My Top Languages

I think that it’s incredibly valuable to have a language-learning habit. Over the past few years I have developed such a habit for myself, and I hope it will stay with me for a very long time.

However, once the decision to strive for such a habit has been made, we are faced with the miserable task of having to choose which language or languages we will focus on.

We can’t learn all of them! At least not all at once. And there are so many that are worth learning. A number of possible principles for choosing come immediately to mind.

Career is an obvious one. If it is advantageous to know a language in a person’s line of work, maybe French or Spanish, that’s an obvious choice. Then again, precisely because it’s so obvious or because so many people do it, there may be a little interior resistance to this one.

I guess travel is a common reason too. If someone’s going to be spending time in Portugal, it makes sense to learn some Portuguese.

Heritage is another strong one. Half of my family tree goes back to the Netherlands, and any time I spend studying a language that’s not Dutch makes me feel a hint of guilt.

A sense of wonder or romance is surprisingly motivating as well. Studying Celtic would be completely useless to me, but I’ve always wanted to learn it anyway, given how it is suffused in my mind with an air of mystery and lushness and magic and antiquity.

A desire to look cool is a possible reason too. This was actually the path by which I first established a language-learning habit a first years ago. I thought that it would be mind-bendingly cool if I secretly knew Russian or Mandarin. It would make me feel like James Bond. That was good enough for me.

But the lens I’ve settled on is to ask the question, which language opens up possibilities of study, of gaining language and wisdom?

Having spent months reflecting on that question, the list I have in mind is something like this (though the order is somewhat arbitrary and always subject to change):

  • German
  • French
  • Greek
  • Latin
  • Italian
  • Arabic
  • Hebrew
  • Russian
  • Mandarin

The first three or four are the ones I’m most looking forward to having greater fluency in. German and French open up quite a bit of scholarship as well as some interesting original philosophical works. Greek and Latin are more exclusively able to make available the earlier history of philosophy.

Even once I have polished up those four, though, I’ll still want to keep the language-learning habit going, and there are always more languages that will further enrich the understanding. My list actually even extends beyond the nine listed above, but I think this is a pretty good start, and even getting this far will take many years of hard work.

I have no idea how far I’ll get with this list, but wherever I stop, I’ll be glad to have gone as far as I can, and glad for all I’ll have learned in the process.

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