06 December 2012

The "easiest foreign languages to learn"

Based on data from the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute language rankings, the following are judged to be the ten easiest foreign languages for a native-English speaking person to learn:

1) Afrikaans
Like English, Afrikaans is in the West Germanic language family. Unlike English, its structure won’t make your head spin. A great feature of Afrikaans, especially for grammar-phobes, is its logical and non-inflective structure. Unlike English, there is no verb conjugation (swim, swam, swum). Unlike Romance languages, there is no gender (un homme, une femme in French).

Another feature of Afrikaans is its vocabulary, which shares many Germanic-derived root words that are familiar to English speakers. Vocabulary-building is as easy as pointing to an object and asking, “Wat is dit in Afrikaans?”
2) French
Linguists estimate that French has influenced up to a third of the modern English language, from the language of the courts in the 11th century to modern terms like je ne sais quoi, après-ski, and bourgeois.

For language learners, English has more in common lexically with French than any other Romance language. This means that French vocabulary is more familiar, recognisable, and easy to comprehend. Advanced French learners may struggle with its gendered nouns and 17 verb forms, but for conversational learning, it’s relatively facile.  
3) Spanish
For language learners, a great feature of Spanish is its shallow orthographic depth – that is, in most cases, words are written as pronounced. This means that reading and writing in Spanish is a straightforward task.
Pronunciation is also fairly easy for native English speakers, with only ten vowel and diphthong sounds (English has 20), and no unfamiliar phonemes except for the fun-to-pronounce letter ñ. Grammatically speaking, Spanish has fewer irregularities that other Romance languages. 
4)  Dutch
Dutch is both structurally and syntactically familiar for English speakers. In terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, it parallels English in many ways, such as groen (green) or de oude man (the old man). In addition to familiar Germanic root words, the Dutch language adopted many loan words from French, with familiar words like drogeren (drug) and blok (block).

Though some vowel sounds may be new for English speakers, Dutch pronunciation follows the English model of syllable stress, so pronouncing Dutch words is somewhat intuitive.

Dutch is similar to German, but because it has no cases and a less complicated grammatical system, many linguistic scholars consider Dutch to be the easiest language for English speakers
5) Norwegian
Norwegian and English have very similar syntax and word order. Verbs are an especially simple feature, with no conjugation according to number or person. The rules of conjugation are particularly straightforward, with a simple –e suffix for past tense, and –s for passive verbs.

Norwegian has the logical system of a tonal “pitch accent” to stress either the first or second syllable in matching words, as in English’s “desert” and “dessert”.

The one drawback to studying Norwegian is finding opportunities to use it. In Norway’s top-ranking education system, English is taught nationwide, starting at the primary school level, and most Norwegians are near-fluent.
6-10) Portugese, Swedish, Italian, Esperanto, Frisian - see the Telegraph photo gallery for commentary.


  1. There's a fascinating argument that English is a creole of Norse here on ESR's blog:


    The argument in the comments is as good as the article. ESR's readers (other than me) are very smart.

    1. That's a blogworthy link, Wayne. Thanks for finding it.

  2. I'd like to add the perspective of an aspie (asperger's syndrome 'sufferer') who has had a lot of experience with language, if I may.

    I am a native English speaker. Co-incidentally enough, the first foreign language I began to learn was Afrikaans. I was taught Afrikaans by my grandfather, while he was alive. It was relatively easy to learn and conformed to most linguistic rules I knew at that time. I was very young and didn't learn a great deal of the language, much to my regret, but it did seem very easy to pick up. Myself and my grandfather made a game of speaking about my mother (his daughter) 'behind her back' whilst she was within earshot, safe from the repercussions of her comprehension.

    My Father happens to be fluent in French. He also knew some German and Swedish. He taught me some of each, but none really took my fancy. Being linguistically gifted, I was entered into a language program from the age of 6 and began to learn Japanese.

    Long story short, Afrikaans, French, German, Swedish, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, Mandarin, Farsi and Turkish pale in comparison to the joys of Japanese as far as I am concerned. No other language follows as logical a set of rules. Of course, I may be (indeed, I certainly am) entirely biased, but Japanese is the best constructed of all the languages and in my opinion, the easiest to learn.

    Culture does of course colour difficulty in language learning: one cannot be said to be "fluent" unless one can be understood in an emotional sense, which of course varies between culture. Ignoring such things though, Japanese as far as I have seen is the easiest of languages to learn for those who are addicted to logic =)

    1. I would agree with you if you are only talking about the spoken Japanese language. Or - if Japanese had only 1 alphabet- like say Hiragana only. I would also agree with you that it's the most logically structured language I've learned. Unfortunately, the moment you get into the reading and writing component, it becomes a real beast. While the number of characters that require memorization is a fraction of Chinese, Japanese students graduate from high school with 2000-3000 unique kanji characters memorized, and two alphabets- 50 hiragana, and 50 katakana, just to read a basic newspaper.

    2. Ah yes true, the 1946 everyday kanji =)

      Fortunately for me, memorisation was never an issue but I take your point!

  3. Dutch is actually the closest to English within the language family. Good for the Dutch who have an easy time learning English. Too bad for English-speakers that Dutch is quite a useless language for them.

  4. I believe that Frisian is the closest living relative to English. This is unsurprising since some peoples calling themselves Angles and Saxons came from Anglo-Frisian speaking areas of Northern Europe and paid a rather lengthy visit to some foggy islands in the North Sea around 500 CE when the Romans quit bothering to defend them.

    I also think it is pretty silly to talk about "easiest/hardest languages to learn". Everyone believes that Chinese is difficult, but it has no tenses, no voices, and no changes in form for numbers (singular/plural).

    It is more interesting to talk about features of languages than some completely arbitrary sense of "difficulty". It is possible for all natural human languages to be learned by children of age three. How difficult can they possibly be?

    1. @ nolandda: Yeah, you're right. Frisian is technically a language. A very local language. Frisian is in between Dutch and English. But as its spoken by barely half a million people, who all also (should) speak Dutch, I ignored it.

      I've shared my office with Frisians. Honestly, it's nothing more than a speech impediment ;-) I guess it's comparable to Sottish English compared to the Queen's English or a hard-core southern US or Australian accent.

  5. Thanks for your post but I actually don't agree with some of the points.

    For Example you said that Esperanto is harder than Norwegian. That's just not true. Well, of course it depends what is your native language but since this blog is English it should be sorted for native English speaker.

    That's just my opinion, don't take it personally! :)

    1. Of course I won't take it personally, because the content of the post is not my opinion. I'm citing other sources.


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