Every epic journey begins with a simple step, and if your journey is learning a new language, the first step involves picking a language that excites you and seems achievable.
If you’re an English speaker ready to embark on this linguistic voyage into the heartland of Asia, fret not, we’ve got the perfect guide right here for you. Let’s dive in!
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
Before jumping in freely, it is important to consider the similarities between the target language and English. More often than not, the easiest language to learn is the one that shares a lot of cognates (words that have a common linguistic origin) with English.
With this idea in mind, let’s go through some of the popular Asian languages and their ease of learning for English speakers.
With over 900 million native speakers, Mandarin Chinese seemingly presents itself as a worthy language to learn. However, despite sharing several loanwords like 马克 (mǎkè, ‘marker’) or 巧克力 (qiǎokèlì, ‘chocolate’) with English, it requires a whopping 2200 to 4000 hours according to the FSI.
Thats between 4 to 7 years by the way.
Moreover, the presence of tones and a complex writing system can make Mandarin quite daunting for beginners.
But don’t let that put you off. Mandarin is a fun language to learn and if you’re planning to travel in Asia, you could have lots of opportunity to practice. Outside of China, you’ll find Mandarin spoken in Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Cantonese, spoken primarily in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province of China, has around 60 million speakers. Cantonese shares more loanwords with English than Mandarin, owing to its historical connection with the British colonial period.
However, with 6 to 9 tones (depending on the dialect) and the same complex writing system as Mandarin, Cantonese still poses a significant challenge.
Boasting around 75 million speakers, Korean is notably different in structure from English. While it shares some loanwords, such as 아이스크림 (aiseukeurim, ‘ice cream’), Korean’s distinguishing characteristics include a complex honorific system and an agglutinative grammar.
Interestingly, the writing system, Hangul, is easier to learn than Chinese characters and can be typically mastered in a few weeks.
While you can reach a level of conversational competency in around 3 months, to achieve fluency in Korean will take time and dedication.
However the appeal of Korean is that there is a lot of popular culture that can make learning easy and fun. So if you want to be able to watch without subtitles, that could take you a year or two of dedicated study.
Approximately 125 million people speak Japanese, making it an appealing language to study. Similar to Korean, Japanese has an agglutinative grammar and a complex honorific system. Its lack of tones make it an easy Asian language to learn compared to Mandarin or Cantonese, and you can be conversational within 3 to 6 months. Of course it will take you longer to master Japanese – expect 2 to 3 years of consistent study.
While Japanese incorporates Chinese characters (Kanji) into its writing system, it also utilizes two syllabaries—Hiragana and Katakana—that are easier to learn.
Like Korean, Japan also has a strong popular culture, with games, movies and music all available to help immerse learners.
Thai, spoken by approximately 60 million people, is a tonal language with a unique script. Although it shares some loanwords with English, such as กาแฟ (gaa-fae, ‘coffee’), Thai grammar is relatively uncomplicated for English speakers. However, with five tones and a distinct script to learn, the FSI estimates 2200 hours of study to master Thai.
The appeal of Thai for many is that they can live or travel more freely in Thailand and feel less like an outsider. Thai people are also quite open to foreigners learning their language, and getting friendly with the locals is one of the main appealing factors of learning Thai.
Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) and Indonesian
Bahasa is spoken by over 200 million people, primarily in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore. Unlike many other Asian languages, Bahasa has a simple grammar system that is similar to English, with no verb conjugations or noun declensions.
Moreover, Malay uses the Roman alphabet, making it more familiar to English speakers.
This makes Bahasa one of the easiest Asian languages to learn.The FSI claims that 900 hours of study are needed to achieve fluency in Malay.
Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are very similar, with a little variation between them. Most Bahasa Indonesian speakers are on the Islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and there are numerous other languages spoken across Indonesia.
Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible languages, with a combined total of approximately 833 million speakers.
Though they have contrasting scripts, both languages share a significant number of loanwords with English, such as होटल (hoṭal, ‘hotel’) in Hindi and ٹیکسی (taiksī, ‘taxi’) in Urdu. Hindi’s Devanagari script and Urdu’s Perso-Arabic script pose the main challenges for English speakers, though the FSI maintains that 1100 hours suffice to achieve fluency.
Of course the appeal of learning Hindi and Urdu is that it makes travel in the Indian subcontinent much easier, especially in the north where the languages are widely spoken. Further south, you’ll run into the completely different Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam and Gujarati (to name a few).
If you’re planning on living or travelling in India, check the local language where you plan to live as the language might not be Hindi or Urdu.
With over 420 million speakers across numerous countries, Arabic is an official language of the United Nations.
However, as it is a Semitic language, Arabic bears few similarities to English. The language’s complex grammar system, intricate script, and pronunciation difficulties mean it is a challenging language to learn for English speakers. But one that can be very rewarding.
While Muslims might want to master Arabic to better understand their religion, learning the language also helps you travel from North Africa across the Middle East.
You can get to a basic level of conversational fluency in Arabic within 3 to 6 months, depending on your time commitments.
Finally, there’s Tagalog, spoken by an estimated 45 million people in the Philippines. As previously mentioned, Tagalog uses the Roman alphabet, making it more accessible for English speakers. It contains a wealth of Spanish loanwords, too, as a result of the Spanish colonial period. Additionally, Tagalog’s straightforward grammar and just a few unfamiliar phonemes make it easier to learn, requiring approximately 1100 hours of study to master.
2. Simple Yet Expressive
Asian languages are known for their unique blend of simplicity and expressiveness. The one that stands out among the crowd is Bahasa Indonesia.
It’s a relatively easy language for English speakers to learn due to its simple grammatical structure. For instance, verb tenses don’t change and pluralisation is as straightforward as it can get!
3. Time is Money
Time, without a doubt, plays a vital role when learning a new language. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) measures language difficulty in terms of the estimated hours needed for an English speaker to achieve general proficiency.
According to FSI, languages like Bahasa Indonesia, Malay, and Afrikaans require around 900 hours of study, translating roughly to 36 weeks of intensive learning.
On the hand, others such as Mandarin or Japanese, involve an estimated 2200 hours or 88 weeks.
4. I See What You Mean
Finally, one cannot overlook the importance of script. It’s always easier to learn a language if it uses the Roman alphabet, just like English. “Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, for example, uses the Roman alphabet, making it more accessible for English speakers.
In conclusion, there isn’t a definitive answer to “what’s the easiest Asian language to learn for English speakers.” It depends largely upon your dedication, the time you can allocate, and personal interest.
From our analysis, languages like Tagalog, Bahasa Malaysia, and Bahasa Indonesia stand out as relatively easier to learn due to simpler grammar, the use of the Roman alphabet, or fewer phonetic challenges.
However, the most important factor in choosing a language to learn is your passion for it – pick a language that truly fascinates and motivates you to keep going. So, choose your language, start your journey, and never stop learning!
How to learn a language?
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