Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (2023)


Many of us have entertained the idea of expanding our horizons. Learning a foreign language is an obvious option.

It’s one that I would personally endorse: My individual circumstances were such that, by the age of 12, I could speak German, Greek and English, so languages became my passion and my hobby.

My advice is that you should learn a language because you’re also interested in the culture and the country.

If you like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, learn Russian. If you’re going to live in Bangkok, learn Thai. If your partner is Mexican, learn Spanish.

And remember: Although you can get by as a tourist in, possibly, weeks, mastering a language is a long-term commitment taking years, not months.

Language and diplomacy

After World War II, the United States expanded its influence around the world by training its embassy staff in the local languages of the countries they were in.

Thankfully for language learners today, the US Foreign Service Institute’s language books and tapes can be found online.

These are the best free courses available, though you can still detect a touch of the Cold War in the syllabus (“Where is the state clothing shop?”).

Best of all, the FSI has done us a great service by classifying languages in degrees of difficulty for English speakers.

Here are a few examples, ranked in order of the number of hours it takes the average learner to master them from lowest to highest:

Easiest (about 600 hours of study)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (1)

After just 600 hours of study, you'll have no trouble fitting in on the streets of Paris.

Along with Dutch and Norwegian, the popular Latin languages – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese – require about 600 hours of study to achieve “general professional proficiency” in speaking and reading.

Of these, Spanish and Italian are the easiest for native English speakers to learn, followed by Portuguese and finally French.

They share many words with English, but it’s that common vocabulary that creates “false friends” – words in different languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly as meanings have drifted with time. For instance, in Spanish an “embarazada” woman is pregnant, while a French “préservatif” is not something you add to your food, but a condom.

While French and Italian are pretty standardized, you must choose whether to learn Latin American Spanish or “castellano,” which is spoken in Spain; they differ as much as US English and British English.

The choice is even more striking with Portuguese; long ago I opted for Brazilian and to this day I still can’t properly understand speakers from Portugal.

German (750 hours)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (2)

Interested in reading Karl May's "Wild West" series in its original language? You'll need to spend 750 hours mastering German first.

One of my German teachers used to joke that it takes you a year to say, “I’m traveling on the bus,” but once you’re on that bus, it’s plain sailing.

With nouns that are masculine, feminine and neutral, verbs that conjugate heavily and an extremely strict syntax, German may appear insurmountable to start with.

On the other hand, pronunciation and spelling is straightforward and once you learn the – admittedly many – rules, that’s it.

You’ll also realize why Germans never interrupt you during a conversation: they’re waiting to hear the verb at the end to figure out what you were talking about.

Malay and Swahili (900 hours)

It’s not surprising that the two non-European languages that are simplest to learn employ the Latin alphabet.

Malay is the lingua franca of several Southeast Asia countries and has been simplified by its use as a second language by non-native speakers.

For example, the Malay plural is formed by repeating a word twice – buku means book and buku-buku means books.

Similarly, Swahili evolved as the trading language in East Africa and is described as having an Arab vocabulary upon an African grammar.

It’s given us the safari, all the characters in “The Lion King” (Simba, Timon, Pumbaa) and the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa.

Hungarian (1,100 hours)

If you like a challenge, try Hungarian. It’s like no other European language you’ve heard, except maybe Basque.

I remember a conversation I had once with a friend who insisted that “nouns are declined but verbs are conjugated”; except in Hungarian you both decline and conjugate nouns, sometimes together.

You denote possession (my garden, your garden, his garden and so on) by putting verb endings to the noun garden.

Think of the Shakespearean “thou takest” and “he taketh.” In that case “your garden” would be “gardenest” and “his garden” would be “gardeneth.”

You may well ask what happens to double possessives (my mother’s garden’s flowers) or the difference between my parent’s garden’s flowers (plural, singular, plural) and my parent’s gardens’ flowers (singular plural plural) – but that’s where I gave up.

Greek (1,100 hours)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (3)

Your next trip to Greece will be so much more meaningful if you take the time to study a bit of Greek.

Modern Greek is maybe the easiest language to learn that uses a different alphabet.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek book titled “Learn Greek in 25 years,” but you’ll be surprised at how straightforward it is to learn the alphabet: those alpha males, beta releases and gamma rays have seen to that.

Because, yes, Greek is also a language that’s contributed numerous words to English.

Indeed, in 1957 Xenophon Zolotas, the then governor of the Bank of Greece, gave two speeches to the IMF that contained just Greek loanwords apart from the inevitable basic English. (Example: “Our policies should be based more on economic and less on political criteria.”)

Russian (1,100 hours)

The big advantage of learning Russian is that, once you’re proficient, you can understand other Slav languages such as Czech, Polish or Bulgarian.

It’s also spoken and understood in all former regions of the Soviet Union from Armenia to Kyrgyzstan.

Hidden behind a Cyrillic veil of mystery, it’s one of the harder languages to master, so much so that even many Russians speak it incorrectly.

But any literature, music and ballet buff or aspiring astronaut – Russian is a mandatory subject at NASA – should study a language with over 500,000 words (some up to 38 characters long), where the letter “e” sounds as e or o and nouns are “alive” or “dead.”

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Arabic (2,200 hours)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (4)

It takes the average native English speaker a whopping 2,200 hours to become proficient in Arabic.

There’s an urban myth about a pharmaceutical company that advertised an analgesic pill with three non-verbal images for international consumption.

The left picture depicted a woman with a headache. The middle one showed her swallowing the pill and the right one had her smiling after the pain had subsided.

It worked everywhere except in the Arab world, which read it from right to left.

The direction of reading and the cursive script, which may or may not include vowels, are the two major hurdles for Arab learners.

Classical Arabic – the language of the Qur’an – will make you understood everywhere, but colloquial Arabic may be more useful, because once the locals start conversing with each other, you’ll lose the plot.

But who can resist a language with 11 words for love, five gradations of swearing and close to 100 words describing a camel?

Japanese (2,200 hours)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (5)

Fall in love with Tokyo in 2.5 minutes

02:30 - Source: CNN

A country that’s enriched the world with sushi, karaoke and manga, Japan has many devotees, especially among gamers and geeks.

But they are confronted with an extremely challenging language that uses imported Chinese characters (Kanji) cut off from their original meaning as well as two syllabaries – Hiragana and Katakana (you must learn when to use which).

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Counting objects depends on whether they are long and thin (roads), small and round (apples), thin and flat (sheets of paper), broad and flat (rugs) and hundreds more varieties.

What Japanese you speak also depends on your gender. There’s a “rough” language for men and a more “ladylike” language for women, but you must understand both.

By all means start a course of Japanese at home, but if you want to progress at all, pencil in a month of intensive practice in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Cantonese/Mandarin (2,200 hours each)

Which languages are easiest -- and most difficult -- for native English speakers to learn? | CNN (6)

One of the challenges of mastering Mandarin is learning all of the characters.

Each Chinese dialect is effectively another language but Mandarin (Putonghua in Chinese, which means the common language) is considered the official tongue in modern China.They all share (roughly) one evolving writing system, referred to as 書面語 (or written language) invented for administering a large, diverse empire.

To complicate the matter further, there are two main types of written Chinese characters under the same writing system: the traditional Chinese used in Hong Kong and Taiwan and the simplified Chinese in mainland China (standardized and simplified in the 1950s to increase literacy in the country).

For example, fly is written as 飛 in traditional Chinese and 飞 in simplified Chinese. They’re basically the same character written in two different ways but pronounced differently when spoken in different dialect.

Confused yet?

Each written word when spoken is mutually incomprehensible between a Mandarin speaker in Beijing and a Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong. If you think that’s odd, consider our number system: the symbol “9” is universally recognized but it’s pronounced “nine” in English and “devet” in Slovenian.

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Every word must be memorized separately as you can’t guess its pronunciation from the script – but one could say the same of English if you consider plough, dough and tough.

Meanwhile, dictionaries list words according to stroke count.

These go from one to over 60 strokes. The archaic character zhé – which, appropriately, means “verbose” – has 64 strokes.

And then there are the pronunciation challenges.

In the days of the British Empire, if you were going to be sent to Hong Kong as a civil servant, you had to pass a musical test first because all Chinese languages are tonal.

There are four tones in Mandarin: high pitch (say G in a musical scale), rising pitch (like from C to G), falling (from G to C) and falling low then rising (C to B to G) – and if you think that’s difficult, there are nine tones in Cantonese.

In Mandarin, there is a whole poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” with just the syllable “shi” repeated 107 times in various intonations.

In other words, if you are tone-deaf you might as well give up now.


What are the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn? ›

Easiest (about 600 hours of study)

Of these, Spanish and Italian are the easiest for native English speakers to learn, followed by Portuguese and finally French.

Which languages are most difficult for native English speakers to learn? ›

The Hardest Languages To Learn For English Speakers
  • Mandarin Chinese. Interestingly, the hardest language to learn is also the most widely spoken native language in the world. ...
  • Arabic. ...
  • Polish. ...
  • Russian. ...
  • Turkish. ...
  • Danish.
Feb 25, 2021

What is the easiest language in the world to learn to speak? ›

For many people, Spanish pips French to the post, in the 'easiest language to learn in the world' stakes, due to its highly phonetic nature.

Is English one of the hardest or easiest languages to learn? ›

The English language is widely regarded as one of the most difficult to master. Because of its unpredictable spelling and challenging to learn grammar, it is challenging for both learners and native speakers.

What are the top 3 easiest languages? ›

5 easy languages to learn
  • English. It's the most widely spoken language in the world, making practice possible. ...
  • Spanish. It's heavily influenced by Latin and Arabic, spoken as it's written and has fewer irregularities than other romance languages. ...
  • Italian. ...
  • Swahili.

Which English language skills is most difficult? ›

Writing: It is the most difficult of the four language skills. It requires a command over vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. When children graduate to writing short paragraphs, it also involves establishing links among different sentences. All these help in creating meaning.

Is French or Spanish easier for native English speakers? ›

Spanish pronunciation is easier to the English native speaker, while the French accent can be difficult to master. The French language has sounds that are unfamiliar to a native English speaker. Inability to roll the tongue can make speaking Spanish a challenge.

What is the easiest language skill? ›

Listening is the easiest skill to practice

All four language skills are incredibly important and present their unique challenges. When I say that listening is easiest, I do not mean that it requires less time or commitment than reading, writing, or speaking.

What is the most useful language to learn after English? ›

Most useful languages to learn
  1. Mandarin Chinese. The world's biggest economy since 2015, China is a vital business partner for most countries in the world. ...
  2. French. Never one to be left out, French still stands as a valid option for strategic language learners. ...
  3. Spanish. ...
  4. German. ...
  5. Portugese.
Mar 20, 2020

What is the simplest language ever? ›

Riau Indonesian is different from most other languages in how simple it is. There are no endings of any substance, no tones, no articles, and no word order. There is only a little bit of indicating things in time.

What is the 1 hardest language to learn? ›

Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.

Which language is hardest to learn Spanish or English? ›

Social media informalIy tells me there's an overwhelming consensus: English is WAY harder for Spanish-speakers to learn. I'll concede that the erratic nature of English is obvious. You don't have to look far for examples: I think people are right that English is harder, but it is really WAY HARDER than Spanish?

What are the 5 most hardest languages to learn? ›

5 of the most hardest languages to learn in the world
  • Mandarin.
  • Japanese.
  • Arabic.
  • Xhosa.
  • Russian.
Apr 13, 2022

What language has the hardest grammar? ›

Hungarian grammar seems like the road to death for an English speaker. Because Hungarian grammar rules are the most difficult to learn, this language has 26 different cases. The suffixes dictate the tense and possession and not the word order.

Can you learn 2 languages at once? ›

Answer: Thankfully, your brain can definitely handle learning two (or more!) languages at once! (Two down, 6,998 to go.) But there are also some ways you can make this linguistic task easier on yourself.

Which languages are easiest or hardest to learn? ›

And The Easiest Language To Learn Is…
  1. Norwegian. This may come as a surprise, but we have ranked Norwegian as the easiest language to learn for English speakers. ...
  2. Swedish. ...
  3. Spanish. ...
  4. Dutch. ...
  5. Portuguese. ...
  6. Indonesian. ...
  7. Italian. ...
  8. French.
Nov 9, 2021

What is the 2 hardest language? ›

2. Arabic. Arabic is the queen of poetic languages, the 6th official language of the UN and second on our list of toughest languages to learn.

What is the 7 hardest language to learn? ›

Which is the most difficult language for English Speakers?
  • 1 – Chinese (Mandarin)
  • 2 – Arabic.
  • 3 – Japanese.
  • 4 – Korean.
  • 5 – Hungarian.
  • 6 – Finnish.
  • 7 – Xhosa.
Feb 7, 2020

Which of the following language skills is typically the most difficult to develop? ›

Writing skills in particular are the most difficult skills to learn and will be acquired last. It is important for parents and teachers to know this natural process, so they are able to exhibit understanding and patience when a child is speaking or writing.

What is the easiest language to learn if you speak Spanish and English? ›

One of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers, Dutch is also fairly simple to learn if you know Spanish. Even though it's from a different language family, the Germanic languages, Dutch has plenty of rules that will make a Spanish speaker feel right at home.

What is the easiest language for a native Spanish speaker to learn? ›

Portuguese is one of the easiest languages for Spanish speakers to learn, mainly due to the similarities between the two languages. They both have Latin roots and use similar grammar structures.

What is harder Italian or Spanish? ›

To sum up, while Italian is easier in terms of pronunciation, Spanish is simpler in terms of grammar. It seems this Italian vs Spanish thing is not as easy as we thought it would be. If you speak English, Spanish will be definitively easier than Italian for you because there are more similarities.

What is the 20 hardest language to learn? ›

25 Hardest Languages to Learn, Ranked
  1. Mandarin. No. of speakers: 1.3 billion.
  2. Arabic. No. of speakers: 274 million. ...
  3. Japanese. No. of speakers: 126 million. ...
  4. Korean. No. of speakers: 80 million. ...
  5. Thai. No. of speakers: 60 million. ...
  6. Vietnamese. No. of speakers: 77 million. ...
  7. Hindi. No. of speakers: 615 million. ...
  8. Icelandic. No. ...
Jan 25, 2023

Which foreign language is worth learning? ›

French. The French language is also one of the best foreign language to learn for jobs. It is also one of the romance languages of the Indo-European family. French is the official language in 29 countries.

Which foreign language is in demand after English? ›

French (Français)

French is the most popular foreign language in India, and the reasons to learn French are apparent. With over 30 Francophone countries around the globe, It is spoken by roughly 300 million French speakers globally. According to Forbes, 750 million French speakers will be worldwide by 2050.

What language has the simplest alphabet? ›

Hangul is the more phonologically faithful than many writing systems. Meaning, almost each symbol corresponds to one sound with little exception.

What is the very first language? ›

Sumerian can be considered the first language in the world, according to Mondly. The oldest proof of written Sumerian was found on the Kish tablet in today's Iraq, dating back to approximately 3500 BC.

What is the most used language in the world? ›

These are the most spoken languages in the world
  • English – 1,121 million speakers. ...
  • Mandarin Chinese – 1,107 million speakers. ...
  • Hindi – 698 million speakers. ...
  • Spanish – 512 million speakers. ...
  • French – 284 million speakers. ...
  • Arabic – 273 million speakers. ...
  • Bengali – 265 million inhabitants. ...
  • Russian – 258 million speakers.
Jun 4, 2022

What is the hardest language in the world 2023? ›

Mandarin, a language spoken in the northern and southwestern regions of China, is counted as the most difficult language in the world to learn. Speaking Mandarin is as difficult as writing Mandarin due to its complex grammar and writing system. Mandarin Chinese is popularly known as northern Chinese.

Can you learn a language while sleeping? ›

Not a lot, unfortunately. As Jennifer Ackerman notes in her splendid 2007 book Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, learning a language while sleeping “is probably impossible, [and] attempts to teach slumbering adult subjects vocabulary of foreign languages or lists of items have failed miserably.”

Is Japanese easy to learn for English speakers? ›

The Japanese language is considered one of the most difficult to learn by many English speakers. With three separate writing systems, an opposite sentence structure to English, and a complicated hierarchy of politeness, it's decidedly complex.

Is Chinese or Spanish harder to learn? ›

Learning expert Scott H. Young states that speaking Mandarin is not only harder than speaking Spanish, but it is fundamentally different. Everything from tones, vocabulary, and character is vastly unique compared to the latin languages, and the learning curve would be quite steep.

Which is harder English or French? ›

In conclusion, it can be said that, historically and culturally, French has become more difficult than English, not so much because of its intrinsic characteristics, but because it has been made more difficult by imposing models and rules of use on it which, while suitable for formal or written uses of the language, ...

Which English dialect is easiest to understand? ›

Option 1: the American accent

The most popular English accent of them all. Spread around the world by American cinema, music, television and more than 350 million North Americans (including Canadians, eh), this is the easiest accent for most people to understand, whether native speakers or non-native speakers.

What's the hardest accent to learn? ›

The British Accent

The Great British accent proved to be the most difficult of all the accents to imitate – along with the regional Yorkshire and Cockney pronunciations, in particular.

What is the most understandable English accent? ›

British is the most likeable accent globally, with 45% of respondents stating they enjoy hearing their native language spoken with a British accent. First nested list itemPoland is the only country where a British accent isn't the most popular accent - in Poland, the American accent is most popular.

Who has the best English accent? ›

British accent has been rated as the most attractive English accent in the world, according to a new survey by the CEOWORLD magazine.
These Are The Most Attractive English Accents In The World:
RankEnglish AccentScore
27 more rows
Jul 27, 2018


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