It is estimated that there are over 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. While geographic, historic, and cultural events led to many languages developing and evolving to be very different, it also means that some languages are more similar than others. As a general rule of thumb, a language is easier to learn when it is linguistically similar to your native language.
The easiest languages to learn for English speakersThere are some languages that are considered easier for English speakers to learn than others, and a study by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) allowed for the creation of a list that shows the approximate time needed to learn a specific language for a native English speaker.
In order to create this list, the FSI conducted a study of students learning the languages taught at their institute. The students who participated were native English speakers typically between the ages of 30 and 40 and with an aptitude for formal language study, in addition to knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. Their schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students.
In other words: almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind when we look at the results. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.
The results were quite interesting and very inspiring for those of us who want to learn a new, widely-spoken language:
Language Difficulty RankingAccording to the FSI, there are three basic language categories:
Category 1: languages that are the most similar to English.
The majority of these languages are Western European languages and include Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, German, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, and Norwegian. In general, native English speakers take between 23 and 30 weeks (575-750 classroom hours) to gain proficiency in these languages, according to the FSI study.
Categories 2 & 3: languages that generally have considerable linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.
The list includes Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Persian, Polish, Russian , Thai, and Turkish, among many others. Because of these linguistic and cultural differences (after all, the languages are "Greek to us"), these languages take more time for English speakers to learn. The time frame? Between 36 and 44 weeks, and 900-1,100 classroom hours.
Category 4 enters even further into the impress-your-friends zone.
These languages are known to be exceptionally hard for English speakers to learn, and one of the factors that contributes to this are their completely different writing systems. Five languages are found in Category 4: Arabic (all varieties), Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin. In order to reach proficiency in these languages, FSI students required at least 88 weeks and 2,200 class hours of study in general PLUS a second year of study in the foreign country.
While the findings regarding the upper-category languages may seem pretty daunting, don't let that deter you from learning a more "difficult" language. It's very important to remember that language difficulty is relative, and what may take one learner 3 weeks to learn could be learned in several days by another learner.
What is the easiest language to learn?According to the FSI, there are 10 languages that fit into the first category of "easiest" languages. Since no further studies have been done to filter out the easiest languages among these 10, we'll focus on the most spoken languages in this category. After all, you don't want to just learn a language, you want to be able to use it as much as possible!
And now, with no further ado, the three most spoken, easiest languages to learn:
1. SpanishWhy should I learn it?
With over an estimated 422 million native speakers worldwide , Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world (behind Chinese, Hindi, and English). It's an official, national, or widely spoken language in 44 countries, including the United States. Believe it or not, the United States has recently been cited as the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world... it's time for Americans to learn some more Español to speak with their amigos and vecinos...
What makes Spanish easier?
Spanish only differs from English in morphology (word formation) and phonology (pronunciation). English speakers learning Spanish have the luxury of using the same alphabet (apart from a few letters) and the straightforward Spanish pronunciation system: words are pronounced exactly as they are written. Grammatically speaking, Spanish actually has less irregularities than other Latin-based languages. In addition, English speakers have more and more opportunities to be exposed to Spanish on a daily basis, even in their native countries (especially for us Americans).
Don't let the relative similarity between English and Spanish give you a false sense of security, though. There are many Spanish dialects which feature strong differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and minor grammatical differences, which is something to keep in mind when starting to tackle Español.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
According to the FSI study, a native English speaker requires an average of 23-24 weeks and between 575 and 600 classroom hours to become proficient in Spanish.
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2. PortugueseWhy should I learn it?
There are over 176 million Portuguese speakers in the world, and these speakers are not just from Portugal and it's gigantic former colony, Brazil. Portuguese is the official language in 9 countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and East Timor. It's also spoken in over 34 countries worldwide. In addition, Brazil's economy is currently ranked 6th in the world, making it an increasingly valuable language for professionals.
What makes Portuguese easier?
Much like Spanish, Portuguese only varies from English in morphology and phonology. One attractive feature of Portuguese is its interrogative form, which does not require reconstruction and can be expressed just by changing your intonation. "We're dancing tonight," for example, can become a question simply by raising your voice at the end. Even though the nasal vowel sounds of Portuguese are difficult for English speakers to pronounce at first, the rhythm of Portuguese is easy for English ears to follow.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
On average, a native English speaker needs between 23 and 24 weeks and 575-600 class hours to achieve language proficiency in French, according to the FSI study findings.
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3. FrenchWhy should I learn it?
There are over 75 million native French speakers in the world today (and 190 million who have it as a secondary language), from the streets of Paris to Africa and the Canadian province of Quebec to the Caribbean islands. While German does have a few million more speakers, French is more geographically distributed. It is an official language in 40 countries and is spoken in 54 countries worldwide.
What makes French easier?
Say what you will about French's gendered nouns, verbal forms, pronunciation, and all of those tricky silent letters, French is still one of the easiest Latin-derived languages for English speakers to learn. We have history to thank for this: for almost a century, the 11th-century Norman invasion of England and the new French-speaking government had a tremendous influence on the English language. Au fait, linguists estimate that up to one-third of modern English has been influenced by French, from our potatoes au gratin to our film noir and entrepreneurs. Thanks to the fact that English has more in common lexically with French than any other Latin-based language, English speakers who take on French as a foreign language will experience a familiar lexical déjà vu.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
According to the FSI study, a native English speaker needs between 23 and 24 weeks and 575-600 class hours on average to achieve language proficiency in French.
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Language Learning: An Important NoteBy now, all of you native English speaking language learners and aspiring language learners have got to be wondering: How is Spanish one of the easiest language if I still can't figure out when to use "por" and when to use "para"?
It's very important to note that these findings are just based on one study with relatively experienced language learners studying very intensively and that most of us don't have that kind of time on our hands. In addition, every learner is very different. What's easy for one learner might be very difficult for another, no matter how similar or different the language is to English. With some time, adequate resources, and, most importantly, motivation, any language is within your reach.
If you're looking to get started and see how possible language learning really is for you, a great place to start is the award-winning language software offered by Rocket Languages.
Enjoy a free trial of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, or one of a dozen other languages and learn how fun and easy it can be to learn a language.
Buena suerte, boa sorte, bon chance!
Note: This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer. Andrea will be available to comment on any thoughts that you would like to share!