Not so confident in your ability to learn a new language? Take a shortcut by choosing an easier one for native English-speakers. Some languages share histories, grammatical structures, or geographic proximities with English. The Foreign Service Institute at the State Department separated languages into categories, based on how difficult they are for English-speakers to learn. Based on the advice of language gurus at Fluent City and beyond, here are some great choices.
You're probably not surprised to see that Spanish tops our list. Spanish is always a popular go-to language given its global prevalence and ubiquity across the US. It also happens to be one of the easiest languages for English-speakers to pick up. As a Romance language, Spanish shares many cognates with English (i.e., "telephone" is "teléfono"). Also, for the most part what you see is what you get - words are pronounced phonetically. If you live in an English-speaking country, you're bound to hear Spanish on television, the radio, or from those around you, giving you ample opportunity for practice.
Spoken in both Portugal and Brazil, Portuguese is like a sister language to Spanish. As a fellow Romance language, it shares a number of vocabulary words and cognates with English. You will notice a difference between Brazilian Portuguese and traditional Portuguese. Both have their own slang words and idiosyncracies. Brazilian food, music, and film is prevalent in global pop culture, and you'll meet Brazilian expats in most English-speaking countries. That gives you plenty of conversation partners.
It's not quite as easy as the other Romance languages on this list, but French is widely-spoken by tens of millions across the world. As with other Romance languages, the largest benefit for English-speakers is the vast amount of shared vocabulary. This glossary of common words is larger due to France and England's history of wars, conquests, shared land, and cultural cross-pollination. You'll notice that many French words have been gradually absorbed into the English language, and vice versa (they say "le week-end", we say "à la carte", etc.)
While Afrikaans may not top the list of pragmatic languages to learn, it has been deemed by many as the language most similar to English. Afrikaans developed as a dialect of Dutch that is spoken most often in South Africa and Namibia. With West Germanic roots, Afrikaans shares many words with English. Over time, it has removed some of the complexities of the Dutch language. It only uses three tenses: past, present, and future; and there are no noun genders or verb conjugations. All in all, learning Afrikaans is a relatively comfortable experience for native English-speakers.
The Scandinavian languages are all quite similar to each other, but Norwegian tends to be the cornerstone of them all. Norwegian-speakers can often understand spoken Swedish and written Danish, for example. The grammatical structures of Norwegian, and indeed Swedish and Danish, are familiar to English-speakers. "I love you" is "Jeg elsker deg." "I ate fruit for breakfast" is "Jeg spiste frukt til frokost." Norwegian sentence structures are often the same as English, so all you need to worry about is learning vocabulary. One more bonus: Norwegians often speak perfect English, so if you're abroad practicing your Norwegian, you'll always have someone to correct or confirm it.
Though not quite as widely-used as the other Romance languages on this list, Italian is still a fan favorite. Surely you already have many Italian dishes on your list of staple foods, and through film and television, chances are you've picked up the odd vocabulary word (Marone! Mangia!). Spanish and Italian speakers can often converse with each other in their native tongues, so short is the distance between these two languages. If you already have a good amount of Spanish under your belt, it won't be difficult for you to master Italian in short order.
It's never going to be easier to learn an Asian language than it is to learn a romance language. However, out of the Asian languages, Indonesian is one of the only ones to use the Latin alphabet. Students of Mandarin or Japanese must learn an entirely new alphabet, in addition to new grammar and vocabulary. That's not the case for Indonesian. Also, Indonesian words tend to be pronounced as they are written, so you won't find hidden sounds, complicated vowel combinations, or confusing rules.
There are some pretty big differences between English and German. With so many long words, interesting slang, and strange pronunciations, you might feel like German is impossible to master. But the similarities override the differences. Some people describe German as "the father language to English." English and German diverged about 1,500 years ago, but those roots are still strong. Using a radom sampling of animal names, you can see the similarities directly:
- Hund - Hound
- Katze - Cat
- Tiger - Tiger
- Affe - Ape
- Maus - Mouse
All in all, it takes some getting used to, but if you persevere you'll start to see how many bridges there are between German and English.
As the closest living language to Latin, Romanian has borrowed a lot of Latin's grammatical structure. While the language has incorporated Slavic influence over the centuries, its cognates and vocabulary should be familiar to native English-speakers, especially if they've studied other Romance languages.
Technically, Hindi is not as easy as the other languages on this list. We're adding it anyway because it's so useful, and because native English speakers may find that speaking Hindi is easier than they envisioned (writing is another story!).
Hindi is spoken across northern and central India, and is the official language of the Indian government. Combined with Urdu (another dialect of the same language), it is the third most-spoken language in the world. Even though the FSI considers it a Level 3 language (significant linguistic differences from English), Indian culture and language have heavily influenced the US, UK, and Canada. At this point, English and Hindi do share many vocabulary words. If you're up for the challenge, Hindi can be one of the most useful languages to know for a global traveler.
What makes a language easier or more difficult to learn, anyway? From the Foreign Service Institute's language categories, it's based on the amount of time it will take to learn. By their barometer, Spanish takes an estimated 575-600 hours in the classroom to learn, while Mandarin Chinese takes an estimated 2200 hours of classroom time.
No matter how difficult a language, your process will always factor into how well you can learn. Even adults can become fluent in a language they didn't previously know. If you find ways to gamify your learning, make it social, or make it convenient, you're more likely to stick with it.