As a beginner hoping to discover a relatively painless language, you might be wondering which are the easiest for novice learners. Alternatively, you may already be versed in several languages and now you’re looking for your next challenge.
Whenever we talk about the easiest languages for English speakers, things like French and Spanish are among the first to be mentioned, while at the other end of the scale, Chinese and Japanese are never far from the conversation. But what makes one language more difficult than another? And how can we measure it?
While there is no definitive answer to the question of the easiest or most difficult languages, one frequently cited source is the FSI language ranking system that rates languages in terms of how long it usually takes English speakers to learn them.
Although these lists don’t end the debate, they are a good place to start, and to help you understand these rankings, in this post I will explain how they are calculated before discussing what makes some languages more difficult than others.
Every learner is unique, and difficulty is tough to quantify, so trying to establish the relative difficulty levels of languages is a largely subjective exercise. However, the Foreign Service Institute’s experience teaching a wide range of languages to thousands of students during a period of around 70 years provides us with a unique source of empirical data on the subject.
Based on almost three-quarters of a century of classes, FSI has been able to categorize languages according to the average amount of time it takes students to reach “Professional Working Proficiency”.
In the language of the US government, this corresponds with a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” (S-3/R-3) on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, roughly equal to B2/C1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
This means that these rankings are one way for us to gain a clearer idea of which languages are easy or difficult for speakers of English to master.
The language categories are as follows:
While these categories won’t necessarily tell you how difficult a particular language will be for you, they are still a useful guide. So, for example, these rankings tell you that as a native English speaker, Arabic is likely to be more of a challenge than Swahili and that it will probably take at least twice as long to master.
However, these categories don’t tell us why certain languages are more difficult than others.
As well as the relative difficulty, if you are thinking of taking up a new language, it might also be useful to know what kind of linguistic challenges you will be facing, so now let’s look at the factors that affect these rankings.
If you learned French or Spanish at school, you may still have nightmares about grammar lessons, but the truth is, the grammar of both these languages is relatively easy for English speakers. This is one reason why they are both Category I languages – although, on average, most people need an extra six weeks to reach S-3/R-3 in , partly due to its slightly more complicated grammar.
Moving down the list, in Category II, we find German, a language that is known for having grammar that’s tough to master. The main challenge comes from the fact that that German uses cases, which means words change their form depending on their role in the sentence.
Languages with cases are more difficult to learn, and German's four cases – along with some unfamiliar word order and a few other tricky features – are enough to merit a Category II ranking.
Russian is a heavily inflected language that features six cases, making it notoriously difficult to learn. This is the main reason why it is found in Category IV. However, if you think that’s hard, Finnish has eight cases, while Hungarian has at least 18, and as a result, these languages are among the hardest for English speakers to conquer.
If you learned Spanish or French at school, you probably also remember something about nouns being masculine or feminine. German also has neuter nouns, but Czech even has a fourth grammatical gender, adding an extra layer of difficulty.
On the other hand, East Asian languages are generally not inflected and have no gender, making their grammar relatively simple – there are no verb tenses or plural endings, for example.
However, some make up for this with the use of classifiers, a system where every noun has a corresponding word that “classifies” it, and you can’t count the noun unless you know the relevant classifier.
Classifiers are important in Chinese and Thai, among others, and the Thai language has 338 of them. This alone is not enough to warrant Thai being placed in Category IV, but it’s something you’ll have to contend with if you want to learn it.
While understanding abstract grammar rules can be a mental challenge, if you think about it, one of the most amazing things about becoming fluent in a new language is remembering the many thousands of words you need to communicate effectively. For this reason, vocabulary is another major factor that can affect the difficulty level of a language.
Take French, for example. There’s a very specific reason why this language is considered easy for speakers of English, and that’s because French and English share a vast number of cognates, or words that are the same in both languages.
For almost a thousand years – more precisely, since the Norman invasion of England in 1066 – English has absorbed an extremely large number of words from French; it is now estimated that around a third of all English words have French origins.
This provides English speakers with an enormous shortcut when learning French since if you speak English, you already possess a huge bank of French words. For different reasons, the same is true with German and, to a lesser extent, other closely related European languages.
Contrast this with languages like Chinese or Tamil. Chinese has a small number of loan-words from English – for example, 沙发 shāfā, meaning ‘sofa’ – but don’t expect to find many more. This means if you want to learn Chinese, there’s lots of new vocabulary to learn, and because the words are so different, they are also more difficult to remember.
Chinese is a Category V language, but this is one reason why Category IV is so large. These are all languages that share few, if any, cognates with English, so simply remembering the large number of words required to reach S-3/R-3 takes more time.
Another stumbling block is pronunciation.
However, pronunciation won’t usually account for a language being placed in a higher FSI category since people are generally able to pronounce most sounds accurately enough to be understood.
That’s unless we’re talking about tonal languages, and in that case, it’s a different story.
In tonal languages, the tone or pitch of a word can change its meaning completely, so that, for example, the syllable “ma” in Chinese has five different meanings depending on whether you say it with a high tone, a rising tone, a tone that falls then rises, a falling tone or a flat tone.
For speakers of tonal languages, words pronounced with different tones are as distinct as the words “read” and “road” are to an English speaker, but if you don’t speak a tonal language, this can seem quite an alien concept.
Even worse, sometimes words with opposite meanings are distinguished only by tone. For example, in Chinese, 买 măi is pronounced with a falling-then-rising tone whereas 卖 mài is pronounced with a falling tone – the first one means “buy” while the second means “sell”.
Similarly, in Thai, ใกล้ glâi with a falling tone means “near” but ไกล glai with a mid tone means “far”. As you can imagine, this is something that many people struggle with, so it’s no surprise to find tonal languages like Vietnamese, Burmese and Thai in Category IV.
Thai, Chinese and Burmese all have their own writing systems, too, and this can be another time-consuming obstacle to mastering the language.
In the case of Thai , you are dealing with an alphabet, albeit one with 44 consonants, 16 vowels and four tone marks, far more than the 26 letters used in English. The Thai writing system is further complicated by the fact that vowels can be written before, after, above or below the consonant – and there are also no spaces between words.
This writing system is another reason why Thai is a Category IV language, and the same applies to other languages with difficult scripts, like Hindi, Tamil or Amharic – all Category IV languages. This is also part of the reason why Arabic, another language with a challenging writing system, is in Category V.
Nevertheless, these languages all use writing systems based on alphabets. Chinese, on the other hand, is written using characters, and you need to master at least 3000 of them to become effectively literate. University-educated native speakers usually know about 8000.
Japanese also uses Chinese characters, although only around 2000 are in common use – but these are used in combination with two other complete alphabets, which complicates matters further.
In both cases, this is a major part of why these languages find themselves in Category V.
However, not all writing systems are difficult to learn. Korean, another Category V language, has a writing system that’s counted among the world’s easiest, so this isn’t the reason for its ranking.
Something that is often overlooked when we talk about the difficulty of languages is how idiomatic they are.
Think of the English expression “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”. Every native English speaker understands what this means, but for someone learning English who has never heard this expression before, talk of chickens and hatching is likely to leave them feeling extremely perplexed.
Now try to imagine languages where expressions like this are extremely common and permeate much of everyday speech.
Hungarian, for example, a language that already has some of the most challenging grammar you can meet, is often held up as an example of a highly idiomatic language. This means that often, even if you understand every word in a sentence, you may still be left in the dark as to the meaning.
Chinese is another language that is rendered more difficult by its frequent use of idiom. As Chinese people love to say, China has a long history, and the language is infused with a culture that stretches back for millennia, making it that bit harder for outsiders to understand.
Most of the factors we’ve seen so far, things like grammar, vocabulary – and even idioms – are often connected to how closely a language is related to English.
Dutch, for example, is among English’s closest relations and is considered easy thanks to many similarities in grammar and vocabulary. The same is true of the Scandinavian languages, although they are located slightly further away on the linguistic family tree. It is no coincidence that these languages are all found in Category I.
Dutch, English and the Scandinavian languages all belong to the Germanic family, but languages like French, Spanish and Italian are descended from Latin and belong to the Romance branch of the family tree. However, they are still close cousins of English and are also found in Category I.
The anomaly is German because, although it is a Germanic language and closely related to English, it is ranked in Category II, largely due to its complicated grammar.
When you move further away on the family tree, though, even related languages can become difficult.
The Germanic languages and Romance languages, along with the Slavic languages like Russian and the Indo-Aryan languages of northern Indian like Hindi and Bengali, all belong to the large group known as the Indo-European languages.
However, Russian and Hindi are so different from English – and each other – that the fact of sharing the same distant roots counts for little, and these languages are both still significant challenges for speakers of English.
At the same time, belonging to an unrelated family does not necessarily make a language difficult. Indonesian-Malay is an Austronesian language that is completely unconnected to English, but thanks to its relatively simple grammar, easy pronunciation and use of the Latin alphabet, it is still only classed as a Category III language, the same as German.
When trying to establish the easiest and most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, the FSI rankings are a useful tool. However, there are some factors FSI language rankings don’t take into account.
One of these is the way some languages vary significantly in the different areas where they are spoken, and perhaps the best example of this is Arabic.
Arabic is what is known as a language continuum. This means that many dialects of Arabic are spoken throughout a wide area, and while people from neighboring regions may be able to understand each other, the further you travel, the less mutually comprehensible the dialects become.
For the student of Arabic, this is a problem because if you learn Egyptian Arabic, for example, you might feel quite lost when trying to communicate with a speaker of a Saudi Arabian dialect (of which there are several).
This variation doesn’t account for Arabic belonging to Category V since FSI students normally concentrate on only one dialect and so don’t have to contend with this problem. However, for anyone thinking about taking up Arabic, it is certainly something to consider.
Something else that language learners need to think about is the availability of study resources.
Again, as with dialects, this is not something that affects the FSI language rankings since FSI students study self-contained courses and have access to all the necessary materials, but it is significant if you are learning by yourself.
Consider the difference between Thai and Lao, two extremely similar languages. Both belong to Category IV, both are tonal, both have unique (but related) alphabets, and the grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary of the two languages are very close.
However, if you want to learn one of these languages, it will be much easier if you choose Thai, just because more resources are available for studying it.
If you go to Laos to learn Lao, you won’t have any problems – if anything, Lao is marginally easier than Thai . However, for self-study, you will find materials are much more limited, making it a more difficult proposition.
In fact, this is where the FSI course materials can be invaluable. The FSI Lao Basic course is probably the most comprehensive collection of materials ever created for studying Lao, and if you hope to learn it, this course will be among the only resources you have.
The same can be said for several other less commonly studied languages, which is why FSI courses can be invaluable, even if they are now more than a little dated.
The hardest languages to learn are the ones that combine several of the factors we’ve seen. For example, as a tonal language that also uses a character-based writing system, Chinese is often posited as the toughest challenge for English speakers – although the grammar is relatively easy.
In the end, there are so many variables that affect how easy or difficult a language is, including your previous learning experience, the languages you already speak, your motivation and your learning style.
It’s worth remembering that FSI students enjoy near-perfect learning environments while undertaking intensive study programs, and under normal circumstances, it is unrealistic to expect to reach such a high level of proficiency in such a short space of time.
However, what these rankings do reveal is the relative difficulty of these languages for the majority of English speakers, and, along with other factors like the availability of resources, this can be important information when deciding which language you want to learn.