If you’re thinking about learning a new language, it can be tricky to know where to start. Do you want to go for something that’s widely-spoken like Spanish, a business-relevant language like Chinese, or a language that’s interesting to you based on personal heritage or ancestry? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the vast choosings (around 6,500 languages are spoken today!), relative ease of learning may be a good factor to consider.
What Makes a Language Easy to Learn?
Before we take a look at some of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, let’s consider what it is that makes some languages easier to learn than others.
History: Many languages share a common history. Modern English is derived from a form of Old English spoken by Germanic tribes in England who were conquered by the French and Latin-speaking Normans in 1066. That’s how modern English became a hodge-podge of Latin, French, and German, with vocabulary and grammar structures taken from all three languages.
Writing System: Mastering a new writing system on top of learning to speak a new language takes time and practice. Languages that use alphabets (meaning that each letter represents a sound), such as Greek, Russian, Thai, Hebrew, and Arabic are still likely to be easier for English-speakers to learn than those that use non-alphabetic writing systems (each symbol may represent a syllable or an entire word), such as Japanese or Chinese.
Cognates: Cognates are two words in different languages derived from a similar origin. They tend to look and sound the same and have similar meanings. Vocabulary is easier to learn in languages that share lots of cognates with one’s native language. For example, Spanish ‘irresponsable’ is a cognate of English ‘irresponsible,’ ‘film’ is the same in German and English, and Italian ‘adorabile’ is English ‘adorable.’
Exposure: If you hear a language often, it is easier to learn it. Most people in the U.S. can think of a few Spanish words off the top of their heads and are familiar with the sound of the language because they hear it spoken in their communities, on TV, or on the radio. Not only does exposure provide a jumpstart to learning, but having more contact with the target language provides more opportunities to practice speaking and listening.
Resources: Access to language-learning resources also affects the ability to learn. You may be interested in learning Mixtec or Swahili, but depending on where you live, it can be hard to find classes, apps, books, and other resources necessary for mastering the new language.
Grammar: Finally, the language-learner’s least favorite topic: grammar. How different or similar the target language’s grammar is to the native language will certainly influence language-learning difficulty. However, the overall complexity of the grammar is important to consider as well. After all, some languages bless us with a lack of verb tenses, no plurals, and very few exceptions to the rules, while others involve cases, genders, and moods and are so exception-riddled that the rules are ultimately more exceptional that the exceptions. Whew!
5 Easy Languages for English Speakers to Learn
If you’re interested in tackling a relatively easy language, consider the following options:
Norwegian tops the list for many reasons. Like English, it’s a Germanic language, and that’s not all the two have in common. Norwegian is full of cognates, and its word order is very similar to that of English. For example, “Can you help me?” is translated to “Kan du hjelpe meg?” – exact same order. Additionally, verb conjugations are straightforward, and pronunciation is easier than that of many European languages.
As the most widely taught and spoken foreign language in the United States, Spanish wins a lot of brownie points in the exposure and resources categories. It’s also a very phonetic language, meaning that – once you’ve got the rules down – reading is easy, because words are written like they are pronounced. (This differs from English, where words that are pronounced similarly are often written very differently – think their, they’re, there, or two, to, too). There are a lot of Spanish-English cognates, but Spanish does have more verb conjugations, which can get confusing. Luckily, once you’ve got the conjugation rules down, most tenses do align with the ones we use in English, so they may be easier to learn than they seem.
Nearly thirty percent of English words are of French origin. Another thirty percent are of Latin origin, but here’s the catch: Since French is a romance language, meaning that it’s of Latin origin, most of those Latin words likely also came to English via French. No matter how you add it up, you’re looking at significant similarities between the two languages. There are some pitfalls to French however: it’s notoriously difficult to spell and to pronounce, so new learners will need to dedicate extra time to both of these skills.
This one may come as a surprise, but if you’re interested in learning an Asian language, Indonesian has several qualities that make it a logical choice for English speakers. First of all, it’s one of the only Asian languages that uses the Latin alphabet. And like Spanish, it’s quite phonetic, meaning that each letter tends to be pronounced in just one way. Indonesian grammar structures are very different from English grammar structures, but they’re also relatively simple. There are no verb conjugations, no plurals (just repeat the word twice), and no grammatical genders. If you struggle with grammar, Indonesian might just be the right choice for you!
Afrikaans is arguably the easiest language on our list for an English speaker. Like English, Afrikaans is a Germanic language, and its vocabulary is strikingly similar to that of English. As in Indonesian, there are no verb conjugations (i.e. throw, threw, thrown), nor grammatical genders in Afrikaans. And if you’re not sure how to say the name of something, just point and ask: “Wat is dit in Afrikaans?”
If you’re interested in learning a new language, check out ALTA’s language training services page. We offer customized individual or group training programs in more than 100 languages!
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.