What is the Easiest Language to Learn?

featured image for the on easiest language to learn, library photo

It’s a common curiosity want to know what the easiest language to learn is. It’s a common question for people who want to learn a foreign language for the first time.

Someone who wants to learn a language for first time looks for the easiest language because it’s generally understood that learning a language is not easy. The easiest language to learn or any other language for that matter will still be a time consuming endeavor no matter what.

Candidates for Easiest Language to Learn

What the easiest language to learn for any single person is will depend on their native language. What other foreign languages they already speak also matters.

The easiest language to learn for English speakers would probably most commonly be considered Dutch. English also shares a large overlap in vocabulary with romance languages as well. This is because of the influence that Latin and French had on the language.

What about Scots?

English isn’t necessarily considered to have any sister languages that are as comparatively close as say Spanish is to Italian.

You could say that Scots is the easiest language to learn for English speakers. If you’re one of those that consider it a language.

Scots is a language in Scotland that broke off from English in the 15th century. Scots didn’t experience the Great Vowel shift that helped to transition English from Middle English to Modern English. The language is debated by some linguists to only be a dialect of English. This is likely the reason you never hear it to be considered the easiest language to learn for English speakers.

This is a great video by the Langfocus YouTube channel discussing the origins and current state of the Scots language.

If you were to consider Scots to be a separate language, it would be easy to argue that it’s the easiest language to learn for English speakers.

Scots has some vocabulary distinct from Modern English. It also has words that are very recognizable to native English speakers. I would have to imagine this is even more true for native speakers of British English than it is for those of American English.

Some time after writing this article I began to study Scots. I wrote an article on my impressions of Scots which includes recommendations for resources to study Scots: The Scots Language: An Introduction and Resources

In my experience the biggest factor when determining the easiest language to learn, or the difficulty of a language in general comes from a primary factor. That being the relationship between the vocabulary of your target language and those that you already know.

Scots is on one side of the spectrum of difficulty that shows what the easiest language to learn might look like. What about the other side of the spectrum?

Comparison of Difficulty Across Languages

Speaking from my own experience, Mandarin Chinese has been a painstaking language to learn because I’m essentially learning the vast majority of vocabulary from scratch within a writing system of characters that is completely unfamiliar to me.

As another opposite to that, I began learning Spanish three and a half weeks ago and I’m already having conversations about simple topics with my tutor, albeit with a lot of assistance from him along the way.

If you were to ask me what is the easiest language to learn based on my personal experience? The answer would be Spanish. However, it’s largely do to my previous experience learning other languages.

The reason Spanish is coming to me so quickly is because of my skill level in Portuguese. 89% of the words in Spanish and Portuguese are cognates.

I often find myself simply guessing what a word is in Spanish while I’m speaking with my tutor. I will often intentionally or unintentionally take a word in Portuguese and say it with a Latin American Spanish pronunciation, or at least to the best of my ability.

(Video explaining the differences between Spanish and Portuguese: How Similar are Spanish and Portuguese?)

Although you have to be careful about incorrectly using false friends, my guesses are correct more than half of the time.

In some cases, the words are almost exactly the same and in others there’s only a slight variation.

There are some words like encontrarto find or to meet as well as several other meanings depending on the context – that have the same spelling and seem to have the same usage in Spanish and Portuguese.

There are also words like llamarto call – and llegarto arrive – in Spanish that have the same meaning as chamar and chegar, respectively, in Portuguese. In this case there seems to have been some sort of pronunciation shift that changed ll- to ch- or vise versa.

An old Spanish phrasebook that I had laying around that I’ve been using to study basics like numbers, months, etc. and to improve my pronunciation.

In contrast, I rarely see cognates between Mandarin Chinese and English.

I studied Mandarin for five months and saw painfully slow progress compared to Spanish.

After five months, although being able to read a few hundred characters, I can utter only a few sentences confidently in the language.

There are other examples that I can pull on to demonstrate this.

German was slightly more difficult for me than Portuguese because a vast amount of intermediate and advanced vocabulary in English is Latin based, often coming from French. I once heard that 60% of words in English come from Old French. (This factoid came from “The History of English Podcast” by Kevin Stroud.)

German and English are both Germanic languages. This relationship is most evident to me when it comes to elementary vocabulary.

German and English share a lot of words like houseHaus in German. While Portuguese and English share more advanced cognates like obligatoryobrigatório in Portuguese.

Picking up new vocabulary in Portuguese was more difficult when I began studying but became easier with time. It was the opposite case with German. It was easy to pick up vocabulary initially with German but became more difficult with time.

The Easiest Language to Learn is…

“What is the easiest language to learn?” isn’t an easy question to answer. There are some concrete answers for it depending on where you’re from and what languages you speak.

If you’re a monolingual native English speaker from the United States, then the easiest language to learn is most likely going to be Spanish.

From a global perspective English and Spanish are relatively similar languages. Although there are some languages that might be more similar to English, like Dutch for instance, you’re very unlikely to have the same kind of exposure to Dutch in the United States as Spanish. This is especially true if you live in the Southwest, Texas or Florida.

Your motivation is also likely to be greater when it comes to learning Spanish. Maybe it will give you more opportunities to travel for work or jump into conversations with Spanish speaking friends or colleagues.

Not to mention how you might recognize a word in Spanish at the grocery store or on a sign in the airport. In language learning little victories like this can be a huge driving force for progress.

Picking a Language to Learn

Motivation for learning a language can be even more important than the language itself. The amount of effort required to even learn languages that are considered “easy” is large. Hence the reason so many people are interested in finding the easiest language to learn.

Finding 20 or 30 minutes a day to study can seem like a daunting task if you can’t see a purpose in it.

I recommend taking these two things into consideration before making a decision.

First, ask yourself ‘What’s my motivation for learning a language?’

If you want to learn your spouse’s native language because you want to be able to communicate with their family in the language, then you can stop here and get to studying.

Let’s say your motivation for learning a foreign language is vaguer.

Say that you want to learn a foreign language as a hobby for the first time, maybe it’s a life-long goal of yours.

Write down a short list of languages that you have an interest in and then ask yourself ‘Given my motivations which languages are closest to mine or those that I know?’

In other words ‘Which languages that I want to learn are closest to those I speak?’

As a way to help determine what the easiest language to learn might be for you, check out this article that gives a list of languages by difficulty based on study hours: Language Difficulty Ranking

In the case that you’ve boiled your decision down to two languages that you really love. Flip a coin and book a trip to the country where the language that wins the coin toss is most spoken. Having this trip planned will be a great daily motivator for learning your new target language.

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