What Language to Learn

I am on a bit of a learning kick right now. I have been impressed with the breadth of materials available online and via sources like Audible, Kindle, Coursera, Kahn Academy, TED, etc. As I think more and more about my current role leading product management for Kindle reader software, I have taken on the challenge of broadening my expectations of what is possible with what we are delivering. I am still circling around the right short answer to “what do you do” but where it is trending is something along the lines of “empowering anytime learning in an age of information abundance.” That’s still a little too broad, but I like the challenge it presents when compared to the more banal “design features for eReaders.”

With that in mind, I have been spending my commuting and training time listening to TED talks, Great Courses, and re-learning Spanish via Pimsleur method. I was rated “proficient” in Spanish in college, but let’s be serious. If I was lost in Spain or Mexico at that time, I would not have found my way home. I might have found my way to the library, and declared that the pen was on the table, but that’s about it.

The Pimsleur course has been pretty amazing, especially considering I never really considered myself a foreign language guy. I think this had more to do with how I was taught. Pimsleur works for me. I tried Rosetta Stone with Spanish, but I just didn’t click with it. However, because of my grade school, high school, and one college year of Spanish, it turns out that my Spanish vocabulary is quite a bit broader than I had imagined. I feel like I am cheating in the “learn a new language” challenge right now.

Before I started with Spanish, I tested Pimsleur with German, as I had no prior knowledge of the language. My best friend is a native speaker, so I did it for a month, and then dropped some German on him. He was surprised at how much I had learned in such a short period of time. He did point out that it was “high German” and quite formal, but good nonetheless. Sadly, German is not a daily part of my life. Not on TV. No books. Magazines. Whatever. Even he suggested I learn a different language. Regardless, it was clear Pimsleur was working for me.

As I move into Phase3 of the Spanish course, I want to start a completely new language with Pimsleur. I don’t want to have any knowledge of the language, the vocab, the sentence structure. Nothing. However, I also want to be able to make some practical use of the language. There are more than enough Spanish TV stations on Comcast here in Seattle. Since Pimsleur is mostly spoken lessons, learning any language not based in the Latin alphabet may prove to be a fruitless endeavor, as I am guessing it would suck to learn how to speak, but be illiterate. I would love to get feedback from the community on that one. It would be nice to build the skill over time to eventually get to the point where I can partake of native language media, but certainly to engage in a native conversation.

Below is the table of language courses available to me from Pimsleur. Cast your vote for what I should attempt to tackle next. My vectors for this decision are: access to media which would allow me to exercise my understanding of that language; access to native speakers here in USA, and of course abroad.

spanish farsi danish
italian swedish czech
german dutch russian
hindi br portuguese albanian
egyptian arabic indonesian swiss german
norwegian haitian creole hungarian
korean tagalog western armenian
mandarin ukranian eastern aremenian
japanese urdu pashto
french EU portuguese polish
greek finnish  
gaelic croatian  
thai hebrew  
turkish romanian  
vietnamese swahili  
  • robbcab

    BTW. Good to see you back and competing again since the injury. Did you ever get your helmet?

  • Hughes Hilton

    The only thing I would recommend for sure is that you DON’T try to use Pimsleur for Japanese. I tried to use Pimsleur for Japanese before living in Japan for a year and it was not good. On the spoken side, Japanese is a language with so much built-in culture to it, that it’s hard to learn without immersing yourself in the culture. It has many formulaic phrases for specific scenarios and words with no direct translation at all. Also, there are many levels of politeness and many things that require some explanation such as how something is appropriate for a boss to say to a subordinate or an older person to say to a younger person, but not the other way around. Pimsleur may teach you to talk, but a lot of it will just be wrong in many scenarios.

    On the written/reading side, given how different writing in characters is, for me it required a more specialized approach than what Pimsleur offers. I think Chinese would be similar on the written side since it also uses characters.

    To be clear, I learned to write around 300 or so characters and could probably read around 600 or so and was conversational at a moderate level by the time I left Japan, which required me to work pretty hard. I tried a lot of different language approaches to learning Japanese; I just didn’t find the purely inductive Pimsleur approach to work for that language specifically. It probably works much better for European languages where there is a lot more in common culturally with us Americans and the writing uses Latin characters like English.

  • Joseph Okleberry

    Portuguese! A fun language to learn, plus, you and Christy can come meet me in Brasil for the World Cup!

  • Joe King (Seattle)

    Late to the game, but: Turkish.

    For educational challenge, it is hard, but say halfway to something like Chinese.

    It is a completely distinct language family from English, but it is not tonal like Chinese, and thanks to Atatürk , Turkish is written in a Roman alphabet. (Well, with a lot of extra marks, so you can test the extended range of the Kindle character set. )

    Turkey is an incredibly dynamic and burgeoning economy and people and country right now , like Brazil, or a next gen BRIC. They are asserting themselves politically, economically, and culturally as the fulcrum of Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Europe, as 21st century Ottomans.

    So, it may be fun and useful and interesting to follow in Turkish magazines and newspapers what’s going on there over the next decade.

    And my final case : Best. Vacation. Ever. If you haven’t been I highly recommend Turkey and it was so hard to have a foothold in the language when I went. See a glimpse here: