Why You Should Learn… German, French & Italian
Having completed the series and profiled all of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world, here’s my final post on your three most popular European Languages to learn, according to the poll I placed on the other posts. 198 votes were cast and five other languages that weren’t included in the poll received a vote each: Dutch, Swahili, Mongolian, Albanian and Korean. Click on the image below to go to the website that allows you to interact with the bubbles and see the exact percentages for each language.
Update (24th August 2013): Since I wrote this post back in April, there have been a total of 533 votes! French, German and Italian are still the most popular languages to learn outside the top 10, after that comes Korean with 6 votes and the following languages have received 1 vote each: Filipino, Greek, Telugu, Tagalog, Thai, Hebrew, Urdu, Persian, Swedish and Romanian.
No. 17: French
68 million native speakers, 120 million total speakers. Official language of France, Canada, Belgium, parts of the Caribbean and several countries across Africa, and 1 of the 6 official languages of the United Nations.
French topped the poll with 17% of the votes, and it is one of those languages that evokes admiration simply for the beautiful sound of the spoken language and the romantic and cultured connotations it’s managed to obtain over the years. Known in the past as the diplomatic language used in all important international negotiations, it has retained its pride of place as one of the official languages of several international institutions, even if it has a relatively low number of native speakers. It’s traditionally the first foreign language taught in schools in Western countries, and although I adore speaking it, my grasp of the grammar and of written French needs some work. I first learnt it during long summers spent on the west coast of France (see my post on the bungalow we have there) and then was unlucky enough to have a very nasty teacher when I was 12, who put me off the language and instead pushed me over to Spanish.
There’s the stereotype of the snooty Frenchman who won’t deign to speak to you unless you’re word perfect in his language, however I haven’t found this to be true very often. I find that some of the English (particularly in London) can in fact be very rude to someone living in Britain who doesn’t have a good command of the language, so I wouldn’t attribute that stereotype solely to the French. French is certainly one of the easier languages to learn as it shares a lot of the English vocabulary, and this may explain its popularity.
No. 23: Italian
59 million native speakers, 62 million total speakers. Official language of Italy, Switzerland and San Marino.
Your second favourite language outside of the Top 10 is Italian, with 12% of the votes. The Italian language holds a similar appeal to French – it’s known to be the language “d’amore” (of love) and Italy has successfully marketed itself as one of the most idyllic countries to visit – it has everything. Excellent food, lovely countryside, exquisite islands and beaches, beautiful architecture in the cities, a good clime, more history and art than you could ever wish for and beautiful, stylish people. I was first seduced by Italian aged 14 on a trip to Rome, and from then on I continued to study it outside of school and then at university. At that age I wasn’t thinking particularly strategically and, while I love being able to speak it and while Italy is possibly my favourite country in the entire world, it might have been better to pick a slightly more international language, in hindsight. Spoken only in Italy (which is in the middle of a truly terrible recession and political chaos) and in a corner of Switzerland, the language is actually in decline. The population is shrinking as the birth rate drops, and more and more of the country’s experts are fleeing abroad to find decent jobs. Very controversially, one of Italy’s top universities, the Politecnico di Milan, has decided to teach only in English from 2014 (see the BBC news article), and around 8% of the Italian vocabulary are actually English words, and that figure is increasing each year. Italians themselves agree that their language is not a particularly good one to learn employment-wise, and lots have incredulously asked me “Why on earth are you studying Italian??”
That said, I wouldn’t swap it for any other language, as I’ve had such a wonderful time living in Italy 3 times (in Courmayeur for a ski season, then near Rome as an au pair, and then in Modena as intern at Armani) and these three experiences wouldn’t have been anywhere near as spectacular as they were had I not known the language.
No. 11: German
90 million native speakers, 118 million total speakers. Official language of Germany, Austria, Switzerland & Belgium.
Germany just misses out on the Top 10, and was your third favourite language with 9% of the votes. German-speaking countries have a lot to say for themselves – they are all economically more stable than the countries surrounding them, and have excellent living standards. Being so well run, the majority of their inhabitants speak impeccable English, which is great news for someone like me who knows a grand total of 3 words. I’ll visit Germany for the first ever time this July when I go to Munich for a week on business, and I’ll see if English is actually as prevalent as I’m told it is. It doesn’t follow the previous two language’s reputation for beautiful acoustics, quite the opposite in fact, and the number of British students choosing to study it drops each year. This phenomenon can be seen for most modern languages taught in Britain, although some of the more international languages such as Spanish are faring better. Is German a popular language to learn in your home country? I’d be intrigued to find out which countries consider which languages important.
Top 5 Survival Phrases:
- Hello – Hallo – Bonjour – Buongiorno
- Thank you – Danke – Merci – Grazie
- How are you? – Wie geht’s? – Ça va? – Come stai?
- I don’t understand German/French/Italian. – Ich verstehe nicht Deutsch. – Je ne comprends pas le français. – Non capisco italiano.
- Goodbye – Auf Wiedersehen – Au revoir – Arrivederci
It remains to be seen how well these European languages will fare in the long run, when they’re competing with the giants (in language terms) of the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China. I hope that they’ll continue to have relevance at least in my lifetime, and I hope they don’t get swallowed up by English. One victim of globalisation is the plethora of individual languages and dialects, which give each region and country their individual flavour that make them unique. As everyone is forced to learn either English or Chinese, I fear that so many of the other 7,000 beautiful languages on our planet will follow the fateful path of Latin, the eponymous “dead language”. Not least for the people to whom these languages currently belong, but also for the cultural identity they embody and the rich literary and artistic heritage they created.