Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one that I didn’t have to hike, struggle and bushwhack through.
When it comes to learning a language to fluency, that could make all the difference.
Let’s face it, we’ve all got stuff to do.
There’s no shame in hitting that “easy” button sometimes.
We get it—you’ve got a life.
We’re all parents, friends, neighbors, small business owners, full-time travelers or artists.
We’re here to tell you definitively, that’s just not the case.
Now, if you’re a native speaker of a European language and want to devote yourself to learning the intricacies of a language like Pirahã, we support you wholeheartedly. But if you’re looking for a language that’s not gonna require 3-hour evening classes Monday through Friday for the next 10 years, well, we support you just a little more wholeheartedly.
And that’s what we’re here to help with!
What Makes a Language Easy to Learn?
There’s no such thing as one language that’s just plain easier than all the others, but there are a lot of languages that are way easier for you personally to learn.
I travel all over the world and one thing I’ve noticed is that all 7 billion of us seem to have strong opinions on our native languages.
Two people in the same country (even the same city!) will tell you with equal degrees of confidence that their language is super hard and super easy, that you’ll never learn it or that it’s a piece of cake. They’ll swear to you that English was a breeze to learn, or that it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
What accounts for these huge differences in opinion? Two things:
1. There’s no such thing as a universally easy language.
2. The ease of a language depends on the learner.
There are generally three major things that make a language easy or hard for any given learner:
1. How closely it’s related to the languages you already know.
2. How complex its system of sounds is.
3. How complicated its grammar is.
Some learners struggle more to understand the strange sounds they hear coming out of noses and throats and rounded lips, and others would take a good French nasal vowel over German noun declensions any day of the week. Whatever your learning style is, here are 3 kinds of easy languages for you to get started with.
You Can’t Argue with Science: The 11 Easiest Languages
Linguistic Neighbors: Languages Related to Your Native Language
Wanna see something cool?
That is my house.
Dat is mijn huis.
Das ist mein Haus.
Dit is my huis.
It doesn’t take long to crack the code and figure out that these four lines say the same thing in closely related West Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German, and Afrikaans, from top to bottom). Maybe some of the words for “that” are a bit more of a stretch, but how quickly do all the others fall into place when you look at them?
This is what it’s like when you start learning a language related to your own. You’ll see cognates, or words that have a common origin and similar meanings, like little hints buried in a foreign language sentence.
Learning the languages most closely related to your own is like learning with linguistic training wheels. Here are a few examples of languages that are child’s play for certain learners, depending on what languages they already know:
English’s first cousin, the only language more closely related to either one is Frisian. Dutch is full of English cognates—drinken (to drink), kat (cat), week (week), licht (light) and hundreds more. Once you’ve got the most basic fundamentals down, you should be more than ready for basic conversations and children’s books.
2. Haitian Creole
Are you a native French speaker, or have you held on to some high school French? Haitian Creole, one of the largest French creoles, is made up of a mostly French vocabulary mixed with indigenous flavors of the new world.
The Philippines is not only one of the fastest-growing destinations for young expats—it’s also a country where Spanish-speakers can learn the local tongue with ease. Everyday items are usually similar or exactly the same as the Spanish name.
Don’t see anything familiar here? It’s okay. You don’t have to already know a big world language like English, French or Spanish to get started on some easy language learning. Unless you only speak a language isolate like Korean or Basque, there are plenty of long lost linguistic cousins waiting for you to look them up and get in touch!
Check resources like the Ethnologue to learn about your language’s family tree and what other tongues are most closely related to it.
Effortless Phonology: Languages with Painless Pronunciation
Have you ever overheard a foreign language like Arabic or Cantonese and wondered how all those sounds even make up a real language? To some extent, this is just because the speech sounds of unfamiliar languages often sound garbled and meaningless to foreigners.
But in terms of phonology (the system of speech sounds in a language), not all languages are made equal: Some have dozens of different consonants and vowels, and some have only a few.
Do French nasals or Arabic pharyngeals sound like linguistic nightmares? Don’t panic.
If learning all the new sounds of a foreign language is your biggest challenge, you should consider starting with a language like one of these:
You saw this one coming, right? Spanish is often the go-to language for Western learners because of its small inventory of speech sounds and user-friendly phonetic spelling system. In Spanish, a always sounds more or less like a (even with an accent mark), which we as learners really appreciate. Thanks, Spanish.
Japanese has historically gotten bad PR among language learners, but its pronunciation is actually remarkably simple. Of its 19 consonants, only a couple are rare among world languages, and its five vowels are remarkably similar to those in Spanish.
It’s got a few more vowels than its cousin down in Spain, but Italian’s big advantage is that most of its consonants and vowels are among the most common sounds found in world languages. That means most learners won’t find many words they can’t get their mouth around!
To see what’s out there for you beyond these three, you could start with this list of world languages ordered by number of phonemes (distinct speech sounds) to get an idea of which languages are more phonologically difficult than others.
Keep in mind that most of the extremes (languages with very many or very few phonemes) are very old, very isolated languages that might not be easy or practical to learn, but you can still use the tool to compare whether Greek or Russian is your best choice.
Goodbye Grammar Book: Languages with Simple Structures
Just like some languages love to play with diverse and complicated sounds, some seem to have an endless love affair with rules and grammar.
Other languages, thankfully, aren’t quite so strict and demanding. You learn some vocabulary and a few basic usage rules, and you’re good to go. Here are some of those languages:
7. Mandarin Chinese
This is probably the first time you’ve seen Chinese on a list of easy languages, right? That’s a shame, because structurally speaking, it’s a cinch. Almost every word of Mandarin has one and just one meaning. It also generally follows a subject-verb-object word order, common to most of the world’s larger languages, so no new tricky syntax for most learners.
We mentioned Dutch above, but Afrikaans is like a grammatically boiled-down version of its parent language. Whereas Dutch demands verb conjugations like those in English—for instance, I am, you are, it is—Afrikaans doesn’t bother you with the details. In South Africa it’s ek is (I am), jy is (you are), sy is (she is). What could be easier?
The language known regionally as Indonesian or Malaysian totals around 270 million total speakers, making it both one of the largest and fastest-growing world languages. Even better, it has no grammatical categories for gender, number or tense. Basically, you learn one form of a word, and you can use it just about whenever you want.
This language was invented by some linguists who were also great global citizens, and even though it’s “made up,” its 2 million speakers, several hundred thousand Wikipedia articles, and organizations worldwide would argue that it still counts. Esperanto was designed with you in mind: Minimal grammar, easy rules and as a bonus, lots of things that resemble many other world languages.
I confess: I hate learning grammar. It’s not just me, right? If you’re a free-spirited language learner who can’t be bothered with the details, then go for one of these simply structured languages.
11. Bonus Easy Language: English
Learners across the globe seem to have extreme feelings towards English—it’s the hardest or the easiest language they’ve ever learned, they love it or they hate it. But as we’ve referenced here and there throughout this post, linguistically speaking, it falls somewhere around the fiftieth percentile.
My mother tongue has some difficult sounds like interdental th, some phrasal verbs that admittedly make no sense and a spelling system that makes even less sense. But in general, English doesn’t have a lot of inflections, so there’s no messy grammar and most, though not all, of its sounds will be familiar to speakers of other languages. But there’s one other factor that makes English in many ways the easiest language of them all.
It’s absolutely everywhere. You can’t avoid it. Open up your browser, turn on the television, travel to any major city across the globe, and you’d need heavy duty earplugs to avoid hearing the Anglo takeover.
It’s often difficult to learn less widely-spoken languages like Danish, Turkish or Thai, but English decided a while back that it’s kind of done with national borders, which is good news for language learners. With the wealth of English language media on just YouTube and Wikipedia alone, you hardly need to look anywhere else.
Even better: English speakers are absolutely everywhere, which means you’ve always got a conversation partner! You can’t reasonably hope to bump into Hungarian speakers often enough to keep up your language skills outside Hungary, but with English, opportunities to practice are nearly infinite.
So What’s the Easiest Language to Learn?
By now, you can probably guess that there’s no such thing.
Some of the languages with the fewest speech sounds are the most remote and grammatically complex. Others entirely lack tenses or cases or inflections of any kind and are riddled with guttural sounds nearly impossible for speakers of most languages to pronounce.
More than anything, it depends on your mother tongue and the languages you already know. And you also must take into account the sociological and international significance of a language: How much media is available in the language, and how many other speakers are there for you to reasonably practice with?
The easiest language for a native Spanish speaker to learn will be totally different than the easiest language for a native Vietnamese speaker, and it can even differ vastly between two native English speakers from the same region but who have different learning styles.
With the resources and some of the examples given in this post, you should be able to get started identifying your low-hanging linguistic fruits. No matter how busy you are or how difficult you think it’ll be, there’s a language out there for everyone!
What do you find challenging about learning a language? Is it the new sounds, the grammar rules, finding chances to practice or something else?
Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner, and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.
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