Which are the easiest and hardest languages to master?
“The average learner would take four times as long to learn Mandarin as they would to learn Spanish”
For most people, mastering another language is no easy feat. However, it is broadly accepted that some languages are easier to learn than others.
It’s a topic that is discussed often and in depth within the translation services industry, as well as by everyone from military personnel to expats. As such, let’s take a look at contenders for the easiest language to master… and the hardest!
The easiest languages to learn
The ability to rapidly learn a foreign language depends on a range of factors. The individual’s starting point is important, as is how similar the language being learned is to that individual’s native language (and any other languages that he/she might speak). Also relevant is the complexity of the language itself, from its grammar to its linguistic concepts.
“Those ‘easy’ languages included Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish”
The United States Foreign Service Institute has undertaken detailed research in order to ascertain which languages are easiest for English speakers to learn, as has the Defense Language Institute. Their findings rank foreign languages by the number of classroom hours that it takes English speaking students to become proficient in them.
The findings were grouped into five categories. The languages ranked in the easiest to learn category were rated as requiring 575-600 hours of study for learners to achieve sufficient competence to be posted overseas. Those ‘easy’ languages included Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish. A learner would need to engage in 23-24 weeks of fulltime classroom study in order to become proficient.
Lost in translation… the hardest languages to learn
The same methodology was applied to a wide range of other languages, with the result that the hardest to learn (from a starting point of being an English speaker), were found to require some 2,200 hours of study to achieve a comparable level of proficiency. That equates to 88 weeks of full-time classroom learning.
According to the research, the hardest group of languages to learn included Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. That means that the average learner would take four times as long to learn Mandarin as they would to learn Spanish.
Why are some languages harder to learn than others?
Phonology plays a key role when it comes to working out how hard a language is to learn. Our mouths and ears become accustomed to saying and hearing a specific range of sounds as we grow up. A language that includes sounds that don’t exist in the native language is therefore harder to master. Arabic, for example, has a number of sounds that English doesn’t. This makes it harder for English speakers to pronounce, as well as impairing their ability to distinguish between particular sounds.
“Some languages do stand out as being particularly quick for learners to pick up – and there is overlap between nations”
Conversely, languages that are from the same family are easier to pick up. That’s why English speakers are so comfortable with learning Germanic languages, such as Dutch, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. The languages enjoy similar vocabularies and structures, making them easier for learners to absorb quickly. Romance languages also share a large volume of their vocabulary with English.
Which is the easiest foreign language to master?
While there is no definitive answer to which is the easiest foreign language to master, some languages do stand out as being particularly quick for learners to pick up – and there is overlap between nations.
Spanish and Italian in particular stand out as easy to learn for native English speakers, native Hebrew speakers and native Arabic speakers to learn, at least based on anecdotal evidence gathered by the Tomedes translation agency team.
With a vocabulary largely derived from Latin, but also with around 8% of its words derived from Arabic, Spanish appeals to a broad range of language learners, standing out as one of the easiest languages to master.
About the author: Louise Taylor is a freelance writer with a passion for languages. She is currently the head of English content for the Tomedes translation agency.