Languages vs Other Stuff

What’s it better to learn: languages or other stuff?
Us language enthusiasts often talk about how good it is to learn languages, but what about learning other stuff?  How do they compare?

Here I list some of the benefits of both:


  • Rich new experiences
  • An alternative view of reality
  • New friendships which are very different to your normal English language friendships.
  • The ability to connect with more people in more situations.
  • The opening of doors.
  • It’s just good being able to speak in different languages.

Other stuff:


  • Knowing where you came from.
  • Why things are how they are.


  • Understanding how society works.
  • How laws get done.


  • An alternative view of reality. (like in languages).
  • Other experiences
  • Other perspectives.


  • An alternative view of reality.
  • Other perspectives.


  • How things work.
  • Giving you a base to compare things to and relate things to.
  • Where and how stuff happened.


  • Why people act the way they do.

Musical instrument.

  • Fosters your self-expression and relieves stress.
  • Promotes happiness in your life and those around you.
  • Because being able to play music is just a really great thing.


  • Being able to paint.
  • Self-expression.

Being able to make stuff.

  • It’s just useful and it’s interesting.

Being able to fix stuff.

  • Useful and interesting.


  • How to make money.

Combining learning a language with other stuff.

We can learn some of this other stuff, through another language.

When can you do this?
And what should you consider?

In my experience this has been the most relevant with Spanish.  It first started when I lived in Spain and I started to read Wikipedia articles in Spanish, I’d just read about whatever it was that I wanted to read about in Spanish.

I think that this works when you get into the zone of that language and you know it to at least a high intermediate level.  Also the more different the language is to those that you already know, then the harder this is.  So for example, this is far easier for me to do in Italian, knowing Spanish than it is in say German.

When I get interesting books in German, Dutch or Welsh, thinking that I’ll combine learning  what’s in them with learning the language, they usually get left to one side, as my progress in them would be too slow.  However with books in the Romance languages that I’ve studied, in general it’s a lot more probable that I’ll progress at least someway through.

There is a point that you get to in when learning a language when you can do this, you can learn other stuff through the language and it doesn’t slow you down that much.

So there’s a comparison of some of the positives of both, and of combining them, what do you think?

Which language should I learn?

Have you always wanted to learn a language, but weren’t sure which one?  (or are you looking to learn a new language but aren’t sure which one?)  Are you reluctant to invest time studying if you’re not going to follow it through?

I have asked myself the same question and have come up with a way that may help you form a decision.

1. Make a list

To start of with I opened up Excel (or Mac Numbers) and made a list in a table of all the languages that I have some interest in studying:


2. Advance/Effort Column

I then inserted another column titled Advance/Effort..  Now in this column I wrote down a number between for each language, which I thought would be how much I would advance for the amount of effort I would have to put in.  I chose a number between 0 and 5.   5  would be if  I were to advance more quickly (with perhaps less effort), 0 would be if I were to advance more slowly (with perhaps a lot of effort).  The numbers I entered in were the following:

Language Advance/Effort
French 3.4
German 2
Italian 4
Portuguese 4.2
Catalan 4
Dutch 2
Welsh 2
Latin 4
Greek 2
Mandarin 1
Japanese 1
Hebrew 1.2
Arabic 1.2

As you see Japanese and Mandarin have got an Advance/Effort number of 1, this is because I have estimated that I would get a low advancement (or little progress), for the amount of effort that I would put in.  Whereas for example with Italian I have put in an Advance/Effort number of 4, this is because I think that I will be able to progress relatively quickly for the amount of effort that I would have to put in.

These numbers for Advance/Effort have been chosen based on my own way of learning and taking into account the languages that I already know and the amounts of knowledge that I have in these other languages.

If I was to approximate the amount of Advance/Effort for someone who only knows English I would estimate them to be:

Language Advance/Effort
French 3.2
German 2.2
Italian 3.5
Portuguese 3.5
Catalan 3.5
Spanish 3.5
Dutch 2.2
Welsh 2
Latin 2.5
Greek 2
Mandarin 1
Japanese 1
Hebrew 1.2
Arabic 1.2

(In the above table I have also inserted Spanish)

3. I then added another three columns, Total Reward, Financial Reward and Personal Reward.

The Total Reward is the total of the Financial Reward and the Personal Reward. The Financial Reward and the Personal Reward are both on a scale of 0 to 5.

The Financial Reward is your increase in potential earnings which would result from knowing this language.  So for example if you didn’t speak English but wanted to work in an industry where English is valued then the potential financial reward would be high.  If on the other hand you were considering learning Latin, and think that there would be very little chance of getting any financial benefits from this then this rating would be low.  Much of the financial rating depends on where you might work and what type of work you would be looking for, there also exists the possibility that a lesser spoken language which appears to have very little financial potential could actually lead to considerable work, precisely because so few other people have learnt it.  However to give us a guide it is a good idea to approximate, based on where you will be working and what you want to do.

The Personal Reward is what you will gain from learning the language on a personal level, this can be any of a large range of factors.  So for example you may have a spouse whose mother tongue is, let’s say, French, and all his or her family speak French, you frequently visit them and they all speak French.  You would therefore get a huge personal reward from learning to speak French as you will be able to understand and communicate with them on these visits, as well as getting to know another side of your partner.

Another example is if you have always been fascinated by the culture of, let’s say, Japan, you don’t know what it is but you’ve always been drawn towards the writing system, or the manga, or the way the people behave.

You could have an interest in the origins of languages or ancient history, if so then perhaps Latin would have a higher personal reward.

For the personal reward, as well as the financial reward, I have given them a rating between 0 and 5.

The Total Reward, can now be found by adding the Financial Reward and the Personal Reward, so in the top row we can write =(D2 + E2)/2 , where D2 and E2 are the cells of the relevant Financial Reward and Personal Reward respectively.  I have inserted the brackets and the “divide by 2” so that the Total Reward will be out of 5, and so will have a similar relative value as the Advance/Effort value.  You can then replicate this formula in the rest of the cells in the column by clicking on this top cell and then clicking and dragging the bottom right hand corner of the cell so that values underneath are filled in using the relevant values.

4. Weighting the Total Reward:

We may be more or less inclined to chose a language for either financial reasons or for personal reasons.  If so, we can weight the Total Reward so that it favours our preferred motivations.  For example, I have chosen to put a larger weight towards the potential Financial Reward by a scale of 4 to 1, hence I have written in the first column =(4*D2 + 1*E2)/5.  I have divided by 5 so that the Total Reward will be on a scale of 0 to 5 again.  In general you would divide by the sum of the two numbers used in your weighting, so if you use 3:1, then you would divide by 4, 1:2 then by 3.

Putting these together, this then gave me the following table:

Language Advance/Effort Total Reward Financial Reward Personal Reward
French 3.4 4.6 5 3
German 2 4.6 5 3
Italian 4 3.92 4 3.6
Portuguese 4.2 2.4 2 4
Catalan 4.2 1 0.5 3
Dutch 2 2.4 2 4
Welsh 2 2.8 2.5 4
Latin 4 1.2 0.5 4
Greek 2 1.84 1.3 4
Mandarin 1 4.8 5 4
Japanese 1 3.2 3 4
Hebrew 1.2 1.64 1 4.2
Arabic 1.2 4.8 5 4

5. The Language Focus Value: 

This is then a number that you can get, using your values for Advance/Effort, Total Reward and your Weighting for the Total Reward,  to give you more information about which language you should learn or focus on.  I got it by multiplying the Advance/Effort value by the Total Reward, using the formula =.4*B2*C2 .  (I have multiplied it by .4 to get a value between 0 and 10.)  You can now copy this formula down into the rest of the cells of the column in the same way as you did for the Total Reward.

This will then give you the following table:

Language Advance/Effort Total Reward Financial Reward Personal Reward Language Focus Value
French 3.4 4.6 5 3 6.3
German 2 4.6 5 3 3.7
Italian 4 3.92 4 3.6 6.3
Portuguese 4.2 2.4 2 4 4.0
Catalan 4.2 1 0.5 3 1.7
Dutch 2 2.4 2 4 1.9
Welsh 2 2.8 2.5 4 2.2
Latin 4 1.2 0.5 4 1.9
Greek 2 1.84 1.3 4 1.5
Mandarin 1 4.8 5 4 1.9
Japanese 1 3.2 3 4 1.3
Hebrew 1.2 1.64 1 4.2 0.8
Arabic 1.2 4.8 5 4 2.3

The higher the number in the Language Focus Value column, the more priority should be given to this language.

6. These results can perhaps be seen more clearly in a Language Focus Graph:

If you select the all the data cells of the two columns Advance/Effort and Total Reward, then Insert > Chart > Scatter, we should get a graph that looks like the following:

Language Focus Graph Small

Advance/Effort is on the x-axis (along the bottom) and Total Reward is on the y-axis (going up on the left hand side).  The closer to the top right hand corner the point is, the more focus should be put into that language.  You can find out which language the point belongs to by reading off the Advance/Effort value (and the Total Reward value if necessary) and looking them up on the table.  (Unfortunately Mac Numbers or Excel don’t let you label the points plotted on a scatter chart very easily but it’s not too difficult to work out which is which.)

The two languages at the top right hand corner are French (slightly higher), then Italian (slightly lower and to the right).  As can be seen from the table above the Language Focus Value of these points are both 6.3, the next closest are Portuguese (4.0) and German (3.7) which are the next two closest points to the top right hand corner.

You can then experiment with the weighting in the Total Reward column (remembering to copy any changes throughout the column) or modify some of the values you’ve given for Advance/Effort, Financial Reward, or Personal Reward and see if this makes any significant changes.

I hope this has been of help and please leave your own highest Language Focus Value(s) in the comments below.

Word order and the words themselves

I was asked the following interesting question the other day, which I will try to answer here as I think that it will be of general interest.
“Have you had any other language experiments? Or is it just Spanish? If you had what was the difference?”
The first language that I’d say I really mastered was Spanish, but after this I caught the bug for learning languages and also having learnt one, this meant I then had an idea of how to go about learning other languages.  The next language I learnt was French, this was made easier because the word order is similar to Spanish, and also because I remembered some of the more basic words from school.
After that I moved back to England but near the Welsh border and started learning Welsh.  This is a completely different language to Spanish, French, or English, so in learning this I had to learn a very different way of thinking.  Also the vocabulary is very different so this meant I had to learn the new words in a different way, with Spanish there are many words that are similar to words in English, similarly with French but with the added benefit of words similar to Spanish words.
I’ve since experimented with various other languages all to various levels of knowledge or fluency, these include:
German, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan and Japanese.
The differences in all these experiments are most apparent in two aspects (the word order and the words themselves) and how these two aspects relate to the language(s) that you already know.
For example, if you just know English and want to learn Spanish, then looking at these two aspects, word order and the words themselves, you’ll have the following things to consider:
1. Word order
Spanish has a different word order a lot of the time, this means that you’ll have to change the way your brain forms thoughts when speaking.
2. The words themselves
In Spanish there’s quite a large crossover of certain types of words, particularly with academic or literary vocabulary.  However a lot of the basic vocabulary is very different, this means that you’ll have to learn a lot of very different words at the very start, but then later on it will be easier to pick up more advanced words.
With each language you have to work out how to get progress in these two aspects.  
There are then additional aspects, for example particular grammar points (which I would group close to the word order), irregular pronunciation (for example with French), new alphabets (Arabic, Russian, etc) or other features.  However the two most important aspects are the two I’ve mentioned above.