Once I met a group of friends for a beer and an Armenian girl and an Italian guy were talking about the possibility of the girl learning Italian. The Italian turned to me and asked me if I thought Italian was hard to learn.
I gave an enthusiastic “No!” and half the table looked at me in disbelief. I clarified my reaction by saying that while it’s difficult to speak like a native, I thought Italian was one of the easiest languages for a native English speaker to learn.
It’s true that it takes time and immersion to develop natural speaking patterns and to not sound awkward and foreign. Near-native skills in understanding, speaking, reading, writing, and cultural understanding take years and years to achieve, if ever.
But in terms of general proficiency, Italian is a good choice for native English speakers for learning a foreign language with a relative level of ease.
Even in the very beginning, before getting anywhere near “general proficiency”, it’s possible to speak and understand people in Italian. When I took a vacation in Italy for the first time fifteen years ago, I had only two university Italian classes behind me and I only knew two verb tenses. My language skills were very basic and my grammar was absolutely horrendous but I was communicating with Italian people and that was so exciting.
What makes a language easy to learn?
In objective terms, no one language is easier or harder to learn than any other. After all, young children in every country can easily learn their own native language.
The game changes when learning a foreign language. In general, the closer a foreign language is to a person’s native tongue or another language they know, the easier it is to learn. While Arabic is considered a more difficult language than English, it would be easier for a Persian student to learn it because it is more similar to their native tongue.
For an English speaker, the easiest languages to learn include the Romance languages, Italian included. While English is a Germanic language, for historical reasons it is closely linked to the Romance languages, and in fact, over 50% of English words come from Latin or French.
The Foreign Service Institute classified nine of the easiest foreign languages for English speakers to learn, and Italian is one of them. Listed in order of how many native speakers each language has, they are:
Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, Swedish, Afrikaans, and Norwegian
These languages are considered “closely related to English” and the Institute estimates that it would take 575-600 class hours to achieve language proficiency in one of them. (600 class hours means going to class for two hours and forty-five minutes a day, five days a week, for ten months.)
Although English is a Germanic language, German, with its complex grammar, three genders, four cases, difficult plurals, long compound words, and fewer cognates, is classified in the next category as a “language similar to English.” It would take 750 hours to achieve the same level of proficiency.
The most difficult languages for a native English speaker are Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean, taking 2200 class hours to reach the same level.
That said, everybody is different, and individual results vary as the time it takes to learn a language is influenced by factors such as how complex the language is, how much time a student devotes to learning, the resources available, and the individual’s motivation.
Is Italian Really So “Easy?”
Italian is written as it sounds. Each consonant (and phoneme, such as ghi or ci) corresponds to a specific sound, making it fairly straightforward to learn to read, spell, and pronounce. (In fact, spelling bees are unheard of in Italy and looked upon with curiosity because hearing a word generally tells you how it’s spelled.)
Realistically for a language learner, it’s not that simple. Every word puts the stress on a specific syllable, and the general rule of stressing the next-to-last syllable has a large number of holes! It takes time listening to people speak to learn where to put the stress.
Some sounds are more difficult for native English speakers because they don’t appear in our language. Gli and the Italian rolled r can be troublesome, but this (usually) doesn’t hinder our ability to be understood.
There is more variation with Italian vowels, as e and o can be open or closed, but again, messing up here isn’t a big deal since even native vowel pronunciation varies from region to region.
That said, Italian pronunciation is still simpler than English. Consider our seemingly arbitrary pronunciation in the eight different ways to pronounce the letter combination ough in the following words: through, though, thought, tough, plough, thorough, hiccough, and lough [pronounced loch].*
In terms of grammar, Italian has a typical Romantic structure for word order and grammatical gender of nouns. Knowing some French or Spanish, for example, will help greatly in learning Italian. It also has no cases and its vocabulary is derived from Latin, resulting in cognates and easily recognizable words, not to mention all the English words that have been adopted by Italians (but sometimes they don’t always have the same meaning).
While English speakers have a leg up on learning Italian, it’s still difficult to speak well and master things such as prepositions and the subjunctive. It’s even harder to leave clumsy foreign constructions and just plain guesswork behind. That’s okay. “General proficiency” means speaking with enough accuracy to participate in conversations and convey meaning while allowing for errors and limitations in understanding.
Living in a country where the language is spoken will be immeasurably helpful. I can say from personal experience that I took classes and studied a lot in the US, but as soon as I came to Italy my language skills really took off. Textbooks and classroom environments can teach you a lot, but I didn’t really get to know how the language is used in many different real-life situations until I came here. It’s one thing to learn an expression in a book and another to actually see how it’s used. If immersion isn’t possible, I think language exchange with native speakers who live in the area is a great idea.
It takes work to learn a foreign language. We’d all be polyglots if we could place a textbook over our heads, go to sleep, and wake up fluent.
We’re more willing to work when we’re enthusiastic about the subject, so perhaps the easiest language to learn is the one you feel most motivated about and enjoy speaking! With enough passion, any language can seem easy or at least enjoyable to learn.
I know that when I studied Italian in college I wasn’t as motivated as I was after I had goals for coming to Italy years later. I didn’t do all my homework because it was tiring to look up long lists of words for texts that I barely understood. With plans for coming to Italy in mind, suddenly studying Italian was all I wanted to do.
So, to answer my friend’s question, I think Italian is easy to learn, even if I use the word easy loosely. When it comes to Italian, I’m not lacking in enthusiasm so it doesn’t matter that I don’t speak like a native. I’m having a blast.
To me, that makes it easy.
*From The Mother Tongue English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson