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4 Easy Foreign Languages You Never Thought of Learning (and Why You Should)

by Ryan O'Rourke Oct 24, 2013

I challenge you to think of a language learner in more need of a win than a native English speaker. Half the planet seems hell-bent on practicing and perfecting our language, but when it’s our turn, a few grammatical or lexical stumbles later and we’re suddenly back babbling in our familiar Anglo-Saxon tongue.

Forget the fact that our linguistically rich — but phonically deprived — English language warps our tongues into stiff cardboard unable to produce any but the simplest vowel and consonant sounds and combinations. Yes, we desperately need help.

Fortunately, not every language learning attempt spells disaster for English speakers. If you’re frustrated with choking on the qāf in Arabic or disgracing the Chinese script with your poor penmanship, maybe it’s time to try one of these lesser-studied but relatively easy foreign languages for English speakers.

1. Afrikaans

Despite its exotic-sounding name, Afrikaans doesn’t involve mastering the art of clicking your tongue in unfathomable ways or deciphering a cryptic new alphabet. In fact, it’s about as close to English as you can get.

Descending from the early Cape Dutch settlers in South Africa, Afrikaans was once considered a dialect of Dutch. But over the past few hundred years, it has developed into an independent language with rich influences from Malay, Portuguese, and indigenous Bantu and Khoisan languages of Southern Africa.

The good: Isolated from other Dutch speakers, Afrikaners dropped many of the complexities of the Dutch language, such as noun genders and verb conjugations, which typically discourage language learners. Grammatically, Afrikaans is actually about as easy as languages come. Plus, as a former Dutch dialect, about 9 out of 10 words in Afrikaans derive from Dutch, a Germanic language chillin’ out just a couple branches over from English on the West Germanic language tree.

The bad: Although Afrikaans is far easier to pronounce than modern Dutch, some of the sounds and the intonation can still trip up native English speakers. Finding Afrikaans speakers outside of South Africa and Namibia can also be a wee challenge, but nothing an internet language exchange can’t remedy.

The why: At least 15 million people in South Africa and Namibia, two über-sweet countries for travelers, praat Afrikaans as a native or second language. Also, it sounds pretty damn cool, and is a ton of fun to learn.

The how: Unlike more popular languages, finding Afrikaans learning materials designed for English speakers can be tough. Two of the best courses for beginners are Teach Yourself Complete Afrikaans and Routledge Colloquial Afrikaans. Pick yourself up a great Afrikaans Dictionary and you’ll be well on your way to your first conversation.

2. Romanian

Unless you’re a total language nerd like me, I’m willing to bet the idea of learning Romanian has never crossed your mind. Maybe it should have.

Want to become instantly more attractive? Learn to roll the ultra-romantic sounds of French, Spanish, or Italian off your tongue. Want to become both sexier and more mysterious? The Romance language of choice is none of the above: It’s Romanian.

The good: If you’ve ever studied another Romance language before, Romanian is hardly foreign. In fact, much of its vocabulary shares similarities with Spanish, Italian, and French (and by extension, English) words. And unlike our beloved English, the Romanian alphabet is highly phonetic; once you’ve learned the sounds of Romanian, pronouncing words will be child’s play.

The bad: Grammarphobes who’ve shelved French or Italian for their complexities will find Romanian grammar equally off-putting. Even for Romance language pros, Romanian has some truly weird stuff going on. If grammatical terms like enclitic definite articles, presumptive moods, or noun declensions send shivers down your spine, Romanian might not be for you (yet).

The why: Besides adding an air of mystique to your persona, speaking Romanian opens wide one of Eastern Europe’s most interesting travel destinations. Plus, the real life Dracula (not those whiny, angst-ridden teens from Twilight) spoke it. Romanian for the win.

The how: Romanian learners will find some great beginner’s courses in Teach Yourself Complete Romanian, Routledge Colloquial Romanian, and the audio-only Pimsleur Comprehensive Romanian. For perfecting Romanian grammar, you’d be hard pressed to find much better than Routledge’s Romanian: An Essential Grammar. Good Romanian dictionaries are a little tougher to come by outside Romania, but Hippocrene’s Romanian-English/English-Romanian Practical Dictionary is one of the best choices in the sub-$30 range, and although not comprehensive, is a good value for beginners.

3. Malay/Indonesian

However you slice it — Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia, or Bahasa Indonesia — Malay/Indonesian belongs here as much any other language you’ve never dreamed of learning. Spoken as a lingua franca with minor dialectal changes throughout Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Indonesia, Malay is not just useful, but a gift to language learners who’ve struggled with the complexities of other Asian languages like Chinese, Korean, Thai, or Vietnamese.

The good: Lacking the complex scripts and tones of other East Asian languages, Malay/Indonesian is hands down the most approachable language in this part of the world. With a highly phonetic Latin script (Rumi) used for writing, you’ll waste no time learning a new alphabet before starting to read and pronounce the sounds of Malay. Many of the grammatical complexities we’ve come to associate with language learning are also gone. No genders. No plurals. No conjugations. And no verb tenses. So far, so good.

The bad: Malay is an agglutinative language, which is linguist-speak for, “Let’s invent new words by adding on suffixes, prefixes, and any other -fixes we can find.” Although it’s far from impossible to master, agglutination (believe it or not, I didn’t invent that word) takes a little getting used to. On the flip side, once you’ve learned a bunch of root words and a few common “-fixes,” you’ll start recognizing new vocabulary at a rapid rate.

The why: There are a handful of reasons to learn Malay — at least 220 million of them. For a language ignored by most Westerners, there’s a surprisingly massive number of Malay speakers in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Speaking Malay/Indonesian will help you dig a little deeper into the immensely interesting cultures of the Malay Archipelago, one of Southeast Asia’s favourite regions among travelers.

The how: Considering how few English speakers seem to study the language, materials for learning Malay and Indonesian are surprisingly plentiful. For an all-around introduction to the language, start with the following courses: Teach Yourself Complete Malay, Routledge Colloquial Malay, Teach Yourself Complete Indonesian, or Routledge Colloquial Indonesian. Travelers will find the Everyday Malay: Phrase Book and Dictionary, Lonely Planet Malay Phrasebook, and Lonely Planet Indonesian Phrasebook useful, while advanced learners will love the Tuttle Compact Indonesian Dictionary and Routledge’s expensive, but thorough, Indonesian: A Comprehensive Grammar.

4. Swahili

Despite the fact that many people seem to have no clue what Swahili is (or where exactly it’s spoken), learning the language is far from a waste of your time.

The good: Africa’s colonial past left Swahili with a vocabulary full of Arabic and Indo-European loanwords, most notably from English, French, German, and Portuguese, so many learners will recognize a handful of words out of the gate. It also left something else — the Latin script. Unlike many African languages, Swahili ditched the lexical tone system, famous for destroying the will of people learning Chinese, making it far easier for English speakers to pronounce Swahili than many local languages in Africa.

The bad: Unlike most Indo-European languages, Swahili does not use verb conjugations, but rather roots and affixes, to express verb tense and subjects. Until you get the hang of thinking in Swahili instead of translating from English, your sentences will probably mimic the speech patterns of a toddler. Despite starting with a large bank of familiar vocabulary, Swahili is still a Bantu language almost completely unrelated structurally and lexically to the more familiar Indo-European language family. That means tons of unfamiliar words and a few strange grammatical structures to wrap your head around.

The why: Spoken as a lingua franca throughout East Africa — especially Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — Swahili is a excellent to way to warm up to the over 140 million Africans who speak it as a first or second language. It also presents the perfect introduction to the Bantu language family — after learning Swahili, picking up other popular Bantu languages like Shona (Zimbabwe), Kinyarwanda (Rwanda), Zulu (South Africa), or Xhosa (South Africa) won’t drive you (completely) up the wall.

The how: Beginners can rarely do better than to start with Teach Yourself Complete Swahili, Routledge Colloquial Swahili, or Pimsleur Conversational Swahili. For boosting your vocabulary, Teach Yourself publishes a decent Essential Swahili Dictionary, while travelers will learn how to get by with the Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook. * This post was originally published at Treksplorer and is reprinted here with permission.

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