The English language is closely related to many Germanic and Romance dialects, so when it comes to language study English speakers aren’t starting from scratch. As a survey reveals British teenagers are the worst in Europe at foreign languages, Anne Merritt reveals the 10 easiest to learn from scratch.
Like English, Afrikaans is in the West Germanic language family. Unlike English, its structure won’t make your head spin. A great feature of Afrikaans, especially for grammar-phobes, is its logical and non-inflective structure. Unlike English, there is no verb conjugation (swim, swam, swum). Unlike Romance languages, there is no gender (un homme, une femme in French). Another feature of Afrikaans is its vocabulary, which shares many Germanic-derived root words that are familiar to English speakers. Vocabulary-building is as easy as pointing to an object and asking, “Wat is dit in Afrikaans?”
We can thank William the Conqueror for excellent, colour, identity, and about 8000 other French-derived English words left over from the Norman occupation. Linguists estimate that French has influenced up to a third of the modern English language, from the language of the courts in the 11th century to modern terms like je ne sais quoi, après-ski, and bourgeois. For language learners, English has more in common lexically with French than any other Romance language. This means that French vocabulary is more familiar, recognisable, and easy to comprehend. Advanced French learners may struggle with its gendered nouns and 17 verb forms, but for conversational learning, it’s relatively facile.
For language learners, a great feature of Spanish is its shallow orthographic depth – that is, in most cases, words are written as pronounced. This means that reading and writing in Spanish is a straightforward task. Pronunciation is also fairly easy for native English speakers, with only ten vowel and diphthong sounds (English has 20), and no unfamiliar phonemes except for the fun-to-pronounce letter ñ. Grammatically speaking, Spanish has fewer irregularities that other Romance languages. Spanish is also an attractive second language for English speakers because of its international status. Spanish is an official language on three continents, and with growing economies in Latin and South America, it’s a valuable professional skill. In a Telegraph survey, 37 per cent of employers rated Spanish as a useful language to know.
Another West Germanic cousin of the English language, Dutch is both structurally and syntactically familiar for English speakers. In terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, it parallels English in many ways, such as groen (green) or de oude man (the old man). In addition to familiar Germanic root words, the Dutch language adopted many loan words from French, with familiar words like drogeren (drug) and blok (block). Though some vowel sounds may be new for English speakers, Dutch pronunciation follows the English model of syllable stress, so pronouncing Dutch words is somewhat intuitive. Dutch is similar to German, but because it has no cases and a less complicated grammatical system, many linguistic scholars consider Dutch to be the easiest language for English speakers.
This North Germanic language has consistent pronunciation and, for English speakers, some pretty breezy grammar. Norwegian and English have very similar syntax and word order. Verbs are an especially simple feature, with no conjugation according to number or person. The rules of conjugation are particularly straightforward, with a simple –e suffix for past tense, and –s for passive verbs. Norwegian has the logical system of a tonal “pitch accent” to stress either the first or second syllable in matching words, as in English’s “desert” and “dessert”. The one drawback to studying Norwegian is finding opportunities to use it. In Norway’s top-ranking education system, English is taught nationwide, starting at the primary school level, and most Norwegians are near-fluent.