What Is the Easiest Language to Learn?
’Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions, and if you are anything like me, some of yours might be language-related. Last year, I had a go at Latin- at this point I am pretty clear that Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, but with such a complicated language it is hard to stay motivated. Thankfully, there are many easier options out there, most of which offer more accessible engagement than millennia-old epic poetry.
So, if you want to learn a new language, but are not set on which one, you could do worse than first considering which one would be the easiest. This obviously depends on one’s language background, but assuming the common denominator here is English, here are some top picks for 2022.
The Classics: French and Spanish
Most English speakers around the world will have some knowledge of French and Spanish, either from cultural osmosis or from learning them in school. They are Romance languages, but they share an intimate Western European historical connection with a lot of cognates. French, in particular, gave English a huge share of our vocabulary.
They are even closer to each other, so if you do have some background in one, it is easy to learn the other. I have never formally studied French, but I can speak it passably well based on Spanish. It was easy to pick up online: French and Spanish are second only to English in abundance of (often free) instructional materials.
However, there are some catches. French pronunciation is notoriously bizarre. Spanish, which is phonetic, has a clear edge over a language in which about half of consonants are not even pronounced. Many (not all!) French people are also uniquely unfriendly to foreigners who speak their language imperfectly (though getting sneered at in certain parts of Paris is better than speaking only English and having everyone refuse to look at you). Spanish speakers are nicer, but their enthusiasm also drives them to speak a lot more quickly than a lot of new learners are comfortable with.
Perhaps the most important consideration in choosing a language is where you live. If you live in the United States, especially in a place like Texas or Florida, Spanish can be seriously useful. In parts of Canada, French is even more so. Britons can pretty easily visit France or Spain, but Australians are in a tougher spot. In any case, if neither French nor Spanish catches your eye, but you still like a bit of Romance, there are other options.
Other Romance Big Hitters: Italian and Portuguese
The Romance languages are all pretty closely related- especially if you already know one, it is pretty easy to learn another. Italian has the advantage of pretty clear and crisp pronunciation. Unlike Spanish, French, or Portuguese, it has only one standard version.
Portuguese pronunciation can be a challenge, but it is a very easy choice if you have some background in Spanish. Both Portuguese and Italian have a lot of learning resources out there, as well as wonderful countries full of friendly monolingual people who would love to help you practice.
Our Germanic Cousins: Dutch, German, and the Scandinavians
English is a Germanic language, but do not be fooled into thinking that means there is an easy bridge to German. German is an excellent language, but it is very difficult to get past the basics. Indeed, English’s analytic (i.e., less inflected) grammar is much more similar to that of Romance languages than to German’s; conversely, a Roman would find German’s grammar more familiar than Italian’s.
Thankfully, the other Germanic languages (like English) have simplified over time, which renders them much easier. The closest major language to English is Dutch. It shares basic Germanic vocabulary, plus a lot of Latinate loanwords, all packed up in relatively straightforward grammar.
The Scandinavian languages take a good bit more getting used to, though they do have the advantage that their word order is generally the same as English, which is not the case with Dutch and German. But they also share a crucial issue: in countries where virtually everyone, especially in the cities, speaks excellent English, it can be difficult to practice.
Here, an honourable mention goes out to Frisian, a minority language of the northern Netherlands that is English’s true closest relative in the world. Supposedly people in Kent sometimes receive TV signals from across the Channel, and can understand the weather reports.
There are not really any materials out there to learn Frisian, and all of its speakers speak Dutch (and often English, too), but if you want to pick up a bit, remember that bread, butter, and green cheese is good English and good Fries: Brea, buter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk.
More Eccentric Options: Bahasa, Esperanto, Farsi, and Scots
English is, of course, a European language, but there are some solid options outside Europe. Farsi is a distant cousin in the Indo-European language family that, thanks to a tumultuous history to rival that of English, has been heavily simplified. Once you get over the hurdle of learning the script, you find a happy valley of no declensions, no gender, easy conjugations, and a shocking abundance of cognates. For example, one’s faamil may include a maadar, a pedar (cf. Latin pater, Spanish padre), and a baradar; a Persian sister is a khaahar, which is a less obvious connection, but one can draw a link via Welsh chwaer and German Schwester. When it comes to Middle Eastern languages, Farsi is far behtar than the rest.
If you want to look outside the Indo-European family, your best bet is Bahasa, as the language of Indonesia and Malaysia is colloquially called. Its grammar is free of any of the conjugations, gender, or declensions that bedevil learners; there is not even any particular word order. Plurals are formed simply by replicating a noun, e.g., buaya buaya, “crocodiles.” My uncle, a geologist in Indonesia, never took a class, but within a few months of arriving in the country was able to communicate with oil site workers on a basic level.
The language equivalent of a cheat code is Esperanto. Esperanto was designed to be as easy to learn as possible, with a view toward uniting all the peoples of the world with a common tongue. For a moment in the early 20th Century, it seemed that it might succeed. It is thanks to France’s veto at the League of Nations that I am writing in English, and Esperanto is a just linguistic fun fact that sounds something like Spanish from Mars. But if you are looking for ease above all else, look no further.
I will give an honourable mention here to the controversial “language” of Scots. To be fair to those who claim that Scots is a separate language, visitors to parts of Scotland do often have a hard time understanding the locals. But the same is true of many other places, and no one claims that Birminghamese is a separate tongue. When it comes to defining languages, however, politics often has more pull than linguistics- if Nicola Sturgeon ever gets her way, Anglophone university slackers may one day queue for places in Scots 101.
Our Winner: Afrikaans
Dutch is a pretty easy language to learn, but generations of settlers living hard lives in the South African interior could not be bothered with even minor irregularities. The result was Afrikaans, a language closely related to English, but stripped of grammatical case, gender, and most verb conjugations. Its vocabulary and phonology is mostly Germanic and thus familiar, with a fun twist of words and idioms picked up from Africa; for example, where we see the tip of the iceberg, an Afrikaner sees the hippo’s ears.
Afrikaans is actually the world’s fourth most-spoken Germanic language, but you will not find much use for it outside South Africa. That is a far-reaching point- perhaps the most important factor in how easy it will be to learn a language is how much contact one has with it.
The choice of which language to learn is, of course, a personal one. No language is easy. But any one will open a unique connection to people and culture that would not be possible over a language barrier. After two years of social distancing, what better goal is there than that?