Home » Q&A » Principles for the Order in Which to Learn Languages

Principles for the Order in Which to Learn Languages

Dear Professor Arguelles,

This is the first of a series of questions for which I plan to ask your counsel and guidance, the rough outline of which I have attached below. As the topics are only loosely related, I thought it would be best to post these questions as separate inquiries. If you would prefer that I just asked them all in one very long post, please let me know and I will be happy to do so.

1. Principles for Learning Order
2. How Desired Skills Affect Methodology and Time Estimates
3. A Comfortable Range of Languages
4. Frequency of Maintenance for Different Skills and Related Language Families
5. Rate of Deterioration of Different Skills

As a brief sketch of my language learning background, in high school I studied Spanish formally without motivation or know-how, and in college later repeated the same sad dance with Italian. After graduating college and having an opportunity to teach in Beijing, I studied Mandarin intensively for the last four years, gained the know-how, reached an advanced level, and just this past year began my study of Russian.

My long term goals for languages are as follows: in all the languages I study I wish to be able to read great literature; in all the living languages I further wish to be able to listen to any spoken text of interest with ease; and in two of these modern languages I wish to express myself in eloquent, crisp prose, and possibly work as interpreter. As for speaking, I will content myself with being able to converse on daily topics, unless circumstances allow me to reside long-term in a place where the language is spoken. The languages in question I am planning to learn are listed below, grouped by language family, and in my proposed order of learning the modern languages. I plan to learn all of the modern descendants listed below before backtracking and beginning work on their classical predecessors, with the sole exception of Latin. Note that the asterisks * represents languages that – if time put a gun to my head and forced me to whittle away – I would be willing to cut. I do not include Old Russian and Middle & Old Persian on the list because while I might study them out of a philological interest, as far as I’m aware the existing literature in them is quite scant.

1. English > *Middle English > *Old English
2. Mandarin > Classical Chinese
3. Russian
4. *Japanese > *Classical Japanese
5. Modern Greek > Ancient Greek
6. *Persian or *Cantonese
7. Latin

Assuming worst came to worst, the abbreviated list would be:

1. English
2. Mandarin > Classical Chinese
3. Russian
4. Modern Greek > Ancient Greek
5. Latin

The first of my questions concerns principles related to the order of learning languages. What, in your opinion, are the most important criteria for prioritizing the learning of one language before another? Let us assume that our hypothetical learner has a roughly equal interest / intrinsic motivation towards all the languages they have chosen (that is certainly the case on my part anyway), and that amongst the languages they have chosen there is a range of both difficulty and availability of resources. I ordered the above list based on my own principles, which I share below. I would love to hear your input and suggestions about principles that I have not considered.

While I realize that it is not necessary to learn languages sequentially, and – as you have pointed out in the past – strictly speaking it is impossible to “master” one language before “moving onto” the next; nevertheless, from my limited experience so far, I do believe that learning one language to a level where you can comfortably listen and read to a wide variety of unadapted, interesting native material for pleasure or knowledge, does contribute to making maintenance of old languages and further learning of new languages much easier and less stressful. To put a rough number on it, I would say in my in this level correlates roughly to C1~C2 or ILR3+ ~ ILR4+, for the receptive skills only. While not necessary, I believe that for the first 3 to 4 languages a person wishes to learn, this is the path of least resistance.

1. Harder languages should be learned before easier languages.

This is the only one of the principles for which I am certain one could easily make the opposite case. I see merit in learning several easier languages before trying to tackle a more difficult language (or – if you prefer – distant language), as it allows a person to iron out the majority of mistakes related to time management, motivation, personal methodology, which resources to use and at what stage are they most efficient, etc. ; while still being able to make decent progress in a relatively finite amount of time. However, given the fact that most of the languages I want to learn are relatively distant for native English speakers, and the fact that I inadvertently started off with the most time taxing of them all (Mandarin), I have chosen to go the opposite route. The prime benefit I see of this route is that by learning the most time consuming languages first, once one has reached the latter stages of the proposed sequence, there will be much less of a conflict between maintenance and learning new languages. Furthermore, a potential psychological benefit is that if one first tackles the more challenging languages upfront, there is a certain weight that one gets off ones chest. This is the approach I take when working out as well, I always first do the exercises I’m most reluctant towards, as once finished with them the rest of the workout seems like a downhill slope.

This is why for instance, above I did not list either Spanish or French as a language I might learn, though from time to time I do think about it. But, to my way of looking at things, if I already know Latin and I decide at 70 years old that I want to learn Spanish or French, that is a quite finite task. On the other hand if I reach 70 and want to start Persian, there’s a much higher chance that I might feel intimidated or short of time to do so (but to be fair, if a near 80 year old Goethe can learn to read Hafiz, then I think we can all take heart).

2. Better resourced languages should be learned before languages with less resources.

The above principle has two distinct meanings: the first is resources for learning this particular language ( textbooks, native audio and books, grammars) ; the second is resources written in this language for learning other languages (textbooks written in Mandarin for learning Japanese, bilingual reference grammars between Russian and Polish, etc.)

This is why I place Japanese before Greek, as from all that I have gleaned and seen, on both of the above counts Japanese has much more and better language learning material than Greek.

3. If one wants to learn both a classical language and one of its modern descendants, best to learn the modern descendant first.

You have mentioned this several times in the past, so I won’t elaborate my thoughts, as they align with yours quite nicely. In summary, the key benefits here are that the modern language gives you a base for pronunciation, a ton of shared vocabulary and grammatical features, and usually the best quality resources for learning its classical predecessor.

4. Assuming ones affinity and necessity or lack thereof is the same for a group of languages, one should first learn the languages you can most easily use.

My reasoning for placing Persian last amongst the list of modern languages to learn, despite my absolute love of the culture and language, it’s due to the fact that currently as an American I cannot go to Iran, and probably should not go to Afghanistan. Hopefully this will change in the future.

If I can elaborate on any points of confusion, please let me know. I will work on drafting the next questions very soon, and I await your response with pleasure.

Chase Bodiford

My reply:

Dear Mr. Bodiford,

Thank you ever so much for such a wonderfully detailed and articulated letter. This is precisely the kind of correspondence for which I was hoping, a real collaborative effort to build a reference resource for others to read who have similar questions down the line.

First of all, please accept my apologies for the delayed response, but quite a large number of submissions has come in, so the queue is getting longer for me to get to them all. Secondly, please do submit all five of your questions or topics separately and individually so that the can be more easily indexed and found. I look forward to reading the other four given the way you have written up this one!

Thank you now also for so clearly articulating your learning goals. Understanding that the principles of learning order you seek here might affect whether you can keep all seven slots or need to cut back to only five, let us look at what you have proposed, so I will copy the principle and then add my thoughts about each:

1. Harder languages should be learned before easier languages

I would generally agree with this, but as you acknowledge that the opposite case could be made, let me make it as strongly as I can to provide balance on the matter:

In support of this statement, the main factor is that objectively harder languages take objectively longer to learn. So, given the reality of mortality, if you want to get anywhere with them, you need to begin sooner and plan on exerting more effort upon them.

Against this argument is the fact that language learning is a learnable and transferable skill. The more languages you have learned, the easier it is to learn other languages. So, a skilled language learner will not find an objectively hard language to be as hard as an unskilled learner; indeed, an unskilled learner might be defeated by the difficulty of the task, whereas for a skilled learner, it is just a question of putting in the necessary time.

2. Better resourced languages should be learned before languages with less resources

Of this one there can be no doubt, both for both of the reasons that you listed, and for another that actually segues nicely back and forth with your previous point, and which might even make me inclined to renumber your principles and place this first in importance. That other reason is the simple fact that the quality of materials itself is what can make the learning of some languages objectively difficult. A dearth of any materials, or a glut of inferior material, or an overall approach to a language that is unsuited to it, can make its learning very difficult, whereas if quality, suitable resources for it were available, it might not be such a challenge at all.

3. If one wants to learn both a classical language and one of its modern descendants, best to learn the modern descendant first

Among the three key reasons that you mention here, the top one would be the last, namely that the best resources for learning the classical one are likely to be in its modern descendant. The other two – the base for pronunciation and the lexical support – come as part of the bargain when you learn it to get at those resources. Beyond this, I would add another reason that might verge on the mystical, but if we view languages as literally living entities, then they naturally live on in their descendants, so when you approach a forebear through one, you are more likely to be able to commune with it.

4. Assuming ones affinity and necessity or lack thereof is the same for a group of languages, one should first learn the languages you can most easily use

On this point I must say that if I could pursue my own path of the polyglot again, this is an area that I would do differently. There are a number of languages that I studied at various points because I knew them to be objectively important, even though I felt no affinity for them. Conversely, there are some languages for which I felt great attraction, but did not study because of various reasons or arguments or circumstances. With hindsight, I think language learning really ought to be seen more in the light of relationship building. In that regard, opting for languages that are important or that you can use over languages that simply have a magnetic pull on you might be akin to ignoring a friend to associate with someone whom you thought might help your career. This is obviously something one ought not to do.

I hope these reactions were the kind you were looking for? If not, please ask for further clarification, and in either case, please do draft and send your other questions soon.

With best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Ask a Question

Would you like my advice for developing a systematic, long-term plan for learning languages and accessing literatures? This website provides a place where you can describe your background, current activities, and goals in sufficient detail for me to provide you with meaningful advice, and where our exchange can remain as a lasting resource for others with similar scholarly aspirations.

My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

Share this Page