I’d always assumed the Swedes were just good at everything. She firmly denied these superpowers. “English is a lot more like Swedish than you realize.”
English is a part of the Germanic family and is linked to many European languages by descent or influence, and 50 percent of its vocabulary stems from Latin or French.
The result is that there are a lot of languages out there sharing common traits with English, which is great news when it comes to language study. When familiar structure or vocabulary is in place, the learning process becomes faster and easier.
But what is an easy language for English speakers to learn? The Foreign Service Institute listed the nine languages that are more similar to English and therefore the easiest languages for English-speaking folks to acquire.
Danish isn’t hard to learn, but as with most Scandinavian languages, the biggest hurdle with studying Danish is in being able to practice. English is spoken widely and fluently across northern European countries.
Danish is said to be the trickiest Scandinavian language to learn because of its speaking patterns. It is generally spoken more quickly and more softly than other Scandinavian languages. Danish is also flatter and more monotonous than English.
Grammatically, though, it’s relatively easy. Danish has only nine verb forms, including the passive, which is peculiar to Scandinavian languages but familiar to English speakers. Danish has a lot of Germanic-based cognate vocabulary too: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Danish are Mandag, Tirsdag, and Onsdag.
Like all romance languages, French has a few difficulties for prospective speakers. There are more verb forms (17, compared to the English 12) and randomly gendered nouns (le crayon/the pen is masculine, la table/the table is feminine). Pronunciation is especially difficult in French, with vowel sounds and silent letters.
On the bright side, French’s Latin derivations make much of the vocabulary familiar to English speakers (edifice, royal, village). Linguists debate the concrete number, but it’s said that French has influenced up to a third of English vocabulary, giving it more lexical common ground with English than any other romance language.
Another romance language, Italian has the great feature of readability. Italian is written as it is spelled. For learners, reading comes fluidly once a few new phonemes are learned (like -ghi- or -ci-).
Grammatically, the language follows typical romantic structure, with gendered nouns and similar word order. One perk: Italian has fewer verb forms than French or Spanish.
The language is structurally similar to Danish, but with pronunciation more familiar to English speakers. Norwegian, like Swedish, uses a tonal “pitch accent” to distinguish homonyms, stressing either the first or second syllable of the word. It’s an easy concept to grasp: think “decent” and “descent” in English.
Verb forms are a relative breeze in Norwegian, with no conjugation according to person or number. The past tense is formed with a simple -e suffix; the future is formed with the auxiliary vil; the conditional perfect with ville ha. The passive tense is formed by adding a simple -s. It’s an easy language compared to English.
Grammatically, Portuguese is similar to other Romance languages. There are fewer prepositions in Portuguese than in English; (easy to remember) however, their uses don’t always have direct parallels in English, so they are easy to mix up.
One great element of the language is that interrogatives are beautifully easy, expressed by intonation alone (“You love me?”) If you can say it in Portuguese, you can ask it. What’s more, in Brazilian Portuguese, there’s one catchall question tag form: não é.
Pronunciation is fairly comfortable for English speakers (particularly regarding Brazilian Portuguese), though the more nasal vowel sounds take some practice.
Romanian is often assumed to be the most difficult of the romance languages, with its Slavic influences. Not so fast.
They say that Romanian is the closest living language to Latin, and has preserved a lot of Latin’s grammatical structure. Articles are a bit of a puzzle in Romanian, with definite articles attached as a suffix to the end of nouns (frate/ fratele, brother/the brother), while indefinite articles appear before nouns (copil/un copil, child/a child).
Though the language has taken Slavic influences in its vocabulary, the language is still about 80 percent Latin-based, and full of cognates like sub (under) or obiect (object).
Spanish pronunciation is fairly easy for English speakers, with only ten vowel/diphthong sounds (English has 20), and the easy-to-master letter ñ. Like Italian, the orthography is clear and simple — words are written as they’re pronounced, which makes reading easier. Grammatically, Spanish has fewer irregularities than other romance languages, too.
A slippery element of the language (and all the Romances) is in false cognates: word pairings that sound the same as an English word, but mean something different. For example, one of the meanings of eventual is “possible.”
Still, there’s no shortage of people in the world to help you fix these slip-ups as there are 450 million native speakers throughout the world. Perhaps you can begin by having a long stay in Madrid or Buenos Aires, and give it a go?
A fellow Germanic language, Swedish has some vocabulary common with English (mus for “mouse,” kung for “king”), and a similar syntax, too.
Pronunciation may be a struggle at first, with nine vowels (like ö or å) and the sje- sound, which is unique to Swedish. Once you master it, though, the language is very melodic.
Students of the language gripe about the complicated grammar system, but the syntax shouldn’t be unfamiliar to an English speaker. In Swedish, the subject-verb-object pattern is standard word order.
Also, verb formation uses many of the same patterns as English. The future tense, for example, is described with komma att + infinitive (will), or ska + infinitive (going to). And verb forms are normally constant, even if the person changes. I am, you are, he/she is translates into Jag är, du är, han/hon är.
Being a Germanic language, like English and German, Dutch has a lot of similarities with those two languages and is therefore easy to learn for English speakers. But Dutch is also easier to learn than German as it does not have the cases that German does and only has two definite articles — “de” and “het” (English only has one, “the,” and German has three, “der,” “die,” and “das”).
Like English, the Dutch language is fond of compound words (workplace/werkplaats, earphones /oortelefoons), and both languages share similar vocabulary, Apple/appel, banana/banaan, and red/rood.
A version of this article was previously published on February 13, 2011, and was updated on February 23, 2021, with more information.