Learning a new language as an adult is big undertaking – so if you want the best value for your time, choose wisely.
For most people, there are no time constraints on becoming fluent in another language, but for the Foreign Service Institute – the U.S. government’s main provider of foreign affairs training – quantifying the “learn time” of various languages is vital. American diplomats, for example, need to become proficient in the official language of their posting country, and it helps immensely to know how long that might take.
The FSI organizes languages into five broad categories based on how different each language and culture is to the United States:
CATEGORY I: THE QUICK ONES
Category I languages are the easiest for English speakers, who can reach reading and speaking proficiency within about half a year of intense study. There is a mix Romance and Germanic languages in this classification, including Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, and Italian.
It might be surprising also to learn that Afrikaans is in this “easiest” category as well. It uses 26 letters in its alphabet like English (although it also contains additional phonetic sounds), and has a lot in common with modern Dutch.
CATEGORY II: ES IST SCHWER ZU SAGEN
Though German is very closely related to English, there are grammar quirks that bump it up in difficulty. FSI estimates it would take 30 weeks of intense study to become proficient in German.
CATEGORY III: INTERMEDIATE
Category III languages are mainly spoken in Southeast Asia, and they include Indonesian and Malay. Swahili also counts as a Category III language. (Note: there are no Category III languages spoken in Europe.)
CATEGORY IV: FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE A CHALLENGE
Category IV includes the most challenging European languages for English speakers to pick up. Here you’ll find Slavic and Baltic languages such as Polish, Croatian, and Latvian, as well as Greek, Turkish, and Icelandic.
This category also includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. These Uralic languages have the distinction of being particularly challenging for English speakers to master as they have little in common with any other European languages. FSI estimates it would take a year of intense study to become proficient in these languages.
CATEGORY V: FOR PEOPLE WHO REALLY LIKE A CHALLENGE
Languages in category V are the most challenging for English speakers because they generally have completely unfamiliar scripts and cultural assumptions. These languages are most common in Asia and the Middle East.
While Mandarin, Arabic, and Korean are sufficiently difficult to comprehend, Japanese has a reputation for being the toughest in this group thanks, in part, to multiple writing styles.
Mastering Japanese could take years, but FSI estimates that it’ll be at least 88 weeks before you’re chatting your way through Tokyo.