The Three Easiest Languages for English Speakers to Learn
October 22, 2015
Let's face it: learning a language isn't easy, and the time and effort involved in becoming proficient in a foreign language can be discouraging. From vocabulary to pronunciation and all those tricky verbs, language learning is a time-consuming, and often frustrating process. Luckily for language learners, however, not all languages are equally difficult to learn.
It is estimated that there are over 6,500 spoken languages in the world today. While geographic, historic, and cultural events led to many languages developing and evolving to be very different, it also means that some languages are more similar than others. As a general rule of thumb, a language is easier to learn when it is linguistically similar to your native language.
So what does this mean for native English speakers?
There are some languages that are considered easier for English speakers to learn than others, and a study by the U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) allowed for the creation of a list that shows the approximate time needed to learn a specific language for a native English speaker.
In order to create this list, the FSI conducted a study of students learning the languages taught at their institute. The students who participated were native English speakers typically between the ages of 30 and 40 and with an aptitude for formal language study, in addition to knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. Their schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students.
In other words: almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind when we look at the results. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.
The results were quite interesting, and very inspiring for those of us who want to learn a new, widely-spoken language.
Language Difficulty RankingAccording to the FSI, there are three basic language categories:
Category 1 includes languages that are the most similar to English.
The majority of these languages are Western European languages and include Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, German, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, and Norwegian. In general, native English speakers take between 23 and 30 weeks (575-750 classroom hours) to gain proficiency in these languages, according to the FSI study.
Categories 2 and 3 include languages that generally have considerable linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.
The list includes Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Persian, Polish, Russian , Thai, and Turkish, among many others. Because of these linguistic and cultural differences (after all, the languages are "Greek to us"), these languages take more time for English speakers to learn. The time frame? Between 36 and 44 weeks, and 900-1,100 classroom hours.
Category 4 enters even further into the impress-your-friends zone.
These languages are known to be exceptionally hard for English speakers to learn, and one of the factors that contributes to this are their completely different writing systems. Five languages are found in Category 4: Arabic (all varieties), Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin. In order to reach proficiency in these languages, FSI students required at least 88 weeks and 2,200 class hours of study in general PLUS a second year of study in the foreign country.
While the findings regarding the upper-category languages may seem pretty daunting, don't let that deter you from learning a more "difficult" language. It's very important to remember that language difficulty is relative, and what may take one learner 3 weeks to learn could be learned in several days by another learner.
But enough with the most difficult languages. What about the easiest languages?According to the FSI, there are 10 languages that fit into the first category of "easiest" languages. Since no further studies have been done to filter out the easiest languages among these 10, we'll focus on the most spoken languages in this category. After all, you don't want to just learn a language, you want to be able to use it as much as possible!
And now, with no further ado, the three most spoken, easiest languages for English speakers to learn:
Number 1: SpanishWhy should I learn it?
With over an estimated 422 million native speakers worldwide , Spanish is the fourth most spoken language in the world (behind Chinese, Hindi, and English). It's an official, national, or widely spoken language in 44 countries, including the United States. Believe it or not, the United States has recently been cited as the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world... it's time for Americans to learn some more Español to speak with their amigos and vecinos...
What makes Spanish easier?
Spanish only differs from English in morphology (word formation) and phonology (pronunciation). English speakers learning Spanish have the luxury of using the same alphabet (apart from a few letters) and the straightforward Spanish pronunciation system: words are pronounced exactly as they are written. Grammatically speaking, Spanish actually has less irregularities than other Latin-based languages. In addition, English speakers have more and more opportunities to be exposed to Spanish on a daily basis, even in their native countries (especially for us Americans).
Don't let the relative similarity between English and Spanish give you a false sense of security, though. There are many Spanish dialects which feature strong differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and minor grammatical differences, which is something to keep in mind when starting to tackle Español.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
According to the FSI study, a native English speaker requires an average of 23-24 weeks and between 575 and 600 classroom hours to become proficient in Spanish.
- Test your Spanish accent/pronunciation (for true voice recognition you will need to use the Chrome browser)...
- Or, for more, take the free trial of Rocket Spanish here and try a few sample lessons from the full Rocket Spanish course.
Number 2: PortugueseWhy should I learn it?
There are over 176 million Portuguese speakers in the world, and these speakers are not just from Portugal and it's gigantic former colony, Brazil. Portuguese is the official language in 9 countries, including Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, and East Timor. It's also spoken in over 34 countries worldwide. In addition, Brazil's economy is currently ranked 6th in the world, making it an increasingly valuable language for professionals.
What makes Portuguese easier?
Much like Spanish, Portuguese only varies from English in morphology and phonology. One attractive feature of Portuguese is its interrogative form, which does not require reconstruction and can be expressed just by changing your intonation. "We're dancing tonight," for example, can become a question simply by raising your voice at the end. Even though the nasal vowel sounds of Portuguese are difficult for English speakers to pronounce at first, the rhythm of Portuguese is easy for English ears to follow.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
On average, a native English speaker needs between 23 and 24 weeks and 575-600 class hours to achieve language proficiency in French, according to the FSI study findings.
- Test your Portuguese accent/pronunciation (for true voice recognition you will need to use the Chrome browser)...
- Or, for more! Take the free trial of Rocket Portuguese here and try a few sample lessons from the full Rocket Portuguese course.
Number 3: FrenchWhy should I learn it?
There are over 75 million native French speakers in the world today (and 190 million who have it as a secondary language), from the streets of Paris to Africa and the Canadian province of Quebec to the Caribbean islands. While German does have a few million more speakers, French is more geographically distributed. It is an official language in 40 countries and is spoken in 54 countries worldwide.
What makes French easier?
Say what you will about French's gendered nouns, verbal forms, pronunciation, and all of those tricky silent letters, French is still one of the easiest Latin-derived languages for English speakers to learn. We have history to thank for this: for almost a century, the 11th-century Norman invasion of England and the new French-speaking government had a tremendous influence on the English language. Au fait, linguists estimate that up to one-third of modern English has been influenced by French, from our potatoes au gratin to our film noir and entrepreneurs. Thanks to the fact that English has more in common lexically with French than any other Latin-based language, English speakers who take on French as a foreign language will experience a familiar lexical déjà vu.
How much time is needed for proficiency?
According to the FSI study, a native English speaker needs between 23 and 24 weeks and 575-600 class hours on average to achieve language proficiency in French.
- Test your French accent/pronunciation (for true voice recognition you will need to use the Chrome browser)...
- Allez ! Take the free trial of Rocket French here and try a few sample lessons from the full Rocket French course.
Language Learning: An Important NoteBy now, all of you native English speaking language learners and aspiring language learners have got to be wondering: How is Spanish one of the easiest language if I still can't figure out when to use "por" and when to use "para"?
It's very important to note that these findings are just based on one study with relatively experienced language learners studying very intensively, and that most of us don't have that kind of time on our hands. In addition, every learner is very different. What's easy for one learner might be very difficult for another, no matter how similar or different the language is to English. With some time, adequate resources, and, most importantly, motivation, any language is within your reach.
If you're looking to get started and see how possible language learning really is for you, a great place to start is the award-winning language software offered by Rocket Languages.
Enjoy a free trial of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, or one of a dozen other languages and learn how fun and easy it can be to learn a language.
Buena suerte, boa sorte, bon chance!
Note: This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer. Andrea will be available to comment on any thoughts that you would like to share!
October 22, 2015
Andrea: Thank you for this very informative and interesting post.
The sentence about the USA being the second largest Spanish
speaking country in the world made me wonder who was first. I
assumed Spain, but learned it is Mexico, since Mexico is a much
Having learned to appreciate and love the straighforward pronunciation system in Spanish, it never ceases to amaze me that French and Spanish are closely related. When I look at French words with all of their silent letters, different pronunciation, and numerous accent marks, I think that they must have come from different fathers. But, I also realize this is a very superficial assessment, and I also fully admit to being ignorant of the French language that is spoken so beautifully by native speakers.
Gracias y saludos,
October 22, 2015
This is really amazing, Andrea! I love all of the intriguing
info--and of course, free trials. The nearly-obsessive love of
extensive free things is in my blood. I'll definitely be checking
out Portuguese at least!
I wasn't surprised that Spanish is the easiest language to learn for English speakers. Not everything is set in stone, but basics are pretty easy to remember, and there are so many cognates! I'm more in love with Spanish with every lesson because it's just so enjoyable to be able to say something no one understands (at least if I'm at home). An important point you brought up: the Spanish-speaking population is growing quickly here in America! It's a very useful skill to be able to actually speak in a client's own language (ie. knowing something to say besides "hello" and "thanks" and "how are you").
And I'm not proficient in French either, Dan. All I know how to say is "Bonjour," meaning I wouldn't get far in a French-speaking country (obviously).
Otra "gracias" por la informacion muy interesante!
October 23, 2015
Either the FSI and I have very different definitions of what it
means to be proficient in Spanish or I am incredibly stupid...
October 23, 2015
Ha! I'm pretty sure that as I read, I was subconsciously hoping that I could complete enough crossword puzzles and dance so much that it would be more like, say, 50 hours? Evidently that's not happening. Ah, the pains of language leaning for the impatient!
October 26, 2015
Thanks for all of the wonderful comments, everyone!
As an American, I was equally surprised when I read the news. And yes, Mexico is the second-largest Spanish speaking country, followed by Colombia and Argentina. The internet has recently been exploding with articles about the United States becomming the second-largest Spanish speaking country, so we clearly weren't the only ones shocked!
I also agree with you regarding French. I just moved to Montreal, Canada this week and am trying to learn French "the authentic way." I speak Spanish, but listening to French is...well...it's Greek to me! If you compare the two written languages, many words in French are similar to Spanish words, but the spelling rules differ. While we are blessed that Spanish words are written like they are pronounced, French is another story...much like English! Learning the beautiful language of French not only involves all of those fun verb conjugations we love in Spanish, but also tricky spelling rules that native English speakers are used to. Is it worth the effort? For me, the answer is always "oui"!
Gracias por el comentario y saludos!
October 26, 2015
Muchas gracias por tu comentario, también! My ears also perked up as soon as I heard "free trials," and I'm diving into the French and Portuguese for fun.
It's wonderful to hear your Spanish success story, and your attitude towards language learning is EXACTLY what your brain needs for success. An often overlooked requirement for language learning is attitude, and more and more studies have shown that the more you like the language you are learning (or teach yourself to like it), the more easy it will be to learn.
Meanwhile, it definitely helps us Americans to look around us and realize that Spanish is becomming more and more useful every day in our country. In addition, it's fun! Sure, the crossword puzzles and dancing won't make us fluent within a week, but the good news is that every little bit helps and counts! :)
Un saludo, !y te deseo mucha suerte con tus estudios!
October 26, 2015
Don't worry; you're definitely not stupid. There's a few things to keep in mind regarding the FSI study: First, the students selected for the study all had an aptitude for language learning and experience learning languages. Perhaps some were already bilingual or even trilingual, were used to studying languages, and already had their own system for their "individual study time." Next, they were given extremely ideal language-learning conditions and had a lot of in-person classroom time with very small classes and dedicated a lot of time on their own to study (I'm going to read between the lines here and assume they had much more free time than we do to study!). I thought the same thing as you as I researched, and also discovered that the study hasn't been reproduced yet for students in more "normal" situations, like us!
The moral of the story: all progress is good progress, and there are no real "rules" for how long it should take you to learn a language. You're doing just fine! :)
October 27, 2015
Thanks for the encouragement, but since I am already bilingual -
and bilingual in languages (English, French) that closely resemble
my target language (Spanish) - I will have to stick with incredibly
October 27, 2015
Lo aprecio, Andrea! I can't wait until the day when I can just pop off something in Spanish and not even conjugate...
November 3, 2015
How far down would German be on this list? In some ways it is
similar to English, especially since many of the words are similar,
it not identical to their English counterparts (although there are
plenty of 'false friends,' where they sound the same but have
totally different meanings, the first two that come to mind are
'gift' and 'mist'- both have pleasant meanings in English, but not
so much in German) The word order (which is one of the things I
like most about it) can be very confusing to native English
speakers, although some of the time the literal translations match
their old English equivalents (probably due to their both being
Germanic languages). Granted, things like genders, articles, and
adjective endings and changes in nouns when they are used in
different cases (for example, some words have an 'n' added in the
dative case) can be very hard to grasp, but it is very similar in
December 19, 2015
Hi Deutsch lover,
As you suspected, German definitely isn't far down on the list. It's still in the category of "easiest" languages, but, as you also very well know by now, it's just a little more difficult than some of the others because of those tricky nouns genders, compound words, articles, and endings. The study estimated that it takes just a little bit longer to learn than the other "easy" languages, but, once again, learning time is pretty relative.
As a language lover in general, I'd love to learn more German some day, and I'm really impressed by your German knowledge. Schönen Tag noch!
January 13, 2016
Thanks for the knowledge. I think I'm ready to learn to speak to my boyfriends Mother (Columbian). She knows more English than I know Spanish words. My daughter picked it up just by marrying a guy from Mexico and now the 3 kids are bilingual as well.