Which is the best language to learn? Which is the easiest?
Two different questions, often uttered in the same breath. But that’s okay, because there will be only one answer. Whichever language you wholeheartedly choose to study will be both the best and the easiest. However, here’s some help choosing.
Here is the Modern Language Association’s 2002 list of the most commonly studied languages at university level in the United States. I have not included ancient languages like Latin, Biblical Hebrew, or Sanskrit, special purposes languages like American Sign Language, or U.S. heritage languages, like Hawaiian or Navajo since the choice of those languages follows a different dynamic:
9. Modern Hebrew
Difficulty, according to Uncle Sam
First, consider some cold facts. The U.S. State Department groups languages for the diplomatic service according to learning difficulty:
Category 1. The “easiest” languages for speakers of English, requiring 600 hours of classwork for minimal proficiency: the Latin and Germanic languages. However, German itself requires a bit more time, 750 hours, because of its complex grammar.
Category 2. Medium, requiring 1100 hours of classwork: Slavic languages, Turkic languages, other Indo-Europeans such as Persian and Hindi, and some non-Indo-Europeans such as Georgian, Hebrew and many African languages. Swahili is ranked easier than the rest, at 900 hours.
Category 3. Difficult, requiring 2200 hours of study: Arabic, Japanese, Korean and the Chinese languages.
Will you get a chance to practice this language?
Now, consider another important factor: accessibility. To be a successful learner you need the chance to hear, read and speak the language in a natural environment. Language learning takes an enormous amount of concentration and repetition, which cannot be done entirely in the classroom. Will you have access to the language where you live, work and travel?
The 14 most popular courses according to a combination of linguistic ease and accessibility.
1. Spanish. Category One. The straightforward grammar is familiar and regular. It is also ubiquitous in the Americas, the only foreign language with a major presence in the insular linguistic environment of the U.S. Chances to speak and hear it abound. It is the overwhelming favorite, accounting for more than fifty percent of language study enrollment in the MLA study.
2. French. Category One. Grammatically complex but not difficult to learn because so many of it’s words have entered English. For this vocabulary affinity, it is easy to attain an advanced level, especially in reading. It is a world language, and a motivated learner will find this language on the internet, in films and music.
3. German. Category One Plus. The syntax and grammar rules are complex with noun declensions a major problem. It is the easiest language to begin speaking, with a basic vocabulary akin to English. Abstract, advanced language differs markedly, though, where English opts for Latin terms. It values clear enunciation, so listening comprehension is not difficult.
4. Italian. Category One. It has the same simple grammar rules as Spanish, a familiar vocabulary and the clearest enunciation among Latin languages (along with Romanian). Italian skills are easily transferable to French or Spanish. You might need to go to Italy to practice it, but there are worse things that could happen to you. It is also encountered in the world of opera and classical music.
5. Russian. Category Two. This highly inflected language, with declensions, is fairly difficult to learn. The Cyrillic alphabet is not particularly difficult, however, and once you can read the language, the numerous borrowings from French and other western languages are a pleasant surprise. It is increasingly accessible.
6. Arabic. Category Three. Arabic is spoken in dozens of countries, but the many national dialects can be mutually incomprehensible. It has only three vowels, but includes some consonants that don’t exist in English. The alphabet is a formidable obstacle, and good calligraphy is highly valued and difficult to perfect. Vowels are not normally written (except in children’s books) and this can be an obstacle for reading. It is ubiquitous in the Muslim world and opportunities exist to practice it at every level of formality.
7. Portuguese. Category One. One of the most widely spoken languages in the world is often overlooked. It has a familiar Latin grammar and vocabulary, though the phonetics may take some getting used to.
8. Swahili. Category Two Minus. It includes many borrowings from Arabic, Persian, English and French. It is a Bantu language of Central Africa, but has lost the difficult Bantu “tones”. The sound system is familiar, and it is written using the Latin alphabet. One major grammatical consideration is the division of nouns into sixteen classes, each with a different prefix. However, the classes are not arbitrary, and are predictable.
9. Hindi/Urdu. Category Two. The Hindustani language, an Indo-European language, includes both Hindi and Urdu. It has an enormous number of consonants and vowels, making distinctions between phonemes that an English speaker will have difficulty hearing. Words often have clipped endings, further complicating comprehension. Hindi uses many Sanskrit loans and Urdu uses many Persian/Arabic loans, meaning that a large vocabulary must be mastered. Hindi uses the phonetically precise Devanagari script, created specifically for the language. Predictably, Urdu’s use of a borrowed Persian/Arabic script leads to some approximation in the writing system.
10. Modern Hebrew. Category Two. Revived as a living language during the nineteenth century, it has taken on characteristics of many languages of the Jewish diaspora. The resultant language has become regularized in grammar and syntax, and the vocabulary has absorbed many loan words, especially from Yiddish, English and Arabic. The alphabet has both print and script forms, with five vowels, not normally marked. Vowel marking, or pointing, is quite complex when it does occur. Sounds can be difficult to reproduce in their subtleties and a certain amount of liaison makes listening comprehension problematic. It is not very accessible outside of a religious or Israeli context.
11. Japanese. Category Three. Difficult to learn, as the vocabulary is unfamiliar, and the requirements of the sound system so strict that even the many words that have been borrowed from English, French and German will seem unrecognizable. With three different writing systems, it is forbiddingly difficult to read and write. Also, social constraints may impede useful interaction.
12. Chinese. Category Three. Whether your choice is Mandarin or Cantonese (the MLA survey does not make a distinction, oddly enough). It is the most difficult language on this list. It includes all of the most difficult aspects: unfamiliar phonemes, a large number of tones, an extremely complex writing system, and an equally unfamiliar vocabulary. Personal motivation is absolutely essential to keep the student on track. On the positive side, it is easy to find, since Chinese communities exist throughout the world, and Chinese language media, such as newspapers, films and TV, are present in all these communities.
13. Vietnamese. Category Three. This language belongs to an unfamiliar family of languages, but it does borrow much vocabulary from Chinese (helpful if you already speak Chinese!). It has six tones, and a grammar with an unfamiliar logic. It’s not all bleak, however, Vietnamese uses a Latin derived alphabet. The chances of speaking this language are not high, though there are 3 million speakers in the USA.
14. Korean. Category Three. Korean uses an alphabet of 24 symbols, which accurately represent 14 consonants and 10 vowels. However, the language also includes 2000 commonly used Chinese characters for literary writing and formal documents. Speech levels and honorifics complicate the learning of vocabulary, and there is liaison between words, making them hard to distinguish. The grammar is not overly complicated and there are no tones. It borrows many Chinese words, but the language is unrelated to other languages of Asia.
The most important factor of all: personal motivation
The third, most important factor is up to you. The easiest language to learn is the one that you are most motivated to learn, the one you enjoy speaking, the one with the culture that inspires you and the history that touches you spiritually. It is useless to try to learn a language if you are not interested in the people who speak it, since learning a language involves participating in its behaviors and identifying with its people.
So, consider all three factors: motivation, accessibility and linguistic ease, in that order, and come up with the final list yourself. The bad news is that no language is really easy to learn, but the good news is that we humans are hard wired for a great amount of linguistic flexibility, as long as we know how to turn on the learning process. If the rewards and benefits of the language are clear to you, you will be able to get those rusty language synapses sparking in your head and start the words rolling. Bonne chance!