Knowing a second language is always a great advantage, and expats are likely to be more aware of this than almost anyone else. Being able to speak more than one language opens up new avenues for you both in terms of career and personal relationships.Travel is much easier when you’re able to speak to locals without awkward sign language or an interpreter, and this is something that becomes even more important when you’re actually trying to make a home in a new place with a new language. It’s something we’ve mentioned very regularly here – even in a country where English is widely spoken and it’s not necessary to know the local language, those who actually do make the effort to learn it find it hugely rewarding on multiple levels. Then of course there are people for whom learning a new language is an enjoyable experience in itself, regardless of the practical benefits.
Of course, not all languages are equally easy to learn. This isn’t necessarily something that’s inherent in a language itself, although to some extent, certain languages are difficult due to factors such as their grammar, syntax, and so on. However, often what’s equally or more important is how similar or different a language is to your own native language. The more different a language is from your own, the more challenging it’s going to be to learn it. If you have a common script, sounds, and even some common or similar words, you already have a head start.
Of course, there’s also the question of personal interest as well as personal ability and learning style. If you have a deep interest in German culture, you’re going to find it much easier to learn German than a language that is generally considered easy but with which you have no connection. There are also people who find, for example, Russian easier to learn than Italian (which is usually said to be easier) for no apparent reason except that it somehow works for them. Other factors, such as the opportunity to practise conversing with native speakers, are also worth considering.
Finally, of course, we return to the matter of practical use. Frisian, for example, is supposed to be extremely easy for English speakers to learn. The language (or rather, languages – there are several) is the most closely related to English in the world, and whole phrases and sentences are often surprisingly similar. However, there are only around 500,000 speakers of the language in the world, of whom around 400,000 live in Friesland in the Netherlands, and the rest in certain parts of Germany. It would be great if more people took an interest in Frisian, but the fact is that unless you’re going to live in these particular regions in the Netherlands or Germany, you’re probably wasting your time learning the language.
Here are ten languages that English speakers are likely to find very easy to learn – and also practically useful – based primarily on a list created by the United States’ Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and also based on how long it takes to reach a certain level of proficiency in the language.
Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that developed out of the Dutch vernacular of the southern parts of Holland. It is widely spoken in South Africa, and to some extent also in neighboring Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Afrikaans remains quite similar to Dutch even today, and most speakers of the former are able to understand the latter, although the reverse is not so true. Afrikaans also has a lot in common with South African English. Learning this language is therefore an opportunity to have at least the beginnings of an understanding of two more languages, which you can then go on to properly learn if you wish to. One common struggle for beginners in a language is figuring out and remembering the genders of nouns; in Afrikaans, thankfully, nouns have no gender. Another thing that makes Afrikaans easy to learn is the fact that verbs always conjugate the same way, regardless of the subject (I, you, he, they, and so on).
Danish is a North Germanic language that has descended from East Norse. It is in the same language group as Norwegian and Swedish, and shares some similarities with them. There are only two noun classes and nine verb forms in the Danish language, and the verbs remain the same, regardless of the person or number. The vocabulary is also often similar, and beginners sometimes learn to intuitively guess the meaning of words (although guesses can of course be wrong). Sounds in the Danish language are however a bit unusual, and learning pronunciation can be quite difficult, especially in the initial stages. Danish is widely spoken in Denmark of course, and also in some northern regions in Germany. There are also smaller Danish-speaking communities in other parts of the world, including Sweden, the Faroe Islands, the US, Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.
Dutch is a West Germanic language that shares many of the characteristics of the Germanic languages, and is in fact at one end of a language continuum known as the Rhenish Fan, with German at the other end. However, Dutch is also often described as being halfway between German and English, with a vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and syntax that are quite similar to English in many ways. This is not to say that there are no complications – in particular, beginners struggle with the vowel sounds and diphthongs. It is estimated that 23 million people speak Dutch as a first language in the European Union alone, primarily in the Netherlands and Belgium. The language is also spoken in many other parts of the world, including Suriname in South America (where it is the native language for most people), some Caribbean countries, Germany, Indonesia, and the US.
Esperanto isn’t the official language of any country, culture, or community in the world, and it was deliberately invented rather than developing naturally like most languages do. However, it’s the most successful and widely spoken invented language ever, with around two million speakers across the world. There are even “native speakers” of Esperanto – people who have learnt it from birth – and a World Esperanto Association, with members in 120 countries. UNESCO too officially recognized it as a language in 1954. Clearly, Esperanto has practical uses in the real world, and isn’t just a silly game. What’s also great about the language is that it was deliberately constructed so as to be easy to learn. The language is logical in most ways, including spelling, pronunciation, word formation, and sentence construction. The grammar is simple, with no strange twists and complications, and pronunciation is phonetic. By most accounts, Esperanto is absolutely the easiest language to learn, especially for English speakers.
Like several of the languages on this list, French is what is known as a “Romance language” – it has descended from the spoken Latin of the Roman Empire. French has had a huge influence on English, and even today, many of the words in English are similar or identical to their French counterparts. This makes French relatively easy to understand and learn for English speakers, although pronunciation is different and can take a while to get used to. The grammar of French is a bit more complicated, mainly due to the fact that all nouns have genders and there are 17 verb forms, depending on factors like mood, voice, and tense. In addition, there are the subject-verb inversions when asking questions, and the use of articles, adjectives, pronouns, and so on, which can take some getting used to. French is arguably the most widely spoken language in the world after English, considering native speakers, speakers for whom it is a second language, and how widely it is used as an official language.
Italian is another Romance language, and it too is widely spoken across the world, primarily in Europe but also in the Americas, Australia, and many other places. In addition, the influence and popularity of Italian food and Italian culture in general make it an exciting and useful language to learn. Italian shares many similarities with French, such as the gendered nouns, sentence structure, and verb conjugation; however, with fewer letters in the alphabet, fewer verb forms, relatively simple rules of pronunciation, and a general lack of complications, it is an easier language to learn. In fact, Italian is said to be the easiest Romance language for English speakers to learn.
The Norwegian language is a North Germanic language, part of a group of Scandinavian languages, with a lot in common with two of those languages in particular: Swedish and Danish. The vocabulary and grammar is similar in all three languages. In general, Norwegian pronunciations are closer to English than the other two languages. Sentence structure is also similar to English, and verb conjugation is very simple, even simpler than English, with no need to consider person or number. Written language can get a bit complicated because numerous forms of it exist, but Norwegian Bokmål is the form most widely used. Norwegian is primarily spoken in Norway, which is the only place where it has official status, but because of their similarities, speakers of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish can often understand each other.
Portuguese is another Romance language. There are two main dialects – European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese – and together, they are spoken by around 220 million native speakers across the world. In addition, there are communities of Portuguese-based creole speakers in many places, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Guinea-Bissau. Once again, the grammar is very similar to the other Romance languages, and is therefore easy to pick up if you already know one of them. In terms of its sounds as well as its vocabulary, Portuguese is most similar to Spanish, so speakers of the two languages can often understand each other to a reasonable degree, and once you learn one, it’s fairly easy to learn the other. One great feature of Portuguese is that the interrogative is expressed through tone rather than structure.
Spanish is also a Romance language, and as we just mentioned, it has many similarities to Portuguese. What makes Spanish particularly easy to learn is the fact that the pronunciation is quite straightforward – words are pronounced as they are written, the sounds are mostly familiar to English speakers, and there are fewer vowel and diphthong sounds than there are in English. The grammar is also quite simple and straightforward, and there are many similar words in both languages. On the other hand, there are also many words known as “false cognates” – the same word exists in both languages, but with completely different meanings. Spanish is of course widely spoken across the world, and is third in terms of the total number of speakers, behind only English and Chinese. What’s more, it’s spoken across continents – there are large communities of native Spanish speakers in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Swedish is a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse, with similarities to Norwegian and Danish. It has more speakers than any of the other North Germanic languages, with around nine million native speakers, mainly within Sweden itself and parts of Finland. Like the other two languages, Swedish is extremely easy for English speakers to learn. There are a few differences and complications in the grammar, but these are relatively easy to get used to. In general, sentence structure in Swedish is similar to English, and there are many words that sound almost identical, although the spellings may differ. The language has vowel sounds that are unfamiliar to most English speakers, but again, these are usually quite easy to pick up. Another great thing about the Swedish language is that verb conjugation is fairly simple.
Have you learned another language? Did you find it easy or difficult? Share your thoughts in the comments!