Lots of people out there flirt with the idea of learning a new language, but are wary of a long-term investment of time and effort, so they want to find out what the easiest language to learn for English speakers is. Or maybe they`re just curious. In any case, what makes a language easier to learn is (a) its simplicity, and (b) its similarity to your native language, or other languages you`ve already learned. So, what languages are both fairly simple yet also closely related to English?
Luckily, the United States government has invested a lot of research into this issue through its Foreign Service Institute, where members of the American foreign service learn foreign languages intensively before being posted oversees, as well as through the Defense Language Institute. Both institutes classify commonly-learned foreign languages into levels of difficulty for English speakers. FSI classifies the languages into 5 categories, with Category I being the easiest (for native English speakers) and Category V being the most difficult.
Category I: 23-24 weeks of fulltime classroom study (575-600 hours)
Category I languages are considered closely related to English and therefore require the shortest amount of study time. Some of the languages belong to the same Germanic language family as English, including Dutch, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. These languages are structurally the most similar to English, and have large amounts of cognate vocabulary. Other languages in this category belong to the Romance language family, including French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. These languages share a large amount of cognate vocabulary with English, much of which entered English via the French language.
After studying languages that are much more different from English, such as Hebrew, Arabic, and especially Japanese, learning French has felt like a breeze. Grammatically it is very similar, and so much of the vocabulary is the same, just pronounced differently. After a few weeks I could read the news in French and understand 80% of it. Yet after years and years of Japanese study I`m still not sure I understand 80% of a newspaper. French is insanely easier, no comparison whatsoever. After a few months of daily yet casual French practice I could converse and communicate. Not fluently, but I was able to understand and make myself understood. It probably took me 5 times as long to reach that conversational level in Japanese.
Which of these is the absolute easiest? There is no clear consensus on that. But a lot of people say Dutch is the easiest.
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
German is another language that is closely related to English, just like Dutch, Afrikaans, and others from Category I. But German is more grammatically complex than those other languages, especially its case system. That puts it in a more difficult category.
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Category III languages are those that reflect significant cultural differences or linguistic differences from English.
Category III languages are not necessarily complex. I have no experience with Swahili, but Indonesian and Malaysian (which are very closely related to each other) are extremely simple languages, simpler than most of the Category I languages. The reason they are not in Category I is that they are not related to English, so there is almost no cognate vocabulary. You are learning almost all of the words from scratch. I thought that Indonesian was the easiest language to learn because of its simplicity, but once I started learning French I understood just how much of a head start you get when you already know a lot of the vocabulary.
With that said, you can make rapid progress with Indonesian/Malaysian and never get stuck for very long, because it`s so straightforward.
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
These languages are considerably different from English, and in some cases fairly complex.
|Bosnian||Persian (including Farsi but also Dari and Tajik)|
Category IV languages take around twice as long to learn as Category I languages. These languages tend to work grammatically and conceptually quite differently from English. Some of them are quite complex in a particular area. For example, Hebrew is not an entirely complex language – it is quite simple in many ways, but its verbal system and morphological system (creating words from roots and affixes) is very different from English and likely to consume a lot of your time and effort until you wrap your head around them.
Similarly, Tagalog is not a terribly complex language, but its syntax (which alternates between VSO and SVO, and sometimes VOS) and its verbal system (with differing verb forms that indicate emphasis on the doer or receiver of the action) are very different from English and are likely to make you stop in your tracks and say “HUH?” until you slowly but surely wrap your head around them.
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
These are generally the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
Category V languages are the ones that truly challenge your resolve, and that require commitment and love for the learning process, and often a deep cultural interest. They talk around four times as long to learn as Category I languages, with intensive study. All of these languages are highly complex in certain ways and are very different from English.
From this category I have studied Arabic and Japanese, both of which are longterm projects and languages that you can keep studying your whole life in pursuit of mastery. I once made an attempt at beginning to study Korean, but as soon as I realized that my motivation was kind of wishy-washy, that I had just been toying with the idea of adding Korean to my repetoire, I gave up on studying because I knew that I had a long journey ahead of me. I didn`t have a deep enough interest in the culture or have life goals tied to Korean, so I wouldn`t have had the motivation to stick it out for the longer term.
Arabic phonology is difficult for English speakers to learn, because there are sounds that don`t exist in English and there are distinctions in sound that English speakers have a hard time perceiving. And Arabic vocabulary is almost entirely unfamilar to English speakers. To top it all off, in order to learn Arabic well you need to learn both Modern Standard Arabic as well as a spoken dialect, which are significantly different. You also have to familiarize yourself with other dialects well enough to understand them when you hear them. So in a way, you are learning a language family, not just a language. This is what makes Arabic so daunting. If you just want to learn a single country`s dialect (Egyptian seems to be the most popular) then Arabic would probably be a Category IV language.
Arabic is a hugely fascinating language that opens up a whole new world to you, but it demands a lot of effort before it hands the key over to you.
Learning Japanese is another long term adventure. It`s a fun language, and it`s easy to get started because its pronunciation is very simple. But right away you will start to notice that Japanese sentences are constructed very differently from English sentences, and that you will not be able to think the same way when speaking Japanese. Not only grammatically, but conceptually the language is very different and reflects the different way of thinking that is learned in Japanese culture. When learning Japanese, there are times when you`re convinced that you are expressing yourself with utmost clarity yet Japanese people will not have a clue what you are talking about.
After years and years of speaking Japanese, and largely being considered fluent, I still sometimes feel I am a child stacking blocks on top of each other to create sentences. That`s largely because of its SOV (subject-object-verb) syntax, which sounds like a simple distinction but when you start using embedded questions or relative clauses your mind starts having to perform some impressive acrobatics.
But the real longterm challenge is learning to read and write Japanese, and to be honest – I don`t think the Foreign Service Institute`s Category V rating takes into account the reading and writing. Their FSI course materials that I`ve seen only teach romanized Japanese, and in my experience learning to just converse in Japanese takes about 5 times longer than learning to converse in a Category I language, while learning to read and write takes immeasurably longer.
Learning to read and write Kanji (Chinese characters) as they are used in Japanese is a long process for most learners. There are about 2000 kanji that Japanese people must learn by the time they graduate high school, but that is really the bare minimum that you need in order to comfortably read a book or newspaper. Most kanji have multiple pronunciations and meanings, which depend on the context – a complication that does not really exist in Chinese. Learning kanji a fascinating journey, but there can be no doubt that it makes Japanese one of the hardest languages to learn for people with no knowledge of Kanji.
Japanese is certainly the most challenging language that I have studied, and definitely one of the most difficult for English speakers. With that said, plenty of Westerners learn Japanese very well, because they love Japanese culture or have professional goals that relate to Japanese language. If you are motivated to live in Japan, then there`s no reason you should avoid learning Japanese, and there`s no reason you can`t learn it well. It`s worth the investment.