by Louise Taylor
Many factors can impact on how easy or hard it is to learn a language. People who are fluent in two or more languages, such as those working in the professional translation industry, understand more than most the joys and frustrations of language learning. But what is it precisely that makes a language hard or easy to learn? And which is the easiest language to learn?
Grammatical gender, noun classes, inflection, verb and noun endings, writing system and sheer volume of words all come into play when considering how hard or easy it might be to learn a language. So, too, does the native language of the learner.
Most individuals find it easiest to learn a language that is similar to their own in terms of the above factors. For example, the similarities between Latin and Russian (both of Indo-European descent and with similar verb and noun endings) make Latin an easier language for Russians to learn that it might be for Mandarin speakers. Likewise, the extensive similarity between Portuguese and Spanish in terms of vocabulary (if not pronunciation) make these a great language pairing for those who already speak one and want another ‘easy’ language to learn.
Defining a language as easy to learn is a near impossible task due to the huge variety of factors at play, not least the learner’s native language(s). However, the US Foreign Service Institute has attempted to grade languages according to the time it takes for English speakers to learn them. This at least provides a quantifiable measure that points to which languages will be easier (in the context meaning quicker) for native English speakers to learn.
The study ranked languages into four categories, with Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch and Afrikaans all considered to be the quickest to learn. The languages take 575-750 classroom hours for English speakers to gain proficiency.
Hebrew, Hindi, Persian, Greek, Polish, Icelandic, Russian, Thai and Turkish were found to be among the languages considered to be harder to learn, with students taking 900-1,100 classroom hours to become proficient.
Finally, languages including Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean were found to take the longest to learn, requiring 2,200 hours before students were proficient.
By this ranking, Spanish can be considered twice as easy to learn as Greek and around four times as easy to learn as Japanese. The figures are exciting for those looking to learn more than one language. They indicate that a person with English as their native language could learn to speak French, Dutch, Afrikaans and German in the same time as it would take them to learn Cantonese.
The US study only considered language learning from a starting point as an English speaker. However, research has shown some interesting similarities between the languages that English speakers find easy to learn and those that are considered easiest by natives of other tongues.
It is an issue that is debated regularly online by Hebrew speakers. The consensus of the various forum debates seems to be that English, Spanish and Italian are the easiest languages to learn when starting from a base-point of speaking Hebrew.
When the same exercise is conducted among Arabic language fora, the results are strikingly similar – it is Spanish and Italian that most Arabic speakers agree are the easiest languages to pick up.
What, then, is it about Spanish that means so many people consider it easy to learn?
Grammar and sentence structure also play a part. Spanish grammar is largely considered to be a fairly simple beast to master (if we ignore the irregular verbs, those wonderful linguistic quirks which catch all learners out from time to time!).
Vocabulary is also an important element. As a Romance language evolved from Latin, Spanish shares many cognates (words of the same linguistic derivation) with other Romance languages. Thus language learners frequently recognize words in Spanish that are connected with words of the same meaning in their own language.
After Latin, the second most influential language on Spanish vocabulary as the language developed was Arabic. Some 8% of Spanish words are descended from Arabic origins, which goes some way towards explaining why Arabic speakers consider Spanish to be one of the easiest languages to learn, despite the different writing system.
The widespread access to resources for those learning Spanish also plays a part. Spanish language learners have access to a vast array of original language television and film productions, as well as movies from around the world that have been dubbed into Spanish. The plethora of resources means that learners find it easy to immerse themselves in the Spanish language and to accustom their ears to the sound of spoken Spanish.
Linguistic variety means that there is no true way to classify languages into the order of their easiness to learn. There are simply too many variable factors at play. However, it is certainly fair to say that some languages are easier to learn than others. From school children to professional human translators, the consensus does seem to be that Spanish is right up there with those languages that take the least time to learn for native speakers of a whole host of other languages.
Louise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.