The 10 easiest languages to learn for an English speaker
Ирина Пономарева - 12/02/2018
Having done some research on the subject of the hardest languages to learn, it’s only natural that we make the next step and cover the languages at the opposite end of the scale, which could be recommended for beginners just tackling their first or second foreign language. Once again it is written from an English speaker’s perspective, but can also be true, at least partly, for speakers of some other languages belonging to the Indo-European family.
However, even if the languages on the list are indeed the easiest to learn, it doesn’t mean that they can be done in a matter of days and without effort. Far from it; language learning will forever be an activity that requires a lot of effort and dedication from those who choose it as a hobby and still more from those who do it professionally. And even the relatively easy languages are no exception.
Having said that, here we go, and we will start with the hardest of them - the only Slavic language on the list.
If you are interested in exploring Slavic languages, which are famous for being rather hard to learn, Bulgarian is, perhaps, the best one to start with. The main reason for that is the absence of the case system, which Bulgarian lost while the country was part of the Ottoman Empire, under the influence of the Turkish language. At the same time the language acquired a definite article - a feature unheard of in other Slavic languages. Of course the fact that these articles are postfixed to the words, while in the majority of Germanic and Romance languages they appear before the nouns, might be a little confusing, and yet the concept is there. At first glance this language may look very similar to Russian, but first impressions are deceptive; as some Russians trying to learn Bulgarian put it, in terms of grammar it is now more similar to English than to a Slavic language.
At the same time it shares the Cyrillic alphabet with Eastern Slavic languages and has preserved a lot of Slavic roots, so it has all the chances of becoming a bridge connecting you with the whole Slavic family. Cyrillic letters are, in fact, nothing to be afraid of, as they are much more similar to Latin characters than most of the other existing alphabets, excluding Greek. If you have a preconceived idea that the Cyrillic alphabet is awfully hard to learn, Bulgarian is just the language to help you get rid of this fear.
In the case of French, the presence of multiple cognates remaining in the English language since the Norman conquest of England is a strong positive factor both for English people trying to learn French and vice versa. Of course, there will be false friends - no two languages can escape those unless they have no common words at all - but, as usual, it will be just a small part of all existing cognates. On the whole, roughly 45% of words in modern English are of French origin, and that’s a huge bonus for a learner.
Yet French is a very different language. It belongs to a different group and has a much tougher grammar, the most noticeable feature of which is the number of verb forms. French has more of them than many other languages, and correct usage of all the moods, as well as conjugation, may confuse a beginner, especially since English is so much easier in this regard. The other points of complication are grammatical genders, spelling (nearly half of the characters written are not pronounced) and pronunciation. Still, on the whole French is not such a big problem, also because it is taught to many English children at school, and whatever we learn never goes away completely. Even after we have worked hard on forgetting a language for decades, something will stay in memory and come back should we resume our studies.
Spanish, like French, is a Romance language, and most of what is said about French will apply to Spanish as well. But the spelling is much more straightforward and easier to grasp, and the pronunciation - especially the intonation - is simpler, though there could be different opinions as to which variation of the R sound is going to give an English speaker less trouble.
Spanish verbs may be just marginally easier to deal with, but in regard to nouns, genders are present here too. Anyway, any person who has mastered one Romance language will easily deal with all the others, as long as they aren’t all done at the same time.
Spanish is, anyway, very much worth looking into, with 480 million native speakers and 570 million total speakers it is believed to be the second most spoken language in the world behind only Mandarin Chinese, at least if we look at the number of L1 speakers only. Yes, it even beats English! If we look at the total number of L1 and L2 speakers, Spanish and English swap places, but even so it is one of the most important languages worldwide.
Yet another Romance language on our list, Italian has an even simpler writing system than Spanish with fewer accented letters and even more straightforward reading rules. Its sounds - again, apart from the ubiquitous R - are very easy to pronounce, and the word order in the sentences is very logical and yet allows for some variety. Well, adjectives tend to follow nouns, but that’s not hard to get used to.
Once more we have plenty of verb forms, two grammatical genders, with which articles and adjectives would have to agree, and other features typical for the whole Romance group. But there are practically no cases (the Latin case system having been lost centuries ago). Only personal pronouns take some rudimentary declensions, which, anyway, is true for English as well. And once again there will be a lot of cognates.
Italian is spoken in 23 countries and is an official language in eight of them. It’s also widely recognized as an international language of music, so if you are thinking of making a career in music, especially in singing, some acquaintance with Italian will be a must. This last point makes for a huge benefit to all learners - you will never be short of Italian songs to listen to, which will make the process of learning it so much more enjoyable.
An Austronesian language based on Malay, the official language of the Republic of Indonesia is often named among the easiest languages to learn. There are many reasons to that. To begin with, it has very little morphology and no tenses, which makes it in a way similar to Chinese, but it is not a tonal language and it uses the Latin alphabet for its writing system. In phonetics it is much closer to European languages than to Chinese, so we can say that Indonesian has brought together the simplest features of many other languages. Of course, it wasn’t intentional, so the learners of this widely spoken language should consider themselves lucky. On the whole, its prefixes, suffixes and infixes are considered the only feature of the Indonesian language that could potentially confuse a beginner. But a large number of loanwords coming from English and other European languages will be a welcome surprise. Many people who have tried Indonesian mention being able to maintain basic conversation in it in just a few weeks from the start of their studies.
It is necessary to mention though that in everyday life Indonesians tend to switch to a colloquial version of the language, which has even less grammar, but is significantly different from the official Indonesian. To the native speakers it might look like a simplification, but to a foreigner who comes to the country after spending some time learning the official language, this will certainly become a source of confusion.Therefore, we would recommend that you get yourself familiar with colloquial Indonesian before actually visiting the country.
Another Austronesian language distantly related to Indonesian, Tagalog is one of the two official languages of the Philippines. It now uses the Latin alphabet, having lost its own very pretty writing system called Baybayin. In fact, it’s easy to mistake Tagalog for yet another Romance language if you arrive in the Philippines and hear kumustá for “How are you?”. But the reason for this is the result of 333 years of Spanish rule. It is estimated now that roughly a third of modern Tagalog words have Spanish origin. And currently Tagalog is swiftly picking up English words, as the two languages exist side by side as two official languages of the country.
There are also a lot of other languages, from which Tagalog has borrowed parts of its vocabulary, Chinese, Arabic and Sanskrit among them. Still, basically it is still an Austronesian language. Therefore, it has a relatively simple grammar with a minimal number of inflections. The verbs use aspects instead of tenses (a new concept for a European), and conjugate using infixes and prefixes. But there is no grammatical gender and no inflections for nouns, which in itself makes Tagalog much easier to learn than many other languages of the world.
It has to be noted though that outside the capital city of Manila a lot of dialects exist, which can differ in many ways from the standard Tagalog (aka Filipino). People who have visited the Philippines also note a lot of code-switching going on in colloquial Tagalog, when a person speaking switches continuously from Tagalog to English and back, a phenomenon called Taglish.
No matter how easy some languages from other groups might be, the languages from the same group as the learner’s native tongue, as a rule, will be the easiest to learn. English is one of Germanic languages, in spite of all the Latin roots that invaded it as Normans invaded the country itself. Therefore, it’s among the Germanic languages that we should be looking for languages that would really be easy to learn for English speakers. But Germanic languages are not created equal: German is complicated because of cases and the unusual word order and Danish is often called difficult because of its pronunciation. Norwegian, on the contrary, despite its close relation to Danish, has relatively easy pronunciation, and its grammar is easier still.
The hardest part will be to make sense of all the different names of various modern forms of written Norwegian. The easiest way to avoid confusion is to go for Bokmål from the start, since it is used most often; in regard to spoken forms, different approaches are possible. Like with other languages that have plenty of dialects, the best strategy is, perhaps, to start with the normalized speech and then choose one of the dialects depending on where in Norway you are most likely to find yourself. If unsure, just go for the way they speak in the capital city of Oslo.
Once you have made your choice, proceed directly to your studies and enjoy the cognates, the simple rules of conjugation and the minimum of other inflections. Well, there will be three grammatical genders (two in some dialects), but these are hard to avoid: the majority of Indo-European languages have them.
We are including Esperanto as the most often mentioned example of constructed languages, i.e. languages that weren’t born naturally, but were created by linguists in an attempt to give the world a universal lingua franca: in order to be successful in their role they were made simple from the start. So far, none of them has achieved the ultimate goal of being spoken by each and every person in the world; still Esperanto is more successful than many and has a lot of fans worldwide.
Its vocabulary is derived primarily from Romance languages, and the alphabet is Latin with some accented letters added to represent sounds, for which Latin doesn’t have specific letters, such as, for example, t͡ʃ. The most attractive feature of Esperanto is the fact that it has no exceptions - only rules - which could never be said of any naturally born language. The verbs (all of them regular) have only three tenses and three moods, and these six forms are the only forms that Esperanto verbs ever take. And though nouns and adjectives have two cases, the rules of inflections are so easy that they can be learned in a few hours.
L. L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, did all this enormous work of creating a new language with a very noble goal in mind: he dreamed that it would help people achieve perfect harmony between all nations. It was the nineteenth century when he released his creation into the world; today, in the twenty first, we are still not there yet - probably further from Zamenhof’s ideal than ever - but the language, nevertheless, is doing its work connecting people from all over the world. Currently about two million people from about a hundred of countries speak Esperanto, and there are examples of official use of this language by organizations and governments. And who knows, perhaps in two or three centuries the dream of L. L. Zamenhof will come true, and Esperanto - the language of hope - will become the language of the universal truce signed by every country in the world.
In “Babes in the Wood”, one of Ruth Rendell’s later novels, a British teenager named Giles has to escape from his home to avoid being arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Eventually he finds himself in Sweden, where Professor Trent, his grandmother’s second husband, gives him a refuge. Professor Trent is one of the most prominent linguists in the world, and Giles himself is no stranger to languages: at 15 years of age he already has a very decent level of French, and just before the disaster struck he was learning Russian grammar from a textbook. So these two language enthusiasts meet. Three months later a police officer comes from the UK to take the boy home and is astounded to hear Giles and Professor Trent exchanging long sentences in Swedish. “A very simple language to learn, Swedish,” mutters Professor Trent in response to Chief Inspector Wexford’s astonished glance.
A quick look at the table of Swedish verb forms will show us instantly why Giles was able to master the new language so quickly. There is no conjugation as such: whatever personal pronoun stands in front of the verb, the ending remains the same. Inflections for nouns and adjectives are similarly minimized. Speaking of the vocabulary, again there will be a lot of cognates with English, and still more with German - a bonus to those who learned at least some German at school. And the pronunciation will also be simple enough, since the idea of long and short vowels is fairly familiar to native speakers of English.
Of all independent languages (universally recognized as languages rather than dialects), Dutch is the closest to English. It is also very close to German, but German stripped of its cases and most of the rest of its morphology, as well as its difficult sounds. Native speakers of Dutch learn English to either C1 or C2 without making any fuss about it: both in the Netherlands and in the Flemish part of Belgium it would be a challenge to find a person incapable of speaking nearly perfect English. Which, conversely, means that native speakers of English should be capable of mastering Dutch in a similar way, if only they put their minds to it. And many do.
Dutch grammar underwent significant simplification over the centuries, and the remnants of classical German cases in modern Dutch can be found only in idioms and other rare contexts. Conjugation of verbs is almost as simple as in Swedish. As for shared vocabulary, there will be plenty of common roots between Dutch and English since, apart from descending from the same parent language, they have also continuously exchanged loanwords throughout the centuries that followed, and continue doing so to this day. But there is one complication to spoil the otherwise perfect setup: Dutch shares with German its word order with the verb always glued to the second position. Yet, considering all the other advantages of learning Dutch, this particular little factor can be overcome. After all, in order to give learners the famous sense of self-satisfaction, the languages have to be a little difficult in one way or another: otherwise, language learning would be a very boring occupation.