“What is the easiest language to learn?”
I’m asked this question a lot, especially by people just starting out as language learners. It’s one of the most popular questions for beginners to ask.
So, what’s the answer?
In a moment, I’ll share what the Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) community thinks, and take a look at the views of polyglots and professors.
Before we get there, let’s explore why this question doesn’t have a single, simple answer.
What Makes a Language Easy to Learn?
First things first: everyone’s different. There is a range of factors that can influence which language is the easiest for you to learn.
Here are the key factors:
1. Your Motivation
Motivation is the single most important ingredient for success in learning any foreign language.
No matter how “easy” the language you’re studying is, you just won’t make progress if you aren’t motivated. Even if you’re learning something new in your native language (for example, legal or medical terminology), you STILL won’t learn it if you aren’t motivated.
I want to be clear on this. While it’s fun to analyse and compare languages to see which one is the easiest, the results only apply in an imaginary “ideal” world. I call this the “all things being equal” scenario. Equal time spent studying, equal access to resources, and especially equal motivation for each language.
But all things aren’t equal in the real world. People learn languages for very different reasons. People’s motivation changes from day to day. They might study inefficiently. A so-called “easy” language might be much more difficult for you than for someone else, because, as I’ve said, everyone’s different.
This is one of the reasons I say that any language can be easy to learn. In effect it’s a level playing field when it comes to assessing the difficulty of a language. When you’ve got the desire, you can find a way through the “difficult” parts of any language.
2. Your Native Language
In general, the more closely-related your native language is to your target language, the easier it will be to learn your target language.
For instance, if Italian is your first language, you’ll probably find French easier to learn than Icelandic (but again, not if you’re more motivated to learn Icelandic!). If your native language is Norwegian, Swedish will come more easily to you than it would to a native Russian speaker.
When your target language overlaps with your native language in terms of grammar, syntax or vocabulary, you naturally have a head start when you begin studying your target language.
3. Your Other Languages
The other languages you speak, or that you grew up hearing your family speak, will also influence how easy other languages will be for you to learn.
Just like with your native language, the more similar a given language is to a language you already speak, the more easily you’ll learn it.
This is especially true because if you’ve learned a second language rather than acquired it like you did your first language, then you’re very aware of the structure of that language. Maybe even more aware than you are with your native language.
Unlike your native language, learning a second language after childhood means memorising grammar rules and vocabulary, and having to consciously think each time you conjugate a verb or use a subtle turn of phrase. This hyper-awareness of the features of the language means that if you try to learn another language from the same family, you’ll have a head start.
Here’s Why I Believe that Any Language Can be Easy
Ultimately, all languages have the same absolute difficulty.
As far as I’m concerned, things like “grammar complexity”, “tones”, “writing system” and other aspects of a language don’t come into play when thinking about how difficult or easy a language is to learn.
In other words, there is no language that’s inherently more difficult to learn than any other.
How do I know this?
If some languages were more difficult, then children would take longer to pick up those languages. But they don’t. Kids around the world start speaking their native languages at around the same time.
With all that in mind, we’re now ready to dip our toes into the question “what’s the easiest language to learn?”.
What’s the Easiest Language to Learn for Fluent English Speakers?
We’ve established that “What’s the easiest language to learn?” is a subjective question. It depends on your native language, other languages you speak, and especially your passion and motivation. But if you speak English fluently, then we can get more specific about which languages are easier.
Let’s take a look at what academic research, polyglots, and language learners all say about what the easiest language is for English speakers to learn.
Academic Research on the Easiest Language to Learn
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the United States government’s diplomatic training agency. It prepares diplomats to serve at embassies and consulates around the world. This preparation includes foreign language training.
They specialise in teaching foreign languages to English speakers, so they need to know how long each language takes to learn so they can design their courses. Through research and decades of experience, they’ve ranked all of the languages they teach into categories based on the length of the course.
According to the FSI, the languages that fall into the easiest category are:
This ranking is based only on how similar these languages are to English. It’s really only useful for the ideal scenario: eight hours a day in an intensive learning environment (while getting paid!), a teacher who knows exactly how to train English speakers to use the language in the real world, and the motivation of knowing that failing the exam will negatively affect your career.
For the rest of us, the language-learning experience is very different.
For example, even though Spanish is listed here as one of the easiest languages to learn, I personally found it the hardest out of all of the languages I’ve studied. Why? Because my approach was all wrong at first. I took months-long Spanish courses instead of looking for hacks and shortcuts. I didn’t speak from day one. And worst of all, for the first few months of learning Spanish, I didn’t feel motivated.
The Telegraph newspaper has compiled its own list of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. The list is similar to the FSI’s, containing mostly Romance and Germanic languages. They also include Esperanto (more on this later) and Frisian in the list. The FSI doesn’t teach these, so they don’t appear in the FSI ranking.
Polyglot Opinions on the Easiest Language to Learn
You might be surprised to learn that not a lot of polyglots have outright stated which languages they believe are the easiest to learn. Nor have I.
Many polyglots understand that trying to rank languages according to difficulty involves too many variables to be worthwhile.
That said, there is one language out there that I think comes closest to being “objectively easy”: Esperanto.
Most of the features that help make other languages easy can be found in Esperanto, including:
- The many cognates English shares with French.
- Spanish’s consistent spelling rules.
- Mandarin’s lack of verb conjugations and noun gender.
The reason Esperanto is so easy is that it was designed to be. It’s an artificially constructed language. But don’t let its “artificiality” turn you off from studying it. The Esperanto community is huge, and active all over the world. I found it a very fulfilling language to learn.
In fact, if you’re new to language learning, then I highly recommend that you study Esperanto, even for just two weeks, before starting any other language. It will open up a worldwide community of Esperanto speakers, and expose you to the language-learning process so that your next language will be noticeably easier to learn.
My friend and fellow polyglot Judith Meyer has explored the “easiest language” question on Quora. She agrees that it’s impossible to give a conclusive answer, but examines the question from several points of view. For English speakers, she argues that Afrikaans may be one of the easiest languages. Its simple grammar and similarity to Dutch mean that English speakers can easily grasp the basics.
Like myself and many other polyglots, Judith ranks Esperanto as the easiest language to learn for the most number of people worldwide. Considering she’s the head organiser of the Polyglot Gathering and a representative of the World Esperanto Youth Organization, you can bet she knows her stuff!
What does the Fluent in 3 Months Community Think?
Of course, the conclusions of academic research and experienced polyglots still don’t mean much when it comes to your personal experience. “Your mileage may vary,” as the saying goes.
I took a look on the Fi3M forum and other language-learning websites to find out what language learners like you think. Here are a few of their responses:
- Spanish – because the writing system is very regular, it’s full of cognates with English, and the pronunciation is easy.
- French – because of its tremendous influence on English, making it quite similar.
- Scots – Not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic (which should not be confused with Irish!), Scots is sometimes considered to be a dialect of English. But much of Scots is mutually unintelligible with English, although nearly all Scots speakers also speak English fluently. The two languages do have a lot in common, so many language learners claim that it’s the easiest language to learn.
- Esperanto – This one keeps reappearing as a popular choice. Maybe there’s something to it 😉
- English also gets a shout out (though not for people who already speak English, of course!) – not because its grammar or vocabulary are inherently easy, but because it’s so accessible around the world. The internet is bursting with English resources, and there are free English language courses everywhere. Movies, TV, music and the news all have countless options online. And English teachers are everywhere. italki alone has over 1300!
So, What is the Easiest Language to Learn?
Everyone has their own opinion of which languages are the easiest.
Ultimately, the decision is up to you.
Whatever language you choose to learn, don’t let ease of the language be your only reason to learn it.
The biggest impact on your language-learning success isn’t how easy or hard the language is, it’s about how easy or hard the studying is. Find ways to make studying easy – for example, by choosing fun ways to study, using language hacks, and only studying a language you’re motivated to learn – and that language will naturally become an “easy” language for you.
Have Your Say
What do you think is the easiest language to learn, and why? Do you think it’s possible to answer this question? Let me know in the comments!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.