12 Languages That Are Easy for English Speakers to Learn
There are a disproportionate number of English speakers who can only speak one language.
Globally, 40% of people are monolingual. But in the UK, 75% of people can only speak English, and in the USA, it’s as high as 80%. The reasons for this are obvious: English is an extremely useful language, allowing you to get by in business, science and academia across the world. It’s the world’s lingua franca. If you speak English, you can already communicate with a fifth of the human beings alive today. The incentives for English speakers to learn foreign languages are undoubtedly lower than for people who have a different language as their native tongue.
All the same, many of those monolingual English speakers wish that they could speak a foreign language, and for good reason. Studies have suggested that bilingualism has benefits in terms of brain elasticity, and seems to boost scores on standardised tests even in subjects like mathematics, where you wouldn’t expect a correlation. Having a second language looks good on your university applications and CV, too, even if it isn’t directly relevant to your intended career. And depending on the language, being able to speak to the locals can significantly improve your holiday experiences too.
If you’re a monolingual English speaker wondering where to start, you might well be asking which languages are going to be the easiest for you to pick up. Here are our top tips.
Unlike all of the other languages on this list, Esperanto didn’t evolve naturally over time. It’s an artificial language, created in the 19th century in part to facilitate international communication without the prejudicing factor of choosing a language associated with a particular country, people or culture. But another key aim of the creator of Esperanto, LL Zamenhof, was to make a language that was “so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner”.
Esperanto hasn’t had the impact of breaking down nationalist boundaries and building bridges internationally that Zamenhof hoped it would. But he did succeed in creating a language that is extremely easy to learn, at least for anyone who speaks an Indo-European language (such as English) already. It has no irregular verbs, its pronunciation is logical and its writing system phonetic. ‘I would love to visit Oxford one day’ in Esperanto is ‘Mi amus viziti Oksfordo unu tago’ – not exactly tricky to work out.
For people whose native language isn’t English, learning English is made much easier by natural cultural immersion in the language. Pop songs are in English; advertising slogans use English, so you can end up picking up some English even if you aren’t really trying.
There aren’t many languages for which this is the case for English speakers, but Spanish is probably top of that brief list. For example, every Justin Bieber fan must have picked up the lyrics to ‘Despacito’ at this stage. In the USA, around a sixth of the population speaks Spanish fluently, increasing the chances that you’ll be able to learn at least some of the language through osmosis. Even if you’re in a country such as the UK or Australia where Spanish isn’t as widely spoken, it’s still a relatively easy language to learn, posing relatively few pronunciation difficulties and being spelled logically. It’s true that Spanish grammar gets fiddly at higher levels, but it’s more that there’s a lot of verb endings to memorise than there being anything particularly difficult or illogical.
Like Spanish in the USA, it’s unusual in the UK not to have picked up at least a couple of words of French, of the kind you would need as a tourist. And that’s a foundation on which it’s relatively easy to build. English is a Germanic language at heart (more on that later), but as a result of the Norman Conquest in 1066, it borrowed a significant amount from French as well. One analysis suggested that 28% of modern English words derive from French.
This is debatable – for instance, do you count little-used medical vocabulary, which causes the number of Latin words to shoot up? Or do you pay attention to the frequency at which words are used, in which case the Old English/Germanic root is the clear winner? But the point remains that learning vocabulary in French is much easier than in most other languages, because a lot of the words sound familiar already. Possibly the most challenging part of learning French is the pronunciation, but for two large groups of English speakers – in the UK and in Canada – they at least have French speakers to listen to and practise with right on their doorsteps.
Around a third of English vocabulary may come from French, but deep down, English is a Germanic language. Before the Normans arrived, the English (such as they were) spoke Old English. One example sentence of Old English is “Spraec thu Ænglisc?” (Do you speak English?). In modern German, this would be “Sprichst du Englisch?” – and that looks a lot more like Old English than the modern English equivalent does!
Furthermore, while English may use fewer Germanic words on a day-to-day basis than it uses French words, you still get a lot of free vocabulary when you learn German. That’s because in the past few decades, German has been frantically borrowing words from English. In French, you’ll need to use your ordinateur to go online; in German, you can simply fire up your Computer. In French, your friends might invite you to a fête or a soiree; but your German friends will make it easier to understand, and will invite you to a Party.
The languages we’ve discussed so far have all been ones associated primarily with Europe; even Esperanto, despite its global aspirations, remains primarily a European language. But you don’t need to stay within Europe to find languages that are easy for English speakers to learn. Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, is a Germanic language derived from an 18th century Dutch dialogue, and is spoken by around 7 million native speakers. Another 10 million people speak it as a second language.
As a Germanic language, its similarities to English are considerable. Let’s take that example sentence from earlier – I would like to go to Oxford one day. In Afrikaans, this becomes, ‘Ek sou graag wou besoek Oxford eendag’. It’s not as straightforward as Esperanto, perhaps, but it’s also still quite comprehensible.
6. West Frisian
It can’t be said that West Frisian is a particularly useful language to learn. It has at most half a million native speakers, only a quarter of whom can actually write in the language as well as speaking it. It’s the native language of the province of Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands, a country where around 90% of the population can speak English. It’s unlikely that being able to speak West Frisian is going to boost your career prospects particularly, for instance (although more so than the other two Frisian languages, which have less than 10,000 speakers apiece).
But the distinct advantage of West Frisian is that it’s the language most closely related to English. Many West Frisian words are identical to English, even if the spelling is different, and there are some entire sentences that are exactly the same.
Hindi and Urdu are the two branches of the Hindustani language, spoken by about half a billion people between them; about two-thirds of those speak Hindi and the remainder Urdu. The two branches are mutually intelligible when spoken but not when written. It wouldn’t be reasonable to describe either branch of the language as easy to learn; they use two different alphabets, neither of them Latin, and it’s estimated that a typical English speaker will take an average of 44 weeks of full-time study, or 1,100 classroom hours, to learn to speak Hindustani proficiently.
But by the standards of non-European languages, this is still relatively straightforward. You can expect to learn Hindustani twice as quickly as languages like Mandarin Chinese or Japanese; and learning Hindustani enables you to communicate with significantly more native speakers than the more widely learned and taught choice of Japanese as well.
Another language that not many English speakers ever bother to learn, Norwegian is arguably easier to learn even than languages like French, German or Spanish that are more widely taught to English speakers. Learning Norwegian verb endings is hilariously easy; for instance, you form the present tense by adding ‘r’ to the verb, regardless of the subject. The word order is reasonably close to English too. The pronunciation might throw you at first, but there are relatively few sounds in Norwegian that don’t also appear in English. You also get a bonus from learning Norwegian, in that it makes the spoken forms of other Scandinavian languages intelligible, at least for simple sentences.
Plus – as our test sentence about visiting Oxford demonstrates – Norwegian looks great written down. Wouldn’t you like to be able to say ‘Jeg vil gjerne besøke Oxford på dagen’?
Romanian, the closest living language to Latin, is often described as the easiest Romance language for English speakers to learn. If you’re interested in visiting Eastern Europe, it’s much easier for English speakers than the languages of surrounding countries, such as Hungarian or Czech. The language is written phonetically, and most of the sounds in it also appear in English.
In fact, most of the challenges in learning Romanian are nothing to do with the language itself. Low demand means that there aren’t many materials produced for English speakers aiming to learn Romanian. What is in demand are opportunities for Romanians to practise their English. This means that finding a formal practice partner should be easy (for instance, for a weekly Skype call), but if you’re visiting Romania in order to hone your language skills, it’s likely you’ll find people switching into English where possible because they want to practise too.
Irish is seldom thought of as an easy language for English speakers to learn, and certainly it’s harder than French, the language of Britain’s other immediate neighbour. But many of the difficulties are superficial. Irish has a spelling system that is completely alien to English speakers, but once you’ve mastered the rules, it’s entirely phonetic. Similarly, there are sounds in Irish that don’t exist in English, but none present too much of a challenge to English speakers (it’s not like the German ‘ch’ sound that some English speakers simply can’t produce).
The key advantage of Irish is that it has relatively few native speakers; almost everyone who speaks it today learned it as a second language, with English as a first language. That means that resources abound for native English speakers who want to give learning Irish a go.
Like Hindustani, Malay is not exactly an easy language – but it is a lot easier than most Asian languages. It uses a Latin script, which makes reading easier to begin with. In terms of grammar, many of the features that trip up learners in other languages are absent in Malay: it has no grammatical gender, no grammatical plural and no inflection of verbs based on person, number or tense.
Unfortunately, it does have some tricky features. There isn’t much overlap with English in terms of vocabulary except in the form of recent loanwords, mostly in the fields of science and technology. And verbs do change to reflect nuances in meaning, whether it’s active or passive, and whether the action it denotes was deliberate or accidental.
If you want to learn an African language (and Afrikaans feels like cheating), then Swahili is probably the easiest one available. Spoken by as many as 100 million people and used widely as a lingua franca, it uses a Latin script and doesn’t have a tone system, which makes it much easier to pronounce than many other African languages. But you do have to grapple with concepts that are completely unfamiliar in English, such as noun classes.
If you’re learning a language for the first time, Swahili is easy only in comparison with other African languages. All the same, you do get the joy of learning a language that’s based on a completely different structure and way of thinking than English – and that’s what makes learning a new language so fascinating and fun in the first place.
Images: esperanto flags; spanish chorizo ends; french eiffel tower; accordians; zebras and giraffes; west frisian girls; women in saris; norwegian fjord; bran castle; irish stones; kuala lumpur; flags; girls learning language
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