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What makes a language “easy” to learn?

Aidan Cross

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Does the thought of learning a new language sound too difficult? Here’s what to look for to make it “easier” when deciding what language to learn!

Today, over 7000 languages are spoken across the world, and it is estimated that more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one. As English has become a global language, it is unsurprising that it is the most common second language to learn. However, for native English speakers, what makes a different language “easy” to learn? 

It is generally agreed that exposure, immersion, and practice are the most important factors in successfully learning a new language. Because of this, the availability of resources in that language is something to consider when deciding what language to learn. Are there films, TV shows, or YouTube videos that you can watch in that language; books that you can read; or music that you can listen to? For example, the “Korean wave” and how this growing interest in South Korean culture has made a variety of Korean content accessible to English speakers with the popularity of K-dramas such as “Squid Game” and K-pop groups such as BTS. 

Your motivation and dedication to learning a new language is also a critical factor in determining how “easy” it is to learn. Your cultural ties to a language, through your family, community, or religion, e.g. Arabic in Islam and Hebrew in Judaism, can therefore make a language “easier” to learn. This is because it has a real, practical use and place in your life as well as that you will already have an understanding of the culture behind the language. After all, learning a language is so much more than just learning the vocabulary and grammar, the cultural context is just as important. Furthermore, you will have the advantage of knowing native speakers to practice with and learn from within your family or community. However, you shouldn’t be disheartened if this isn’t the case, and you are choosing to learn a language for study or work, for travel, or just for fun; ultimately, it is your motivation and dedication to consistent practice that will determine how “easy” it is to learn. 

Nevertheless, it cannot be avoided that, linguistically, some languages will just be “easier” than others for native English speakers to learn, for example, languages that use the Latin alphabet, e.g. Indonesian, and not the Cyrillic alphabet, e.g. Mongolian, or their own script, e.g. Thai. Languages with similar origins and shared histories, predominately Indo-European languages, e.g. Hindi, as well as those from the branches of this language family, particularly the Romance languages, e.g. Spanish, and Germanic languages, e.g. German will also be “easier” to learn due to their similarity to English. A language’s similarity, or dissimilarity, to English can affect how “easy” it is to learn in a number of ways:

  • Grammar, e.g. there is no verb conjugation in Mandarin and no articles in Russian

  • Pronunciation, e.g. tonal languages such as Yoruba or click consonants, like in Xhosa, as well as sounds that don’t exist in English, like the Portuguese “ão”

So, what languages are generally considered the “easiest” for native English speakers to learn? Unsurprisingly, it’s the Romance and Germanic languages spoken by our European neighbours: Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian.


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