, I used a pretty powerful tool to find the most popular languages English speakers are learning. Alright, I used Duolingo. So here’s a run-down of the Asian languages I’ll be attempting to include in the background knowledge to the questions below.
Most popularly learned Asian languages ranked:
*According to Duolingo*
- Hebrew (native to Israel if you weren’t aware)
So those are all the languages Duolingo teaches… but I think they’re just a bit exclusive. Innovative Learning also includes courses for Thai, Urdu, Malaysian, and Filipino (similar to Tagalog), so I’ll be trying to include them as well.
Trying to decide where or not you even want to learn an Asian language in general? Then check out 7 questions to ask yourself before learning an Asian Language. No need to go into this journey blind!
Which category is the language in?
This question is first because I do believe it may be the most important question just after your personal reason for learning the language. If your fiance is Japanese and that’s why you’re considering learning Japanese then I’m not going to tell you to choose another language simply because it’s easier.
That’s dumb. Personal reasons trump all these questions. If you’re part Turkish and want to connect with your roots, then I’m not going to tell you not to learn Turkish. If that’s your motivating factor, then I think that’ll push you along better than any “category definition” will.
But before I get ahead of myself here, what are language categories? According to the Foreign Service Institute, a language’s category illustrates the time usually required for a student to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in the language, or a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale.
These timelines are based on what the FSI has observed as the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom.
Some websites list 5 categories, some list 4. The above site lists 4, but I prefer the list that categorizes languages by 5 difficulty levels; as I believe they better reflect time expectancies for certain languages. For the sake of this post though, I’ll be sharing the 4-category list, as that’s the list that is federally used.
I have the whole list of all languages on my home page, but here’s the list of Asian languages alone.
Category 1 (24-30 weeks/ 600-750 class hours): No Asian languages are considered to be similar enough to English to reside in this category.
Category 2 (Approximately 36 weeks /900 class hours):
Category 3 (Approximately 44 weeks/ 1100 class hours):
Category 4 (88 weeks /2200 class hours):
- Chinese – Cantonese
- Chinese – Mandarin
So there you have it. If you’re planning to learn any of the super mainstream Asian languages, they’re all category 5— so it’ll take you just about as long to learn any of them. I will tell you though that Japanese is officially considered the hardest language for English speakers to learn.
Thai, Mongolian, and Vietnamese are considered to be the hardest category 4 languages. So you can expect to take a little longer than the “expected” times for these. Whether this is or isn’t what you wanted to hear, at the end of the day, the time commitment you’re making to a language should be one of the biggest things you consider before deciding.
If you’ve never learned a language before, like not in school or anything, then maybe you should consider trying out one of the “easier” languages first. Just to get your feet a little wet. But only try out a language you actually want to learn.
For those of you aspiring to be a polyglot, definitely consider the time commitment you can expect from each language you intend to learn. You never want to feel rushed or deflated because you didn’t give yourself enough time to improve to the level you needed to be at.
How much time are you willing to dedicate to studying?
As if you couldn’t already tell this is where I was going with the first question… time is of the essence when it comes to learning a language.
So that you know how long you can expect to take to reach proficiency in a language, you need to ask yourself if you’re really willing to put in that time.
Long-term and short-term thinking is encouraged at this point in the decision process. Are you willing to study this language for years to come? Are you happy to put aside time– maybe daily– for the next 3 years?
Or are you more prepared to crank out high hours for the first year and then dial it back after that? You know the time you can expect to dedicate to this endeavor, but are you actually willing to study for those 1200 or 2400 hours?
And if you know you don’t have a lot of time daily, how many years are you willing to dedicate to consistent study? 20 minutes a day will ultimately lead to quite a few years. Or you could do 3 hours a day, and reach proficiency in 1 or 2 years.
But what sounds realistic for you? Just remember that there’s not really any time limit when it comes to your life. You don’t have to rush the process if you don’t want to. You could happily casually study for the next 10 years if that’s what it’ll take for you to enjoy the process.
Language isn’t really something you’re ever finished learning, so regardless of how much time you put in at the beginning, you’ll still have to engage with the language for however so many years to keep it in your memory.
Are you self motivated?
When deciding on an what language to learn, it’s no secret that certain languages have way more teaching resources available. For popular languages like Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and even Arabic you’re never going to be at a shortage of resources.
You’ll have English speakers around you who are also learning the language. You’ll have games available to you in the language. You’ll have TV shows accessible in the language. You’ll have hundreds of digital teaching resources made specifically for the language you’re learning.
Even when you delve into social media, you’ll be able to easily spot content creators learning the language and sharing their knowledge. There are literally tons of Instagram pages dedicated to Korean, Japanese, Chinese or Arabic.
But those are the only Asian languages you can expect that abundance of material for. Other languages are kind of pushed to the side. Granted Hindi does have more teaching resources available than other Asian languages, even this language doesn’t get the same treatment are the “mainstream 4.”
I’m not saying any of this to discourage you. After all, I myself am learning one of the “less popular” languages: Vietnamese. But the accessibility to teaching resources is definitely something to consider. The more obscure of a language, the more creative you’ll have to get in finding ways to learn it.
The 13 I listed at the beginning of this article definitely have a good amount of of teaching resources available online. But you can basically assume that a language’s popularity on Duolingo is basically proportional to the amount of resources provided by other companies for you to learn the language.
And though this may initially seem a little unfair; it totally makes sense. Companies want to make money. So, of course, they’re going to focus less on languages that less people are learning.
Most mainstream language teaching platforms focus more on European languages and the mainstream 4 Asian languages. But sometimes even Arabic will be excluded. Indonesian may be included more often than other Asian languages simply because it’s significantly easier for English speakers to learn.
For example, Babbel offers teaching services in Dutch, Danish, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Spanish and Turkish. They’re a bit of an oddball for not offering any of the mainstream Asian languages, but they definitely demonstrate what I mean by a focus on European languages.
FluentU offers teaching in Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish, French, English, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean, and Russian. Now I’m not trying to overly generalize here, but I’d say those are the top languages that English speakers learn (other than English, of course.)
So you can generally assume that if you’re learning a language other than those 8, language teaching platforms will be hit-or-miss.
Memrise does a little bit better, offering English, Korean, Spanish, Japanese, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Arabic, Dutch, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, and Turkish. So not only do they offer the mainstream 4, but they also offer 3 Asian languages that some other teaching platforms skip over.
So yeah, Turkish, Indonesian, and Vietnamese are lesser common Asian languages that can still expect to show up more than other lesser common Asian languages. So if you know you’re not really self-motivated, then I wouldn’t encourage you to go for any language that’s not one of the 13 listed at the beginning of this post.
And if you’re not super self-motivated, then I wouldn’t encourage you to go for any language not offered on Duolingo. You don’t actually have to learn Duolingo to learn– but their numbers are a pretty good indication of what the digital world has to offer you teaching-wise.
Are you more easily slumped by mispronunciation or misspelling?
Certain languages are significantly harder to pronounce while others are significantly harder to write.
For example, Chinese (both), Korean, Arabic, and Japanese all have lettering systems that literally look nothing like the Latin alphabet. But at least Arabic and Korean both have at least some form of alphabet. Chinese (both) and Japanese have logographic writing systems, meaning they use symbols that represent a complete word or morpheme.
Well actually Japanese combines Kanji (logogram) with Hiragana and Katakana (alphabet); so the language is at least partially photographic. Logographics makes writing extremely difficult for Engish learners. It can take a really long time for you to really get it down packed.
Languages that already use the Latin alphabet include Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Malay; so writing is typically easier to learn. From a personal viewpoint and what I’ve heard from others though, Vietnamese is crazy hard to pronounce correctly for English speakers.
Vietnamese has 6 different tones when you’re speaking while Chinese only has 4. So debatably, Chinese is actually easier to pronounce for English speakers who are used to only speaking in 1 tone.
But there are 80,000 different Chinese characters compared to only 29 Vietnamese letters… so in the long run, Chinese is definitely harder. Korean and Japanese are both not tonal languages– so you can rejoice over that.
But I’d really suggest you do some research before deciding to see what people who have already learned the language have to say about its pronunciation difficulty.
And then definitely research the language’s alphabet. I don’t think its’ ever to soon to familiarize yourself with the characters.
How important is it for you to have access to media in the language?
As I alluded to number 3, certain languages have way more entertainment options available. A lot of English speakers learn languages with the hope of eventually being able to watch TV shows and movies, listen to killer music, and read some bomb novels.
But most of these are kinda limited in languages other mainstream ones. Korean’s got K-pop and tons of amazing films. Japanese has anime and manga. Chinese has got literally tons of high-quality movies and Tv shows. And Arabic’s got this whole thing called Bollywood going on.
But other Asian languages? Not so much. Like I mentioned earlier, most Asian countries are still developing so TV show or movie production isn’t really a priority. Sometimes education levels are a bit low and even books aren’t a common commodity.
So consider the GDP of the countr(ies) where the languages you’re deciding between are predominantly spoken. Because if you’re planning for movies and music to be your main source of interaction with the language further down the line, then don’t go for any Asian language other than the 13 mentioned at the beginning of this post.
I have to even admit that Vietnamese is a tad bit disappointing in its selection of quality films, but I can’t even imagine how little content I’d have available with a language like Khmer.
Don’t be too quick to skip out on Indian languages if this question is a concern of yours. Like I mentioned with Arabic, Bollywood is thriving and you’d be surprised how many films are produced annually in Tamil, Hindi, and other Indian languages.
How important is in-person communication to you?
Most people who learn languages don’t do so with the intent of eventually moving to a country where it’s predominantly spoken. They learn the language so they can speak to people in their own country who speak the language.
If that sounds anything like you, then you should figure out what Asian subpopulations live in your area. Especially, if you’d like for your multi-lingual skills to pay off one day in a local industry. Speaking multiple languages is honestly only a competitive edge when you speak languages that consumers in your field or region speak– at least from an employer standpoint.
But aside from any economic advantages, you need to know from the get-go whether or not in-person communication in the language is even accessible in your area. If you plan to keep communication digital, then the following factors won’t even matter. Just keep in mind that internet access across the world isn’t always as readily available for average citizens.
For those top 13 I mentioned, internet communication is a totally route to take. But you make want a bit more of a personal aspect to the learning process.
Personally, I find the fact that there are so many Vietnamese immigrants in America extremely motivating in continuing my study of the language. I would love to speak with these people in person and possibly make them feel a bit more comfortable during everyday outings.
But that’s me. If you too are a resident of the U.S., then I’d say you’re a bit in luck with the variety of languages different subpopulations speak. 14 percent of our nation’s residents are foreign-born– or 1 in 8.
According to the American Migration Council, the top countries of origin for immigrants are Mexico (25 percent of immigrants), India (6 percent), China (5 percent), the Philippines (4 percent), and El Salvador (3 percent).
Migration Policy includes a few more immigrant groups in their 2018 report of the Top Ten Largest U.S. Immigrant Groups.
So what is that pie chart telling us as American language learners? That if you’re learning a language that isn’t on the chart, you’re going to have a hard time finding native speakers. From the standpoint of someone looking to learn an Asian language, you’ve got your pick of 5 countries: China, Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and India.
But look at your state in particular, as numbers differ drastically. And let’s be real– country of origin doesn’t always indicate someone’s first language; at least with India.
The following chart, also provided by Migration Policy, lists the languages that immigrants speak. The only drawback is that they don’t make a distinction between Mandarin and Cantonese or Tagalog and Filipino.
So long story short, if you’re learning Chinese (I’ll assume the majority of U.S. residents speak Mandarin), you’re one lucky cat. You’ll not only have your pick of native speakers, but you’ll also have a whole community of Americans learning the language. But this can still vary by state.
I’ll be transparent with you– I live in North Carolina (that purple-blue state farthest to the right) where the third-largest spoken language is Chinese. But I’m still learning Vietnamese. Proving that you can still find the motivation to learn a language with a smaller population of native speakers in your area.
But had I started this journey with economic gain in mind, or with a goal of directly interacting with as many foreign-born residents as possible, then I would’ve went with Mandarin Chinese. If either of those are motivating factors for you, take a look at your state on the map. (If you live in the U.S.! I’m sure there are stats online for other countries as well.)
But there’s still the chance that your state’s third most spoken language isn’t even an Asian language. If that’s the case, then refer back to the numbers on the chart before the last. Also, you should consider growing refugee populations.
So suddenly Burmese has become a logical choice. But if you’re looking for economic gains then I’d encourage you not to learn a language spoken specifically by refugees fleeing from their home countries. It’s a bit unethical, and even more unpractical.
Listen, if those numbers above aren’t satisfying I totally get it. I mean Japanese hasn’t crossed any of those charts yet it’s the most learned Asian language according to Duolingo. So as a language learner, sometimes you have to consider the accessibility of fellow language learners.
I mean in-person communication is in-person communication whether or not it’s with native speakers or now fluent learners. But like I said earlier, there are plenty of Americans learning the mainstream Asian languages of Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.
It’s only if you’re concerned with connecting with people who only speak their mother tongue, that native speaker numbers come into play. Maybe those stats convinced you to drop Japnese or Korean for Tagalog or Vietnamese.
That wasn’t my goal per say but I’m glad you’re narrowing down your options. My all-time favorite resource for viewing native speakers by state is the interactive map provided below by Migration Policy.
You can filter by any country you want and the map will show you the top counties, total number of immigrants, and density by state. So give it a try with the countries of origin of the languages you’re deciding between.
Then you can pretty much make assumptions about how many people speak your potential target language in the U.S. Like I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the 348,000 immigrants from Japan speak Japanese. And the 95,500 immigrants from Indonesia speak (Bahasa) Indonesian.
So scroll as needed to view the full chart and give it a try!
Are you learning a language with the intent of moving abroad?
If so, then you can basically disregard everything I mentioned for the last point. If you’re planning to live abroad anyway, then the speakers in your area now don’t really matter much at all.
What does matter is how easy it’ll actually be for you live in a country where your target language is spoken. If you’re planning on studying abroad, then residency should be a easier task– as it’ll be temporary regardless of where you study.
But if you’re planning to live in a foreign country for years to come, you’ll first need to make sure that’s even a possibility for the countries that speak your target language.
Believe it or not, most Asian countries don’t actually want foreign residents. Shocker? Eh– not really. And even beyond government regulations, will you even want to live in the country? Living standards differ drastically from North America, Europe, Australia, or South America.
While I’m by no means trying to stereotype, developing countries have higher crime rates and fewer security regulations. Sometimes the political regimes in place in the country are corrupt or not-at-all foreigner-friendly.
So consider these things before choosing a language with the intent of living where its predominantly spoken. According to Matador Network, the five Asian countries most accessible for American expats to move to are:
Living costs are pretty low and visas are easily attainable. According to Tour Radar, the top 12 safest countries to visit in Asia in 2020 are:
- South Korea
So the only mainstream language that didn’t make the cut was Arabic. Just something to consider if that’s one of the languages you’re debating between. Japan is the highest-income country in Asia but it is not easy for foreigners to live in Japan.
According to Japan Guide, if you are a citizen of one of the over 50 countries with which Japan has a “general visa exemption arrangement”, you need only a valid passport to enter Japan as a “temporary visitor”. Otherwise, you need to obtain a visa before entering the country. Temporary visitors from most countries are allowed to stay for up to 90 days.
If you are a citizen of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Switzerland or the United Kingdom, you have the possibility to extend your stay to a total of up to six months.
According to Internations, when it comes to the process of moving to China, vaccinations and visas should be your first priorities. DPT, polio, MMR, and hepatitis A are all required vaccinations for China, and you’ll also need to undergo a comprehensive medical examination for some visa types.
Depending on which region you’re moving to, there may be additional health risks: dengue fever is prevalent in Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Yunnan, and malaria is still a problem in rural areas. There are also everyday health measures you may not be used to taking into account, like the hand, foot, and mouth disease
And relocating with a pet is a whole other hassle, so make sure you read up on those.
As for South Korea (I won’t even tackle North Korea in this article since you’re not getting into that country), foreigners are permitted to purchase real estate there; a privilege that isn’t possible in every country.
According to Internations, relocating to South Korea is either than both China and Japan, thanks to the country’s less strict import requirements. Luckily, South Korea has started to open their borders, and welcomes more and more foreigners every year. This, in turn, has made the visa application process easier than what it used to be in the past.
So sounds like you may be in luck if you decide to learn Korean with the intent of moving abroad. I am not an expert on foreign resident living requirements, so be sure to research all these things yourself when you have the time.
Are you planning to learn other languages after?
Basically are you planning to full-blown polyglot in the next few years? If you don’t already know which languages you intend to learn, I’d say now is a better time than any to figure them out.
I actually think your smartest course of action here would be in choosing a language that has at least 1 related language. There’s a reason Spanish is so easy or English speakers to learn. The languages are related.
If you’d like for the language you learn after this next one to be an easier process, then there’s no shame in choosing to also learn its sister language. So if you learn Thai now, then in a year or two, you’ll be able to easily pick up Lao– another member of the Tai-Kadai language family.
And in terms of writing, several languages use the Arabic alphabet, such as Persian/Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, and Kurdish. So if you learn the Arabic alphabet now, you’ll be setting yourself up pretty nicely to quickly acquire any of these other languages.
Or if you decide to go with Turkish, you’ll have an easier time picking up Mongolian or Kazakh. So you get where I’m going with this.
Research the languages you’re debating and whether or not they have closely related languages. This could turn out to be your deciding factor, so don’t skip over this step.
Granted, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean all belong to their own unique families so this won’t help you decide between those 3…. bur for every other language, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Keep in mind though that just because languages are in the same branch or family, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the languages are actually similar. Khmer and Vietnamese are most closely related to one another yet have no linguistic similarities that I’ve been able to pick up on.
So take advantage of the online language learning community. You might be surprised how forthcoming they are with information sharing their own experience attempting to learn “related” languages.
But wait… there’s more!
Regardless of what language you end up choosing, I want to make sure you’re learning the highest-quality information at the lowest possible costs.
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No worries if you’re learning another language though! Personally I use VietnamesePod101, just one of the 34 languages offered by Innovative Language.
A teaching platform that allows you to learn practical, native-level conversation in minutes! Innovative Language’s teachers explain everything, word-by-word, in every lesson.
The Asian languages that they offer both free and paid subscriptions in include:
Plus some European languages if you’re interested!
And that’s just a few of them! With 1+ billion lesson downloads since 2005, you’ll be learning with the largest library of lessons.
But before you head off on your language learning journey– I want us to stay in contact with one another. Us language learners have to stick together right?
My language craziness expands to multiple platforms so you can also find me cranking out polyglot inspiration on Instagram or Pinterest. Don’t hesitate to direct message me or comment on one of my posts! I’d love to get to know you beyond this screen.
Aside from that fun, if you’re still here then I want to make sure you don’t miss out on your free language learning toolkit.
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Keep learning languages my friend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.Image