For over fourteen years, I have watched countless people go through the process of selecting a new language to learn. There is always a question about which one they should try, and the people come to their decisions using essentially two different kinds of criteria: that which is used by to a person who wants to learn it, and that which is used by someone who wants to brag about what they are learning. Those that are only interested in getting attention are called braggarts. Here are five basic differences between these selection methods.
Your learner will often go after a language that is popular. By that, I mean the ones that so many other people seem keen on learning. Those are essentially Spanish, German, French, Italian, Russian and Japanese. The slightly less popular ones are languages like Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Latin, and Ancient Greek, with that last two being mainly for academic purposes. From there, a learner will likely target less popular but still relatively well known languages like Portuguese, Polish, and Swedish.
The reason for selecting from those is mainly because so many people already have learned them, thus making them often talked about and spoken.
The language braggart, however, knows that those languages are too common, and will instead look for the least popular or known languages, the more obscure the better. Then, when they enter any group and are asked what they are studying, they will instantly get attention. Everyone knows what Spanish and Polish are, but Rama? “What is that? Tell us more? Why did you choose it? This is so impressive!”. That is exactly the kind of response the braggart wants. He is looking for the attention.
That isn’t to say that a learner might not really have an interest in less popular languages, but in that case, they will be doing it with the actual purpose of knowing it, not just in talking about it.
Another factor in finding a language is the number of materials and resources available for it. You can’t learn a language without something to guide you. These resources might be books, software, websites, or even living people, but without them, nothing can be learned.
The learner will be interested in finding a language with plenty of resources to choose from. Since the quality of them will vary greatly, it important to have numerous options. Going back to the first factor, the popular languages are going to have the most resources available, while less popular or known will most likely have far fewer.
The braggart will instead be seeking a language that has very few resources available. That way, they can draw attention to what they have chosen by complaining how impossible it is to find anything. “It is so hard to find materials for Kota – the African language, not the Dravidian – that it is depressing. Can anyone help me?” “What is Kota? I’ve never heard of it. I am so impressed!”. For the braggart, less means more… more people marking them as someone special, just for making the effort.
3) Ease of Use
A common question is “what language is the easiest to learn?”, so we know that is an issue for many people. That isn’t a bad thing. It makes sense that someone would like to learn a language without having to spend the rest of their lives in heavy studying, so the ease of use will naturally be an issue in selecting one.
Which is easiest will depend on the learner and what they already know. At the same time, a learner might also seek out a language that is harder to learn, just for the challenge. Some of the most popular languages are also considered very difficult to learn.
For the braggart, the difficulty level will be a prime reason to select it. They will be even more drawn to the languages that other people openly announce as very difficult, much the way some daredevils will be drawn to the doing anything that others have called demanding or impossible, like climbing a high mountain or wrestling alligators. After all, who are the ones we view as the bravest and most ambitious in our society? The ones that reach for the least attainable.
“Wow! You are learning Denscari? That has seventeen verb tenses, a triad pronoun system, a two hundred character syllabary, and a very complex honorific system!” “Don’t forget the click sub-intonations and the quadruple tonal variants.” “I am so impressed!”
4) Number of Speakers
One of the main reasons for learning a language is to be able to speak to other people with it. This is why most language descriptions include the number of speakers. When selecting a language, a learner will want to make sure that they will be able to speak with many others, both in practise and as a goal.
The braggart, on the other hand, would actually prefer to have few speakers, for two reasons. First, it gives them another excuse to draw attention to what they are learning. “I am studying Naiki, but it is impossible to find anyone to speak it with.”
They also don’t want to be tested on what they know, since they really aren’t interested in learning it. They want to be known to be learning it. When there is no one else they can talk to, they can be secure in knowing they will never have to show their complete lack of progress.
5) Time to Learn
Most serious learners are not interested in how long it will take them to learn a language, since it is the goal of knowing it that is important. Also, everyone has different definitions of when a person actually knows a language as opposed to still studying it, so any estimate of time needed will be highly subjective.
Even for the braggart, the importance of how long it takes will depend on other factors, but those are not the same as for a learner. If the braggart has found a language that gets them a lot of attention when talking about it, they like the estimate to be high, so they can carry on talking about it for a long time. Yet, if people are no longer paying attention, they will want to drop it, so they can start “studying” another “impressive” language. Since they don’t actually intend to learn it, any estimate on how long it takes doesn’t really matter. It is just something else they can use to talk about. “I’m studying Ollari, and I know it will take me a while. It is so complex that it normally takes people two to three years before they are able to properly greet someone.” “Wow! I am so impressed!”
Have said all this, I am not going to say that people who seek out unpopular, resource limited, difficult language with few speakers that will take them decades to learn are all braggarts. We all have our own reasons for choosing a language and unique goals in learning it. I am saying that for those that are just wanting to gain attention, rather than actually learning, these are the things they are looking for.
I am sure you have met a number of braggarts while talking with others, and have learned to recognize some of these patterns. In this list, I may have missed some other selection methods and signs of attention seekers. Please share with me your own thoughts and experiences with them. Are you a learner or a braggart yourself?