Which is the easiest language to learn and why?

what language is the easiest to learn - the tree of languages

The answer to the question “what language is the easiest to learn?” is “well, it depends…”. Or more explicitly it depends firstly on where you are starting from – that is to say, how dissimilar the target language is from your native language. And secondly it depends on how novelly complex the target language is. Let me explain.

Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. The effort required to reach the summit depends firstly on how far away the mountain is from where you are setting off. And secondly how high the mountain is. A Spanish person learning Italian has not far to go – the mountain is not far away. But a Japanese person learning English has a much further distance to go linguistically. Though the (English) mountain is (arguably) not that high. But for an English person learning Japanese the mountain is both distant and high – Japanese is linguistically distant from English and is also inherently complex.

Relative Linguistic Distance

Relative linguistic difference is how far away the mountain is. However quantifying linguistic difference is not easy. Languages are complex and differ in many ways including vocabulary, grammar, written form, syntax and myriad other characteristics. This makes for difficulty in the formulating a measure of linguistic distance. That is not to say however that people have not tried – they have.

A taxonomic approach is the Automatic Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP) method. This method measures the ‘distance’ between words with similar meanings across languages. The list of words to be compared are selected to be culturally independent and for which there are representations in all of the world’s languages. The list comprises basic words of human communication (e.g. I, you, one), body parts (e.g. eye, nose, tooth) or environmental concepts (e.g. water, stone, night). To assess the similarity of a pair of words with the same meaning in two different language, a distance is calculated based on the number of sounds that have to be changed, removed or added to transform the word in the first language into the same word in the second language. The result is the ASJP linguistic distance index.

Obviously this is not going to be a good poxy for the difficulty of learning a language. While having similar vocabularies – like English and Dutch for example – does indeed make a language easier to learn, there is much more than that in assessing linguistic distance from the perspective of learning a foreign language.

Measuring language-learning difficulty empirically

A better approach is that taken in a 2005 paper by Chiswick and Miller which constructs a measures for linguistic distances based on how rapidly migrants to the United States and Canada from various linguistic backgrounds gained proficiency in English.

According to their index, Korean and Japanese are linguistically the most distant from English based in the observation that Korean and Japanese migrants have the least success in English language acquisition. At the opposite end of the spectrum Afrikaans, Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish are linguistically the closest languages to English.

There are of course obvious several problems with this as a language learning difficulty index. Firstly notice that languages from wealthy countries are ranked easier. This is likely because people from these wealthy countries benefited from an effective English-language education even before arriving in the US and Canada. This is most starkly illustrated by the case of Finnish which is undisputedly one of the most linguistically distant languages from English and yet it scores medium difficulty. Secondly migrants from ex-British colonies where English is still widely (and effectively) taught also benefit. Hence perhaps contributing to the low difficultly scores for Malay and Swahili. The different difficulty scores for Bahasa Indonesian compared to Malay – even though they are essentially the same language – would seem to suggest the migrants from the ex-British colony of Malaysia arrived already with an advantage. Though having said that the high difficultly score for Hindi contradict this ex-British colony argument.

Another issue is that of directionality. While positing that Russian is only moderately distance from English based on the finding that Russian speaking migrants are relative successful in acquiring English, it does not mean the opposite is necessarily true.

Measuring the time to learn a language

Perhaps the best metric of the relative difficulty of learning particular languages can be arrived at by consulting the language learning experts – those that actually teach it. The United States Foreign Service Institute is ideal in this regard. It is the institution that trains US diplomats and its School of Languages Studies teaches around 70 languages. The FLI structures its language courses based on its experience teaching Americans the languages it offers. The duration of each language stream differs according to the Institute’s experience with getting the average student to a proficient level. So the duration of their courses range from 24 weeks to 88 weeks. That is to say that, in their experience, some language take over 3.5 times longer that others to learn. That is quite a difference.

According to this metric the easiest languages for English speakers to learn are Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and romance languages (Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) . The most difficult are Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean.

Here are several post discussing the ‘difficulty’ of some of the more popular languages that English speaker learn in French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

Ranking of Language Difficulty for English Speakers
  1. Dutch – easiest
  2. Norwegian – easiest
  3. Swedish – easiest
  4. Italian – easiest
  5. Spanish – easiest
  6. Portuguese – easiest
  7. French – quite easy
  8. German – quite easy
  9. Indonesian – medium difficulty
  10. Malaysian – medium difficulty
  11. Swahili – medium difficulty
  12. Russian – difficult
  13. Turkish – difficult
  14. Finnish – more difficult
  15. Hungarian – more difficult
  16. Thai – more difficult
  17. Vietnamese – more difficult
  18. Arabic – most difficult
  19. Korean – most difficult
  20. Japanese – most difficult
  21. Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) – most difficult

French, Korean and Russian Phrases Lookup

We have just released a new resource for foreign language learners. It’s a site that allows users to search for a word and get back examples phrases that use that word.

All the example phrases have English meanings and audio recordings of the phrase.

We have initially published the site for French, Korean and Russian:

French : https://declansoftware.com/examples/french/french_examples_search.php
Korean: https://declansoftware.com/examples/korean/korean_examples_search.php
Russian: https://declansoftware.com/examples/russian/russian_examples_search.php

Which language has the most non-native speakers and why?

The distribution of non-native language (L2) speakers around the world reflects a very interesting mix of history, politics and economics.

It is common knowledge that English and Chinese stand out with regard to the total number of speakers – these two languages are the only ones that break the 1 billion people barrier (see the chart below). But the breakdown in native verses non-native speakers is very different for these two languages. And most other language have interesting stories behind their shares of native verses non-native speakers.

In the case of English, a massive three quarters of all speakers are non-native, reflecting the language’s role as the modern day global linga franca and language of business. This is undoubted due to the dominant global roles once played by Great Britain (“the empire on which the sun never sets”) and currently played by the United States (think Hollywood and Coca-Cola). English remains the language most commonly learned as a second language, with French as distant second. And English’s dominance doesn’t seem to be diminishing even in the face of global geopolitical trends.

On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is the mother tongue of the vast majority of its one billion plus speakers with only 18% being non-native speakers. And unlike English, whose non-native speakers are scattered around the global, non-native speakers of Mandarin are mostly geographically confined to China itself and are typically non-Han Chinese minorities within China who are required to learn Mandarin at school as the national language.

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) with a non-native speaker share of 78%, is both similar to China and different. Bahasa Indonesia is the official of the Republic of Indonesia, which itself is an ethnically and linguistically diverse archipelago of 270 million people. It is estimated that in the region there are more than 700 indigenous languages and Bahasa had been used as the lingua franca in the region for centuries. The striking difference to China, where Mandarin is the language of the dominate Han Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia was first spoken in Northern Sumatra, adopted on both sides of the Malacca Strait, and was spread by colonisers and foreign traders who first set up base along the Malacca Straits. Interesting Dutch, which was spoken widely during the colonial period, disappeared quickly with Indonesia’s independence and the formal adoption of Bahasa Indonesia as the national language.

Hindi, for which L2 speaker make up 45%, is also similar to Indonesia and Chinese in that it serves as the national language of India, a country that remains extremely linguistically diverse. A legacy of her colonial past, English remains an important language in India where it is estimated that there are 125 million speakers, over ten percent of the country’s population and accounting for close to one quarter of all non-native English speakers in the world.

Urdu, with a non-native speaker share of over 60%, is very similar to Hindi – that is the national language of Pakistan – a very ethnically and linguistically diverse post-colonial nation.

Spanish and Portuguese both have large numbers of speakers, but relatively low shares of non-native speakers. As with the case of the colonial legacy of Great Britain and the English language in places like the United States, Canada and Australia, Spain and Portugal also “exported” their languages to large land masses where their languages swamped the indigenous languages and served to bind the new nations together.

Arabic also in part owes it prominence to conquest – in this case the Muslim armies that swept across the Middle East and North Africa starting in the 7th century. Its popularity as a second language now days is a consequence of the importance that the Arabic language holds in the religion of Islam and its holy book – learning Arabic so as to be able to read the Quran in it’s original language is a goal of many Muslims around the world, and this in part accounts of languages relatively high share of L2 speakers at 37%.

The French language’s very high non-native speaker share of 73%, is also a story of colonialism. Rather than large sparsely populated land masses as in the case of Spanish and Portugal, France’s principle colonies were in a patchwork inAfrica where French became the administrative language and lingua franca amongst the diverse local ethnic tapestry. France continues to strongly promote the use of language across its francophone ex-colonies (La Francophonie).

Swahili is also notable with an L2 speaker share of 84% among its 84 million speakers. It is spoken in a swath of countries down the eastern coast of Africa and is the official language of several countries including Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Modern Swahili is based on a tribal Bantu language which rose to prominence when the colonial powers that ruled on the coast of East Africa, including the Arabs, Portuguese and Germans, used the language as a lingua franca across the region. The first written form of Swahili used the Arabic script and indeed Swahili played a major role in spreading both Christianity and Islam across East Africa.

Thai is the final language on our list with the large non-native speaker share of the total number of speakers, at 66%. This reflects the political hegemony of the Kingdom of Thailand over an ethnic and linguistically diverse country.

Both Japanese and Korean have effectively a zero non-native speaker share reflecting the ethnic homogeneity of their homelands and the failure to establish colonies long term. Japanese did colonise Korea for several decades around the turn of the 20th century and during that time tried to suppress the Korean language in favour of Japanese. But this was quickly reversed after the Second World War.


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