The Easiest Language To Learn
Many years ago (decades really) in college, I had a friend who said he wanted to be bilingual. He wanted to be bilingual only to say, “I’m bilingual” and then impress people, girls mostly, with some foreign phrases.
So, I suggested that if he didn’t care which language he was bilingual in, he should choose the easiest language to learn. This was in the pre-internet days (Yes, I’m over 30).
So the conversation rapidly progressed to guessing, stating opinion as facts, and total speculation about which language that would be. In case you are wanting to know, to no one’s surprise, he didn’t learn any language.
Thanks to Al Gore, we now have the internet and I can research important topics like this to help college students impress prospective partners. Although I doubt the efficacy of this approach.
7000 languages to choose from
There are about 7000 languages spoken in the world today so that offers a nice pool of choices to pick from.
But this question, “What is the easiest language to learn?” creates a lot of more questions in order to answer it.
The first thing that comes to mind is, what makes a language easy to learn?
Words in a language
One thing I recall from that long ago scholarly discourse revolved around vocabulary and which language had the least number of words in it. The idea being, of course, that the fewest number of words to memorize is a crucial factor in the ease of a language – it’s not.
But to answer that question it appears to be Toki Pona. Toki Pona contains a minuscule 123 words. To put that in perspective according to the English Oxford Dictionary site Lexico.com, “The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1989, contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.”
If you think that is a lot, and it is, multiple questionable sources claim that the Korean dictionary contains over 1,100,000 words. I don’t know if this is true.
How long does it take to learn a language?
A more authoritative source that, I assume, employes a more rigorous method to determine how easy or hard languages are to learn is the United States Foreign Service Institue (FSI).
The FSI ranks languages based on how long it takes the average FSI student to learn the language. According to the FSI the easiest languages to learn take 23-24 weeks. Those languages are,
In comparison, The most difficult languages to learn take 88 or more weeks according to the FSI. Those languages are,
- Cantonese (Chinese)
- Mandarin (Chinese)
This is not a comprehensive list. It includes only those languages taught by the FSI.
The hardest of the hard
Continuing on the tangent of the most difficult language to learn, I’ve heard from an authoritative source, a professor friend from the University of Zurich, that Japanese was the most difficult language to learn.
He knew this by tracking how long it takes children to master their native language. This is a good gauge because children learning their native language don’t have other languages making one language easier or more difficult to learn than another.
For instance, German is easier for an English speaker to learn than Mandarin. Mandarin is easier to learn for a Japanese speaker than German because of the similarity in the languages.
What makes a language easy or hard to learn?
Personally and as an English speaker, I’ve found the languages easiest to learn are those with
- the least grammar
- sounds that are closest to English
- those without tones
But it’s a balance. German is pretty easy because of the similarity to English pronunciation but difficult with all its cases and 7 ways to say ‘the’.
Chinese (Mandarin) is easy because of its lack of articles (a, an, the), no plurals, no verb tenses, and straight forward grammar. But many of the sounds are really different than English and, of course, the tones are a killer.
The sound ‘ma’ can mean rope, mother, horse, or what, depending on the tone. And “Can I ask a question” is just one tone off from “Can I have a kiss”. I imagine there are a lot of foreigners getting their faces unexpectedly slapped in China.
My picks of the easiest languages
Of the languages I’ve studied, I put Norwegian and Malay as the easiest. Norwegian is a Germanic language as is English so the structure and sounds are pretty close.
“Where can I cross the fjord”, an important question in Norway, is “Hvor kan jeg krysse fjorden?” Which sounds something like, “Vor can I crissen fjord en”. Yea, pretty similar.
Malay may be even easier. I’m not sure because I’m just learning it now. But it has no verb conjugations, everything is I am, you am, he am, etc. Not plurals; 1 coffee is 1 Kopi. 5 coffees is 5 kopi kopi. Easy. The sounds are fairly similar to English and there are no tones. I’ll let you know how it goes.
It’s motivation that counts
For the sake of argument let’s say Malay is the easiest to learn. How much Malay do you speak?
Unless you are one of the 18 million Malay speakers I’m going to guess you don’t know any Malay. My point is that you don’t speak Malay because you are not interested in learning it despite how easy it is.
And that’s a shame because Malaysia is an incredible country, you would want to live there.
The best marker to determine if an individual will learn a language to proficiency is how motivated they are to learn it.
Language learning is like most things in life, we succeed when we devote time and mental (and physical) energy toward it. The easiest language for you to learn is the language you most want to learn.
6 months for Italian
When I was learning Italian I memorized 25 words a day. I could do this for two reasons:
- I have a method to learn large numbers of words
- I really really wanted to learn Italian.
My enthusiasm for Italian translated into study first thing in the morning, time spent thinking about Italian during the day, studying at lunch and in the evening, listening to Italian opera (bellissimo), switching my FaceBook page to Italian (and back to English a lot) and generally immersing myself in Italian.
Six months later I was at an intermediate level, an “Independent User” according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages test I took on the Internet. I like to imagine that 3-minute internet test was valid.
Decades for Spanish
In comparison, I grew up in Southern California surrounded by Spanish.
My parents originally lived in the town of La Mesa (the table), I often drove down Fuerte (stong) Road, I heard Spanish spoken daily, and when I was older I found myself in Tijuana drinking 60 cents Coronas.
I miss my youth. But I did not speak Spanish until decades later when I WANTED to learn it.
Which language excites you?
Yes, some languages are easier to learn than others. It depends greatly on which language is closest to your native language and the complexity of the language.
But you will learn the hardest language faster than the easiest language if you are excited about and really want to do it.