There are legends, that some languages are easier than others. What languages, why easier, and easier for whom – that’s another story. In this post, let’s go beyond urban legends and find what is this famous easiest language to learn.
If you’ve been around someone who tried to learn a foreign language, you are probably familiar with the idea that the easiest language in the world is Spanish, and nothing can be easier than that. I heard this a) from folks who never encountered Spanish speech, b) from folks who spoke their native language only and c) from folks who learned Spanish but never studied other foreign languages.
Though many language learners look at Spanish through these rose-colored glasses of “simplicity”, they are not totally wrong.
Spanish is indeed one of the easiest languages to learn; however, only for a part of humankind. For the rest of the globe, the answer would be quite different.
So let’s start from the beginning.
Does the easiest language exist at all?
The easiest language. Did you notice that determined article there, at the beginning of the phrase? This little “the“?
Thinking about the easiest language we often imagine something uniform: one single language whose linguistic criteria such as syntactic structure, vocabulary, morphology, phonetics or typology are somehow easier than those of all other languages. And easier for everyone.
But what do we usually consider easy?
I’m sure you will agree with me about this one. Nothing can be more transparent, more evident and more practical than something you already know.
Consciously or unconsciously, our brain compares everything new with the already existent information related to the topic. In the case of the foreign languages, you have no other choice as to compare a new tongue to your native language. And it’s from these differences you decide whether one language is “an easy one” or whether it should be classified as WTH. In case you have never experienced a WTH, here is some Amharic:
A mother tongue is different for every person. So every single one of us has a different “initial” language database and there is no such thing on the Earth as the easiest language to learn.
By contrast, there are whole groups of languages that would be quite easy to tame. What are they?
These are the languages that are closely related to your mother tongue.
How languages are related to each other
Neither language does exist on its own. Languages form groups, branches, and families, almost like living species.
This analogy is not random. Same like living species, languages constantly evolve over the time. Tracing the origins of living languages, historical linguists were able to create a language genealogy: a tree model that describes the genetic relationship between different tongues, both living and extinct.
Languages of the same branch have the same origin. For example, all Romance languages such as French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese had the same “parent” language – the Latin. Similarly, all Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Serbian and many others) evolved from the common Proto-Slavic language. Both Latin and Proto-Slavic, in their turn, had a common ancestor – a Proto-Indo-European language spoken somewhere in the Neolithic period.
The Proto-Indo-European wasn’t the easiest language to learn in the world but it gave birth to more than a thousand other tongues. However, it is a “grandfather” for only one part of the linguistic world. On the other side of the globe, the language evolution had nothing to do with PIE. So if we trace the modern Chinese language back to its roots we will come to a totally different language family (namely, Sino-Tibetan) that have nothing in common with Indo-European languages. The same would be true for Afroasiatic family, Altaic family, Dravidian, Uralic et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
All languages within a single language family have commons features (usually, those of their ancestor-language). It can be a shared syntactic structure, lexicon, morphological structure or phonological system. Languages of the same branch share not only that “family” feature but also other attributes that are found neither on the higher family level, neither in other language branches. So Romance languages called this way because they have a good deal of common “Roman” vocabulary + distinct grammatical features that didn’t come directly from Proto-Indo-European but rather evolved from Latin.
When you come across a sister-language (it is to say, the one from the same language branch), you may even find that you can understand certain words. When you start learning this language, you may already understand its structure without learning it.
But there are many more shortcuts.
Why sister-languages are the easiest to learn?
When you learn your first language as a child you create so-called “language database”: a reference system that combines all sounds and structures of your language.
Other tongues represent different reference systems consisting of elements that may or may not exist in your own. Since many of these structures will be common for your native and its sister-languages, you would have to learn less by default. Which is not the case with the foreign language from a different language family.
Let’s take a close look at each of the levels:
Syntax and Morphology
Gr-r-r-rammar-r-r-r. The sole word sounds intimidating.
If you check Russian grammar you will discover that some languages are created to complicate lives. As opposed to English that does not change anything inside words, sentences and phrases, Russian does and does a lot. We have six cases, three declensions, three genders and different word-endings for each combination, we make adjectives, nouns and verbs agree with each other, we ignore definite and indefinite articles, we have free word order, we drop subjects from the sentence and we can say: “Да нет наверное” (literally: yes-no-probably) meaning “I doubt that”.
That’s what happens when you choose a language from another branch.
Languages of the same branch have a ton of common vocabulary. Plus, they often actively (and heavily) borrow from “neighbor” branches. For this reason, you can easily find “common ground” between English, French and Spanish words: it depends – ça dépend – depende.
However, you cannot turn on your inductive reasoning mechanism and simply “guess” the meaning of a similarly-looking word when you deal with 這取決於.
We all know that French with its 16 vowels is not the easiest language to learn. But, hey, there are some tonal languages like Thai where the same /kha:/ would mean 5 different things depending on whether this /a:/ has falling, rising, low, middle or high tone. And, honestly, first few weeks you won’t even hear the difference.
For the most of European languages, by contrast, a tone would only be a marker of a question, an emphasis, or other prosodic elements. Nothing too crazy.
Languages of the same branch often use the same kind of writing system. And being familiar with letters can be a huge asset when you start learning a language. We unconsciously consider the languages that use Latin script easier than the languages that use their own: same letters often signify the same sounds. Not always, but the differences can be easily learned.
Although, if the same sounds are meanly encrypted in abugida (ኮካ-ኮላ / โคคา-โคลา ) – good luck to you.
(It’s “Coca-Cola”, in case you’re wondering.)
It’s not a typical “linguistic” criterion but let’s admit it: a similar culture makes real-time communication much easier.
In English, you don’t even have to think about the way you should be saying simple things like “Good morning” or “Hi!”. You just say them. In Russian, you would have to think a bit whether you should use a polite form or an informal speech. In Japanese, you would have to think twice, because Japanese actually developed a fairly complex honorific language – keigo – that is built upon various kinds of polite, humble or respectful speech. And every time you open your mouth you have to decide which one to use. Pretty tough, eh?
All these factors play an important role when you start learning a language.
If there are enough things in common, you can often profit from what is called “positive transfer”. In other words, you can use your knowledge of one language to help you in learning the other.
The easiest language to learn for English speakers
English is quite a weird language.
Officially, it belongs to the Germanic language branch. However, since the Old English was under a heavy influence of Norman French, it borrowed a lot from the Italic branch as well. Some linguists went as far as to argue that English represents an interesting blend of both Germanic and Romance languages. Others developed the Middle English creole hypothesis and concluded that it’s not a language on its own but rather a creole.
I don’t have a desire to lead you into a thicket of comparative linguistics or, worse, history of the English language (refer to David Crystal for this one). So let’s just agree that English saved some strong ties with both Romance and Germanic branches.
Therefore, the easiest language to learn for English speakers would be one of those:
North- and West-Germanic Languages:
- Scots and Frisian
The first two are actually the closest to English. So if you want to become polyglot real quick spend few weeks on Scots and Frisian!
As a consequence, these languages require the minimum time to be learned. As estimated by Foreign Service Institute, a native English speaker would need just 24 weeks to start speaking most of Germanic and Romance languages on the professional level. Compare it to how many hours you would need to learn languages from other families like Chinese or Japanese!
I’m not a native English speaker; What about me?
Good news for you, friend. If you’re reading this article and understand at least 80% of its content, you can consider yourself a rightful speaker of the English language. So fearlessly add Germanic and Romance languages in your “to learn” list.
However, your best bet would still be the language branch of your mother tongue.
For example, I’m a happy native Russian speaker. Because of this linguistic background, I experience no problem at all in understanding East-Slavic languages; Ukrainian and Belorussian sound for me like slightly distorted Russian (although they are very fascinating languages on their own). So, for me, the easiest language to learn would be definitely one of those.
West- and South-Slavic languages are obviously harder, but, again, it’s not deadly. I can still understand about 50% of everyday Serbian, Croatian, Czech, or Slovak speech despite the fact that I have never tried to learn any of them.
So I encourage you to do a little experiment and just check how much of your sister-languages you can understand. Wikitongues will give you an amazing opportunity to listen to any of the world languages. Just search one you are interested in – and enjoy.
I would also recommend you to check English-related languages and compare how well you understand these ones. My findings are quite frustrating as I clearly struggle quite a bit even when it comes to Frisian or Scots. So I would really love if you leave your feedback and tell me how you feel about these languages.
Few words in the end
You may come to the conclusion that your easiest language to learn is the one you’re interested in the least.
And it’s completely fine.
We learn languages because we like them, not because they are easy. Your motivation is the only thing that counts. And nothing can be more exciting, more wonderful and more inspiring than learning a language you love.