New Language or Improve an Old One: Things to Consider

As I begin to think about what classes to take for the new quarter/semester, I am once again faced with the question I have asked myself a million times before: should I learn a new language or should I improve an old one? With this question comes a series of pros and cons for each.

What to pick guys…

There’s so many things to consider when taking a language course, and I guess I should start off with time. Time is an important aspect of learning any language, and if you’re planning on being really good at it, you’re going to want enough time to practice. Language skills don’t come over night (but wouldn’t that be nice if they did). For example, if you speak English natively, learning Italian is going to be easier than learning Chinese for the pure nature of the fact that Italian is a Latin based language and uses the Roman alphabet and has some cognitives.

That being said, ask yourself how much time you’re going to have to learn X language. If it’s a new one, is it connected to any languages you’ve learned before or is it completely different? If it’s an old one, consider at what rate you want to improve and maybe set (realistic) goals to get yourself to a certain level, if that’s what you’re looking for.

I’m planning to take 3 upper division university classes next quarter, in addition to either French or Italian. French I already have one year’s worth of knowledge and Italian is in the same family–either way I know (I think) French or Italian should be a stress reliever from my non-language upper div. classes. However, there would be a big disconnect if the two languages I were to choose between were French and Arabic (which I have no knowledge of) and would add a lot more extra effort to learning the conventions of Arabic + my other classes.

One of the main things I think about when choosing between the two are whether or not I want to be better in less languages or know more languages at a lower level. I’m not saying it’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be a hyperpolyglot one day, but in the moment it’s what every language learner faces–you have to start from the bottom up.

Though I’m not proficient enough to keep a conversation going in Mandarin, I know enough about the language that I can talk about the basic structure, characters, pronouns, etc. I took Mandarin for one year which gave me a good overview of the language and gave me a good insight as to whether or not it was a language I would like to continue learning in the future. If yes, then I have a foundation. If no, then at least I can talk about the basic points of Mandarin and I have experience with the language. That’s what you (or at least I) get from learning a new language.


If you pick a language you’ve already studied, you’re sharpening and improving your skills. I don’t know about you, but one of the best feelings a language learner can experience is the satisfaction of hearing a comment like “Your Portuguese is good!” or even “You speak like a native!”

I guess the main question here is “Do I want to be better in less languages or do I want to know more?” Quality over quantity.

Another thing I like to consider is “saving it for later” with new languages. Which is my thought of learning the basics now, so in the future I can pick it up later when I have time to practice the language in more depth. If I take a class or two on a new language, I’ll have the basic phrases down, the basic structure, hopefully enough so that when I’m bored one day or have the time to research more about the language, I can add onto my knowledge as opposed to having to learn the basics myself.

Depending on the language and who you are, language acquisition can be quick. In high school after studying Spanish for 3 years, I picked up basic Portuguese and could more or less converse (through writing) with native speakers. I stopped studying it by myself about 1/3rd of the way into senior year and only picked it up seriously about a year ago (using the language every day, using every resource I could, etc). When I did pick it up seriously though, I learned to think, speak, write, and understand in Portuguese like no tomorrow.

One thing about improving old languages that you can’t really get from studying new ones is the fact that with learning a language in depth, you get the culture and the personality of a language. This, to me, is priceless, and I experienced it with Portuguese.

At the beginning of my Portuguese studies, I thought, “This is going to be easy since I know Spanish.” And at the beginning, it was, because everything was so mechanical: sentence structure and conjugations are similar, some words are so similar to being one to two letters off, if they aren’t the same already.

But as I improved my Portuguese, I realized that Spanish and Portuguese aren’t similar at all, in the verbs they choose to express certain things, in their slang, even some things in their vocabulary due to history. The northeast in Brazil has influence from African cultures (from the slave period) and got words like capoeira (the Brazilian dance-marital art) and acarajé (a dish). In Spanish, pineapple is piña and in Portuguese it’s abacaxí, which comes from Brazil’s indigenous population. There’s something that’s so priceless and magical that you can learn about a culture and history though its language, something that someone might not think about when they’re too concerned about the sentence structure or case endings or conjugations.

Me not knowing what to do around a bunch of capoeira guys in Brazil…

These are the thoughts that I run through my head as I try to decide what classes to take next quarter, but there will always be a new language for us language learners and there will always be a to-be-improved-langauge for us. So whatever you pick, you can’t make the wrong decision 🙂

Let me know your thoughts!

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One Reply to “New Language or Improve an Old One: Things to Consider”

  1. Para mí, que hablo inglés (mi lengua nativa), español y un poco de alemán, me importa más dominar pocas lenguas que saber muy poco de muchas. Así, puedo tener relaciones profundas con la gente en su lengua. Y estudiar una lengua como español que tiene tantas variedades y tantos dialectos distintos significa que siempre se puede explorar otros acentos y diferentes maneras de expresar el mismo concepto segun la región. Y con la jerga, ni hablar.

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