World’s Easiest Language

In response to a post concerning the Most Difficult Language, 2009 begins with a post discussing what might be the world’s easiest language, whatever that might mean. A quick scan of the internet yields surprising results which seem to have absolutely no linguistic support. Answers include Spanish, German, Indonesian, Japanese, English, Esperanto and Pirahã. Let us take these latter three propositions.

One could argue that efficiency is a mark of ease of use and the ability to learn a language quickly. Also, the fact that certain languages spread more quickly than others is a valid argument in terms of this efficiency. If this is the case then English would no doubt top the list as the world’s most widespread language, especially if we pay attention to the number of English native speakers together with people who speak English as a second language. But does this justify calling it the easiest language?

Esperanto, the brainchild of Polish-born Ludwik Zamenhof, has an estimated 2 million speakers but few (if any) native speakers, thus the argument used with English is completely invalid here. However, this artificial language was constructed by Zamenhof in order to be easy to learn, especially for many European as Esperanto borrows heavily from Romance, Germanic and Slavonic languages. However, due to the fact that speakers of Esperanto seem to be falling rather than growing is there are justification for learning it?

Pirahã, a language recently made famous by Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is allegedly one of the world’s simplest languages with no numbering system or time references. This obscure South American language is spoken by approximately 400 tribes-people and is a strong contender for world’s easiest language due to its simple grammar and vocabulary. It may perhaps be easy but the motivation for learning such a language might be very low. Practically speaking, does this make it an easy language?

A large number of factors need to be considered before any poll or survey can ever be put together. First of all, in what way are these languages easiest? Easiest to learn? To teach? To understand? To speak fluently? To write and speak effectively? Secondly, easiest for whom? Speakers of Arabic? Speakers of Chinese? Thirdly, usefulness is a major factor. Many languages which are allegedly easy to learn may be useless for some learners (although no language can ever be useless for a true linguist). For a native speaker of Polish, Sorbian may be the easiest language to learn but it could also be completely useless.

It could well be that statements such as “this is the easiest language to speak”, or “this is the easiest writing system in the world” are simply untrue without the necessary qualification. What is easy about them? For whom are they easy? What is meant by easy? Are these questions which can never be truely answered?


47 thoughts on “World’s Easiest Language

  1. Good point. The question of what makes a language “easy” is heavily context-dependent; there is no one simple answer.

    A few corrections: although they are rare, there do exist quite a few native speakers of Esperanto, some even second- and third-generation natives. A famous example is billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

    As to practicality, the enormous quantity and variety of works that have appeared in Esperanto translation make the language a valuable window to world literature—much like English, but without the tremendous difficulty that English poses for non-native speakers. In recent years, Esperanto has also become a boon to travelers who want to learn about foreign countries from locals, rather than tour guides. Take for example, the Pasporta Servo, an international hospitality network: if you speak Esperanto, you can find free lodging in over 90 cities around the world, offered by enthusiastic hosts who are eager to show you the local culture.

  2. A well thought-out analysis – you ask the right questions. I would contest, though, your answer with regard to Esperanto. Specifically, although it’s impossible to come up with an exact numbers of Esperanto speakers, estimates have been made, and certain trends can be observed.

    According to a survey conducted by Dr. Johannes Dietterle in the 1920’s, the number of Esperanto speakers in 1927 was around 128,000. Field research performed by the late Sydney Culbert concluded with an estimate of around 2,000,000 speakers, probably the most scientific estimate of recent times. Those figures suggest growth in the intervening years, although they of course say nothing about recent growth rates.

    Attendance at the World Congress of Esperanto has varied considerably over the years. However, if you smooth out the attendance figures (I averaged figures over 9-year periods – crude, I know, but it does get rid of the worst variations), I see a slow but steady increase in average attendance, with notable rises in the 1920’s, the 1960’s and the 1980’s.

    Admittedly much less scientific, but more ad hoc observable, is the steadily and visibly growing presence of Esperanto on the Internet over the last 10 years. Try Googling “esperanto” – you get tens of millions of hits. Googling “de” (Esperanto for “of”, “from”) on pages only in Esperanto gives several million hits. Esperanto Wikipedia is 21st by number of articles with over 100,000 articles. Several major software companies, including Google, Skype and Ubuntu, have offerings in Esperanto, and an Esperanto version of OpenOffice is in the works.

    With the provizo that my conclusion is very unscientific, it seems clear to me that Esperanto has been growing in recent years, not shrinking.

  3. There are around 1000 native-born speakers of Esperanto, usually the result of parents speaking who don’t speak each other’s language.

    1. My native language is American English. After seriously studying Glosa, Esperanto, Ido (which is better than Esperanto), Novial, Atlango, Nordien, Ceqli, and others, I’ve concluded that none of them are for me. Romanian, Indonesian, and Persian are supposed to be simple for native speakers of English, too. However, since my paternal heritage is German and I want to learn another Germanic language, I am drawn to Afrikaans and Norwegian. Afrikaans is easier to learn than Esperanto! Afrikaans speakers can easily understand Dutch! Norwegians can understand much of Dutch and Swedish, but they have a bad habit of interrupting native English speakers who try to speak Norwegian and insist they speak English. That’s no fun. Afrikaans speakers encourage people to practice their Afrikaans, including younger generation non-whites who don’t see it as the language of the suppressors. It’s more guttural than I like, but I’m favoring Afrikaans because of its very simple grammar and fascinating history. 13 million Afrikaans speakers + 27 million Dutch speakers = 40 million. I doubt there are even one million Esperantists. Regardless, according to liberal statistics, Esperanto has less speakers than does Indian Sign Language (2.7 million). That’s funny. Even at 2 million speakers, Esperanto is spoken by fewer people than 180 other languages. Afrikaans and Dutch are ranked 100 and 37, respectfully.

      1. Wow, I forgot about making a post here. Well, after checking out the conlang called Fasile, I’m convinced that it is a hoax and have changed my mind about Esperanto and Ido. I do think Ido is easier to learn and speak than Esperanto, but I think I’ve grown to like Esperanto best because of its “strangeness” 🙂

  4. Hoss, thank you for the comments. You suggest that there are “quite a few” native speakers of Esperanto. The point is that figures are varied and experience shows that it is probably better to err on the side of the smaller number rather than the larger. By no means, do we believe Esperanto is a pointless language, au contraire, we believe it to be one of the greatest exercises in world peace and communication witnessed in years. Once again, thank you for your post and the links.

  5. Stevo, thank you for the figure. As mentioned before, these figure seems to vary depending on the source.
    Michjo, perhaps a more accurate wording would be the proportion of Esperanto speakers compared to the larger world languages is decreasing. It is not our intention (if you understood it that way) to belittle the Esperanto cause but only to show that certain languages (in the current linguistic and/or political climate) are more likely to gain credence and some lose it.

  6. As the “International Year of Languages” comes to an end on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

    The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008.

    The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September. or

  7. The Jiddish author Shalom Alleichem is supposed to have remarked that he finds Jiddish to be the easiest languge because he understands it 100%.

    I once read a joke in my native language Tamil. Onr 6 year old Tamil boy exclaims to his friend that he ie happy not to have been born in Germany as he does not at all know German!!!!!!!

    Dondu N. Raghavan

  8. It is not our intention (if you understood it that way) to belittle the Esperanto cause …

    Actually, I didn’t read anything derogatory into your comments; if that’s how I came across, please accept my apologies. Perhaps “contest” was a bit strong – “question” might have been more appropriate.

    … the proportion of Esperanto speakers compared to the larger world languages is decreasing …

    I wonder if perhaps a more meaningful comparison, or at least an equally meaningful comparison, would be with the world’s population, rather than a selected subset of languages. If so, I believe it possible, even likely, that both long-term-average and in recent years, the growth rate of Esperanto has been greater than that of the world’s population. World population growth in recent decades peaked at about 2.20% in the 1960’s, and now stands at around 1.17%; the average growth rate would necessarily stand somewhere below 2.20%. If we can give any credence to the figures I cited earlier, the average growth rate of Esperanto from 1927 (~127,000 speakers) to now (~2,000,000 speakers) works out to 3.41%. I realize how risky it is to use average long-term growth figures to predict future growth this way, but these figures at least suggest the possibility that Esperanto is growing faster than the world’s population. In addition, my personal observation of Esperanto activity on the Internet in recent years, including what I perceive as a significant rise in the number of newer Esperantists (< 5 years speaking the language) suggests to me a robust growth rate that exceeds the current world population growth rate. Very unscientific, I know, but suggestive of the possibility of Epseranto’s growth rate being greater than that of the world’s population.

  9. As a very fluent Esperanto reader (and so so speaker but one who’s given academic papers and taught linguistics _in_ esperanto) I have to say that it is a lot easier than any national language in europe.

    One of things that makes it so is that style isn’t so important (well, it is, but not in the way that most people think). A long established principle in Esperanto is that as long as the grammar (and logic) is okay then it’s correct, unlike English where native speakers can (and do! and should!) correct perfectly grammatical and logical constructions by non-native speakers because they’re not idiomatic or there’s already a fixed phrase in place.

    Piraha is another kettle of fish altogether. A lot of the guideposts that speakers of European languages look for are missing but it has whole bunches of grammatical categories that don’t exist in european language. Generally native American language tend toward the morphologically complex and are full of structures with no equivalents in European languages (like evidentiality, focus, verbs that classify for the shape of the object, animacy hierarchies, nominal incorporation etc).

    Some experienced field workers who’ve looked at Piraha have challenged Everret’s analyses suggesting that the complexities of the language have largely eluded him.

  10. If you have heard of sanskrit, it is also pretty easy. You can arrange the words in the sentence in any order, but it will still retain the meaning. I think all European languages should be tough to learn. I am well versed in English, but still I find tough to learn German, when I actually started to! These two were supposed to be from the same family of languages! One of the problems with German like hindi is, every word is attached to a tense. And you need to remember the tense to speak the simplest of sentences in them. Thankfully, English doesn’t have such things 🙂

    Destination Infinity

  11. I have messed with many languages, thought I fluently speak only five – English, Urdu, Hindko, Pashto and Hindi. I study Russian, German, Italian and Japanese regularly and have meddled with Arabic, Farsi, Malay, Mandarin, Korean, Spanish and French. Of these languages atleast I can say the easiest is Malay. The reason for my choice is the Malay grammar structure. I’ll give you a simple example:

    I went.
    I am going.
    I go.
    I will go.
    These are forms of the verb ‘to go’. In malay/indonesian, you don’t need any form.

    saya teluh pergi. (I early go)
    saya pergi. (I am going)
    saya pergi. (I go)
    saya akan pergi. (I later go).

    There are no long vowels in the language and consonant clusters not more than 2 letters long, so pronunciation can be perfected in under 5 minutes.

  12. Fahd Mir Jan has compared the forms of the English verb “to go” with their equivalent in Malay. Here is a relevant comparison with Esperanto:

    English: Esperanto:
    I went. Mi iris.
    I am going. Mi iras.
    I go. Mi iras.
    I will go. Mi iros.

    In the case of “I am going”, it is permissible to say “Mi estas iranta”, in the imperfect tense, but as a Russian once pointed out to me, this is entirely unnecessary, but it satisfies English-speakers who are used to using the tense.

    What is admirable, to my mind, about Esperanto, is that it has made it possible for an ordinary person like me to converse and or correspond with people of various nationalities, in a neutral language that is far easier to learn than any national language, and more widely known than Malay. Eventually, I feel sure, common sense will prevail, and Esperanto will become everyone’s second language. Although I am British, born and bred, I feel that it is extremely unjust for British people to take advantage of the current dominance of the English language. It is not dominant because of its structure, but only because there was once a British Empire, and America is currently the world’s richest nation. The way to make friends with foreigners on equal terms is to learn Esperanto thoroughly, and use it. This can be done on internet, for nothing.

  13. According to the Introduction to the popular textbook, Teach Yourself Esperanto: “A trained linguist will probably acquire a reasonable command of Esperanto after no more than a dozen hours of study. Those who are not specially trained will need rather longer, perhaps up to a hundred hours. For them it is necessary to study it in small but frequent doses. If you study for only ten minutes, carefully but deliberately, you will almost certainly remember most of it, and so make small but definite progress. Whereas if you sit for two solid hours ‘swotting’ Esperanto, your time will probably have been wasted.”

  14. It’s also important to make the distinction whether it is easy to learn how to write and speak a given language. By writing I mean using a different alphabet than ours, like Chinese or Japanese. Japanese isn’t an especially complicated language (except for the numbering system, what were they thinking?) if you use the latin alphabet. But if you wanted to learn how to write in Japanese, well, good luck!

    On the other hand, Russian may be hard to learn in writing, even though most Poles can sort of make out what the Russians are saying.

    1. Another distinction that is important to make is how well one wants to speak the language. Spoken Japanese is simple only if one speaks at a child’s level. However, in order to speak correctly as an adult is incredibly complex, since it requires understanding both a very complex grammar, as well as the cultural cues for when to use casual, polite, honorific, humble, formal, informal and combinations of these conjugations, since one must conjugate the same verb differently for speaking to a man, a woman, a dog, a child, an adult friend, a mere acquaintance, a shopkeeper, a professor, or the emperor. That doesn’t bring into consideration other tenses, such as transitive/intransitive, passive, suffering passive, etc.

      1. Very true. I speak a bit of Japanese (very chotto) and the basics are very much… basic, however, once you move up a gear into honorifics then it certainly does get mighty complicated.

  15. Easy depends on your frame of reference; if your background is from a romance or germanic language will have a distinct difference from slavic or asian or mid-eastern language.

  16. I think efficiency is not synonymous with ease of grasping a particular language. English became widespread for some reasons, but there are a lot of people who deem this language very difficult to learn. Yet, they struggle to learn it because it’s become a must if they want to succeed in the contemporary society.

    We should also note that despite the fact that a great number of people declare they speak this language, the quality of the English some people speak trembles on the verge of comprehensibility 😉

    Thank you for all the information about Esperanto, it is very interesting. I was born in the very same city as this language, but to be honest, Esperanto is not particularly worshipped there=)

  17. English is one of the easiest languages to learn… that doesnt make english a “low level” language…
    It is easy and you can see that it is widely used. But… if you do a little research, you will find that it is a language with little grammar rules. Castillian (or lets say for you to understand: “spanish”), has several language rules that makes it difficult for english speakers to learn (what is more common?… to see a non native english speaker speaking english in a good level or the opposite?)
    Im non native english speaker as you might notice, but i think it could be more difficult for a english speaker to achieve a good level of “spanish” than the opposite.

    José from Peru

  18. José, you say that English is one of the easiest languages to learn and has few rules of grammar. As an Englishman who has taught English to English children for forty years, I must comment that you are easily satisfied, for even English people make numerous mistakes every day, in grammar, spelling and pronunciation. I wish that people generally would just buckle down to learning Esperanto thoroughly, and use it internationally as a common second language. Many people dabble in Esperanto and dismiss it without knowing what they are talking about. Many people outside English-speaking countries regard whatever command they have of the English language with great pride, hoping that they are giving the impression that they are superior. They are not conscious of the mistakes they make, and unfortunately for them, there are few rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation to which they can refer. Correct English is simply what English-speakers accept as correct. The language is dominant only because it is backed by lots of money, and I feel ashamed that my mother-tongue is supposed to be the best international language. Let’s take it off the world’s stage, and leave it for the use of people who live their daily lives in English-speaking countries. Esperanto indicates friendship. English indicates superiority.

      1. Thanks to give the feedback.
        It means that we can improve our listening, reading , writing and style of verbal communication.

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