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.
Ranking of Language Difficulty for English Speakers
- Dutch – easiest
- Norwegian – easiest
- Swedish – easiest
- Italian – easiest
- Spanish – easiest
- Portuguese – easiest
- French – quite easy
- German – quite easy
- Indonesian – medium difficulty
- Malaysian – medium difficulty
- Swahili – medium difficulty
- Russian – difficult
- Turkish – difficult
- Finnish – more difficult
- Hungarian – more difficult
- Thai – more difficult
- Vietnamese – more difficult
- Arabic – most difficult
- Korean – most difficult
- Japanese – most difficult
- Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) – most difficult