Becoming fluent in a second language requires commitment and patience, regardless of which language you’ve chosen to learn. However, English learners tend to excel at some more than others due to a number of factors, including shared vocabulary, grammatical similarities and familiar vowels and consonants. Here is a list of some of the simplest – and trickiest – languages for native English speakers to learn.
Because every word is written phonetically, vowel-heavy Spanish is considered one of the easiest languages to pronounce for non-speakers. Spanish has also had a major influence on modern English, particularly in the United States (which has the second highest number of Spanish-speaking citizens behind Mexico). As a result, many Spanish words sound similar – if not identical – to their English counterparts.
Just as Spanish influenced English, the Italian dialect set the standard for all of the Romance languages (including Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian). In fact, Italian has remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages, and still retains many Latin words commonly spoken since the days of the Roman Empire. In addition, the Italian alphabet only has 21 letters. Italian is a popular ‘third language’ choice for people who are bilingual English and Spanish speakers.
Easiest: Norwegian and Swedish
Contrary to popular belief, Swedish and Norwegian are two distinctive languages – but both share characteristics that enable English speakers to learn them with relative ease. Like English, Norwegian and English are Germanic tongues, and governed by similar rules related to grammatical sequencing. But unlike other European Germanic languages (such as, uh, German), Norwegian and Swedish verb conjugation is quite simple; typically, the same verb is used regardless of the pronoun or tense. Anyone who has visited either country will attest to a native population with abnormally strong English proficiency.
Afrikaans is a hybrid language that mostly consists of simplified Dutch words with a little Bantu vocabulary thrown in for good measure. First uttered by 17th-century Dutch settlers in what is today South Africa, Afrikaans retains the Germanic grammatical conventions of its mother tongue without all of the odd consonant pairings that make many Dutch words appear all but unpronounceable to native English speakers. And like Norwegian and Swedish, most Afrikaans verbs are conjugated the same way regardless of the noun/pronoun or tense.
Hardest: Cantonese and Mandarin
Unlike other alphabets that utilize an alphabet that represents sounds or syllables, Chinese characters signify complex phonetic combinations that often denote specific words. No one knows for sure how many Chinese characters there are, but experts pin the number around 7,000; you’ll need to learn about half of them just to read the newspaper. Oh, and there are no fewer than eight sub-dialects of Mandarin, while Cantonese has at least two.
The Japanese writing system is divided into three categories. Kanji characters (Chinese origin) are logographic, which means they represent specific words or morphemes (such as prefixes and suffixes); it is estimated that Japanese writing uses more than 13,000 kanji. The other two groups, hiragana (native Japanese) and katakana (non-Chinese foreign origin) represent letter sounds or syllables and contain fewer characters, but many of them have multiple pronunciations. In addition, words aren’t separated with spaces and text wraps indiscriminately from line to line. Tryreadingt hissententenceandyouwillgettheidea.
As if learning a new alphabet wasn’t hard enough, those who study Hebrew must grow accustomed to reading and writing right-to-left. Furthermore, the native language of Israel features some unique grammatical conventions, such as word-specific single-letter prefixes or unordered word sequencing. Notable vocabulary omissions, such as words for “have” or “to be”, may add to the confusion as far as native English speakers are concerned.
Learning a language with a different alphabet is tricky, but at least some foreign lettering systems (such as Korean or Thai) correspond to English vowel and phonetic sounds. Arabic, on the other hand, uses an alphabet that consists of several consonants that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce – and very few vowels. Writing Arabic is similar to cursive, in that letters are generally connected, but the nature of these connections depends on each letter’s position in the word. Plus, very few Arabic words share any similarity whatsoever with their English counterparts.
By Brad Nehring