Learning Estonian over Mandarin

How could a language spoken by a mere 1.1 million be useful compared to one spoken by ~1 billion? How does the internet define what is a useful language in the first place? Sites like Quartz and Mosalingua use criteria like the number of speakers throughout the world and relevance in economic and political contexts. I call bullshit. These sites leave out the human aspect.

I argue that it doesn’t matter what language you learn, you will find a way to make it useful as long as you have a desire to learn it and I’m proof along with many others.

After graduating from college in 2011 I did a European road trip, eventually reaching Switzerland where I fell in love with the country. I told myself someday I’d live there, and what better way to commit to that promise than to learn Deutsch. Having heard Deutsch this Deutsch that, I hurried home, pirated a copy of Rosetta Stone Dutch and I was on my way!

Dutch ≠ Deutsch? Ahh shit… Two weeks of learning only to realize this truth. Needless to say, I made the switch. And here’s what happened as a result: I met a ton of really cool Germans, Austrians and Swiss! I didn’t even have to go to these countries to reap the rewards. I went to language exchange Meetups, I joined a German hiking group, I drank boots full of beer while chatting with German speakers all while living in New York. My desire eventually led me to live in Berlin a while.

And then I started learning Russian and discovered my love for bouldering as a byproduct of Maria, my Russian speaking tandem partner.

All languages are useful, you only have to decide what’s important to you. Take Alan Watt’s career advice. What do you want to do with your life? If you want to make money, Alan says “…you’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living doing things you don’t like doing…” You can learn Mandarin and Spanish for business but unless you’re fascinated by the language and culture, it’s a means to an end.

You want to travel? Learn the language the tour guides in these countries speak.

But what if you want something different? To truly understand the meaning of your Colombian roommates advice when he tells you not to give papayas when you’re walking alone at night. To explain to your adopted Sri Lankan grandmother who’s hosting you that the food was spectacular. Or to capture a grandfather’s story of his experiences growing up in Germany after the Great War.

I have to call bullshit on learning a language by number of prospective speakers. As an English speaker, you can already hold a conversation with more people than you will ever encounter. Learn Mandarin and though you can potentially speak to a billion native speakers, you never will.

The language you decide on and push through with will open a door you never knew existed. It will land you in situations your otherwise English only tongue wouldn’t fathom. I’m no Estonian, nor is there any connection between me and her but I know now there will be…

One last point I have to make. There’s a reason teaching Americans a foreign language in school is futile. It’s been forced upon us with homework and hours of studying without knowing why. Show them why the language is useful. Maybe that way I may have learned French after 12 years…