Home The easiest language to learn: boosting your prospects for expat jobs
Last update on December 10, 2019
Keith J Fernandez/Photo by Madhuri Sen Written by Keith J Fernandez

Speaking a foreign language boosts your career prospects and improves your social life. From Spanish to Chinese, Expatica’s handy guide to language learning cross-references the time to fluency with in-demand job markets.

As an expat, not being able to speak the local language can lead to uncomfortable situations. You can easily find yourself left out of the loop at work; you could be late to a meeting because your train was diverted and you missed the announcement; or you could find yourself hoodwinked by a taxi driver because he added a fictitious charge to your bill and pretended not to understand English. Cue a desperate dash to the nearest language learning center! In and of themselves, however, these aren’t necessarily reasons to learn to speak like a local. Taken together, finding a job as an expat will be immeasurably easier – not least in terms of your take-home pay. But what, exactly, is the easiest language to learn as an expat?

Bilinguals earn more money

Salary.com, an American aggregator of compensation package data, estimates that people who speak an additional language can earn 5–20% more. Bilingual or multilingual employees working for the United States government or military can earn up to US$1,000 a month more for their ability to speak other languages fluently. A Canadian study found that bilingual men earned 3.6% and bilingual women 6.6% more than their peers who only speak English – even if they didn’t actually communicate in the second language.

But beyond the salary and the ability to network, the benefits of language learning can improve cognitive skills, limit many of the negative effects of culture shock, fend off the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s for five years longer, and makes you sexier. The language learning app Babbel found that over 71% of Americans and 61% of Britons find someone who can articulate their ideas in a foreign tongue much more attractive.

Then there are the career advantages, such as being able to work with or lead a company into new markets. The British Chamber of Commerce, for instance, estimates that over 60% of corporations who want to do business in a foreign country don’t do so because they don’t have enough multilingual employees. Another positive financial effect? You might be able to relocate to a country that’s far more affordable.

So, while many people those who speak English may feel it unnecessary to learn another language, you’re likely to be poorer for the experience if you can’t fully immerse yourself in your new expat life.

So, what is the easiest language to learn?

What should you be learning? That depends on where the opportunities are, of course, and where you want to work. The School of Language Studies (SLS) at the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), splits the world’s major languages into four groups, ranked by difficulty for native English speakers.

Fluency in the first set, which includes members of the Germanic and Romance families, requires between 600 and 750 class hours. No single language takes the title for the easiest language to learn for English speakers; however, FSI narrows it down to the following:

  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

At the other end sits a group of five super-hard phonologies that require 2,200 hours of dedication to achieve working proficiency. None of these are the easiest language to learn for native English speakers:

  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Mandarin

Below, ranked by difficulty, is Expatica’s guide to finding the easiest language to learn, which we arrived at by comparing the FSI list with in-demand job markets. Portuguese is perhaps the cheapest and easiest language to learn, averaging around €6,800 each for 600 hours, while Mandarin requires an investment of €33,280.

Dutch: an easy language with good job prospects

Potentially the easiest language to learn as an English speaker, the FSI suggests that native English speakers could be fluent in het Nederlands within six months of intensive lessons; that’s about 600 hours. Dutch sits close to English, a West Germanic relative, so the two share similar vocabularies. There are many false friends, of course, but Dutch also borrows many modern words from English, in many cases simplifying them into verbs. Emailen, computeren, meeten, and printen are all bonafide Dutch words, for example.

Learning Dutch will help you navigate the train journey to your meeting in Rotterdam with ease (Photo: Rowan Heuvel / Unsplash)
Learning Dutch will help you navigate the train journey to your meeting in Rotterdam with ease (Photo: Rowan Heuvel / Unsplash)

The biggest hurdle for foreigners keen to learn, however, is that thanks to the anglicization of the Dutch higher education sector and the workplace, most Dutch people will happily speak English to them; this means that your chances to practice aren’t always readily evident in the main cities. Some Dutch pronunciation consonants are also difficult for anglophones, such as the hard ‘ch’/’g’  – during the Second World War, Scheveningen (a district of The Hague) reportedly functioned as a shibboleth used to identify German soldiers. Finally, Dutch grammar has its quirks, not least of which is the word order.

All that aside, Dutch might very well be the easiest language to learn and it improves your job prospects in one of the most globalized economies in the world – even though there are only 22 million speakers worldwide. As of December 2018, the Netherlands had a quarter of a million job vacancies. While knowledge of Dutch isn’t necessary for most of these vacancies, you’ll need to know enough to pass the Inburgeringsexamen if you plan to stay in the Netherlands for the long term. Expatica’s guide to learning Dutch lists language learning institutes by city.

Spanish: an easy language with good job prospects

Spanish is the native tongue of some half a billion people worldwide, including 41 million people in the United States. Another 75 million speak it as a second language.

Spanish is considered by FSI to be nearly the easiest language to learn, with 600–750 class hours needed for proficiency – and presumably, retirement in Spain. If you do choose to make your life under the Iberian sun, you will need to learn Spanish; any interface with the bureaucracy goes far better in Spanish, including in the maternity ward! Nearly 60% of Spaniards say they can’t speak, read, or write in English, according to a 2017 poll.

Mastering Spanish will ease your navigation of Madrid's business world (Photo: Florian Wehde / Unsplash)
Mastering Spanish will ease your navigation of Madrid’s business world (Photo: Florian Wehde / Unsplash)

Learning Spanish can be both easy and immensely frustrating. Its phonetic qualities mean that word pronunciation logically follows spelling. As an inflected language, verbs are marked for tense, aspect, mood, person, and number; this results in some fifty conjugated forms per verb.

From an economic perspective, however, Spanish may have its limits. Hispanophone countries only make up 6.9% of the global gross domestic product. Having said that, the homogeneity of Spanish makes them mutually intelligible despite local accents. With one written standard, newcomers to the language should be able to read the daily newspaper anywhere.

Expatica’s guide to learning Spanish in Spain pulls together a range of language learning schools across the country.

French: an easy language with good job prospects

Ah, le Français! Some 300 million people around the world express their ideas on love and life in French, either as their first language or as part of the Francophone world, according to the International Organization of La Francophonie. FSI also considers French to nearly be the easiest language to learn; basic fluency is possible in just 600 hours of intensive learning. Native English speakers who are new to the language testify to difficulty with French pronunciation and spelling and its grammar’s trying irregularities.

French goes a long way in Brussels, unlocking a wealth of career options in diplomacy and international organizations (Photo: Alex Vasey / Unsplash)
French goes a long way in Brussels, unlocking a wealth of career options in diplomacy and international organizations (Photo: Alex Vasey / Unsplash)

Nevertheless, speaking French is a great career booster, given its history as an international language of literature and science. The language is also a lingua franca of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the International Olympic Committee. In 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked French the third most useful language for business, after English and Mandarin. Francophone countries account for approximately 8% of global GDP trade.

Working in the French-speaking world

Finding a job in France, where unemployment stands at 8.8%, will call for at least a minimal command of French for daily use, even if your job doesn’t require it. While it’s easy enough to live in Paris as a monolingual English speaker, you’ll be putting yourself at a disadvantage. Adding Poirot’s native argot to your arsenal will also help if you want to work in Belgium.

Africa is a major growth area for French, with 44% of those who speak the language living in sub-Saharan areas. Current growth rates indicate that by 2050, approximately 85% of French speakers could live on the continent, where it is the second or third language of choice for most speakers – although local argot often peppers the language. Africa ranks just behind Asia as one of the world’s fastest growing regions; the continent saw average annual GDP growth of 4.7% between 2000 and 2017 and 5% in the years since. Several trade pacts are underway to attempt to raise this figure to 7% annually through to 2063. While that rate may not be uniformly achieved across the continent, the economic successes of countries such as Rwanda, Guinea, Senegal, and the Seychelles indicate the sort of job opportunities available to French-speaking expat professionals.

Links to different French courses in different cities are available in Expatica’s guide to learning French in France.

Norwegian: an easy language with limited job prospects

Always wanted to read Peer Gynt in the original? A love of Norwegian culture is one of the main reasons you’d want to learn the language. It could very well be the easiest language to learn; the FSI classes it with Dutch and French in Category 1, with a mere 600 class hours to fluency.

Take your knowledge of Norwegian to Bergen, one of the world's major hubs for marine research and offshore oil extraction (Photo: Miguel Ángel Sanz / Unsplash)
Take your knowledge of Norwegian to Bergen, one of the world’s major hubs for marine research and offshore oil extraction (Photo: Miguel Ángel Sanz / Unsplash)

Expats will need Norwegian to demonstrate language requirements, particularly if they want permanent residence or citizenship. The Bergenstest is administered by the Folkeuniversitet and can be taken abroad; browse the university’s list of approved language courses. A good reason for aspiring polyglots to learn Norwegian is because it’s considered a gateway to other Scandinavian languages. Spoken Norwegian is closer to Swedish, while written Bokmål evolved from written Danish, making Danish readable with minimal effort. That’s three languages for the price of one!

Jobs for English-speaking monoglots in Norway aren’t exactly easy to come by, given that there are only 5 million people in the country and that the country’s biggest exports are oil and fish. Your best hope of gainful employment if you don’t speak Norwegian is with a Norwegian company such as Equinor, Telenor, or Norsk Hydro.

Italian: an easy language with limited job prospects

That life can be so dolce in Italy while the nation remains one of the world’s major economies is a mystery. Granted, it’s had three recessions in the last decade and regularly seems to have homes on the block for €1 apiece. None of that diminishes Italy’s charms, though.

Expats keen on moving to the Apennine peninsula will relish the fact that not only does Italian sound so beautiful, it could be the easiest language to learn according to the FSI. English native speakers require only the minimum of 600 hours to be able to speak it fluently. As a phonetic language, a majority of the words are spelled the way they are pronounced. Its grammar comes with challenges similar to other European languages, such as gendered nouns and complicated verb forms. Italians are also generally patient with foreigners speaking their language – so far, so good.

Breaking through in the Italian economy, but speaking with your Milanese colleagues in Italian will boost your opportunities (Photo: Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash)
Breaking through in the Italian economy, but speaking with your Milanese colleagues in Italian will boost your opportunities (Photo: Cristina Gottardi / Unsplash)

A knowledge of Italian at B1 level is now compulsory for foreigners seeking Italian citizenship through marriage or other means. Some of the different certificates accepted and the universities that offer them are as follows:

Finding work in the Italosphere

Jobs in Italy for expats, however, are a whole different ballgame. Finding a job can be challenging, partly because of the high unemployment (10.7% in February 2019). Job prospects are better in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, though this region is much smaller; Italian speakers in Switzerland amount to about 600,000.

Nevertheless, some 5.2 million foreigners make their home in Italy as of 2019, with Romanians (1.1 million) comprising the largest group, followed by Albanians and Moroccans (approximately 400,000 each). The main sectors of employment are business and finance (Milan and Rome), tourism (Florence), and industry (Torino, Bologna, and Varese). Tuscany, Umbria, and Sicily are the most common expat retirement destinations.

Job shortages lie in the clerical, computer and engineering, and educational sectors, according to the OECD. Expat-heavy industries include technology, finance, fashion and multinational manufacturers, but English-speaking expats can also lock down jobs teaching their native tongue, which are in high demand.

German: a difficult language with good job prospects

The second-most spoken tongue in Europe (after Russian) and the most popular in the EU, German has plenty in its favor. The language of Goethe and the Grimm Brothers has official status in four countries and co-official in another four.

Although only about 100–110 million people speak it, German punches well above its weight. Reasons why your language learning goals should include it? Together, the German-speaking countries rank fifth by volume of books published, and a tenth of all books printed worldwide are in Deutsch. It’s the world’s second-most popular scientific language and the third-most commonly used on websites, after English and Russian. It is, however, not the easiest language to learn.

Next time you're in Frankfurt, hold that meeting in German and increase your chances on finalizing that deal (Photo: Illia Cherednychenko / Unsplash)
Next time you’re in Frankfurt, hold that meeting in German and increase your chances on finalizing that deal (Photo: Illia Cherednychenko / Unsplash)

While closely related to English with an estimated 60% of words in common, German is harder to learn than others in the same group, such as Dutch or Luxembourgish. The FSI puts it in its second category; they recommend a minimum of 900 hours to fluency, alongside Haitian Creole, Bahasa (both versions), and Swahili. Pronunciation and grammatical concepts are cited as the biggest obstacles to mastery, as are cases, verb forms, and articles. In other words… nearly everything.

Career prospects with German fluency

Sprechen Sie Deutsch? If so, job prospects are pretty significant. Germany, of course, is also the biggest economy in the EU; the country is home to the European Central Bank and 10.6 million foreigners, or about one in eight residents. With its low unemployment rate (3.1%), a third of non-EU migrants find work in Germany within a year.

Skilled migrants have a much higher chance of employment after the Fachkräftezuwanderungsgesetz immigration law was passed in December 2018. It makes it easier for employers to fill the 1.2 million vacancies that go empty annually with candidates from outside the EU. In-demand professions include engineering (mechanical, automotive, electrical, and building), IT, health and social work, as well as several vocational careers. You’ll need at least some German to get a job in Germany, even if you want to teach English. Knowing German is also an asset if you’re looking for an executive job in Switzerland; the situation is more tenuous in Austria.

Expats looking to acquire German citizenship will need to prove their command of the language. Expatica’s guide offers a list of language learning centers in Germany.

Arabic: a difficult language with good job prospects

Thinking of leading your own search for Ali Baba’s cave? You’ll need to know more than Open Sesame (aftah ya samsam). That said, it’s possible to live and work in the Arab world with only a handful of phrases. It all depends, of course, on where you live. Expats spend years in cosmopolitan Dubai without the need for any Arabic whatsoever. But in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, you’ll find things go much more smoothly if you can express yourself in the local patois.

Whether you're aiming at tourism, textiles, or telecommunications, learning Arabic can help you get ahead in Morocco (Photo: Lindsey Lamont / Unsplash)
Whether you’re aiming at tourism, textiles, or telecommunications, learning Arabic can help you get ahead in Morocco (Photo: Lindsey Lamont / Unsplash)

With 420 million speakers, there are several different types of spoken Arabic in use across the Middle East and North Africa. The differences are usually small enough for the dialects to be mutually intelligible; pronunciation and expressions vary by country and region.

Beware of Arabic’s regional differences

One solution is to learn Modern Standard Arabic, whose core vocabulary and grammar underpins all the dialects. Given its proximity to classical Arabic, it can help with reading the newspaper and understanding TV shows. However, it’s neither a spoken language nor do Arabs use it as a bridge to communicate with each other. Depending on where you want to live, you’re best off learning the dialect used there; consider learning Egyptian Arabic or Khaleeji Arabic in the Gulf countries rather than the standard variety. Fluent In 3 Months has a long list of resources, many available for free.

The FSI does not rate Arabic as the easiest language to learn; it requires about 88 weeks of intensive classes or a staggering 2,200 hours. Particular challenges include mastering the script, whose 28 letters have no resemblance to the Latin alphabet. Arabic grammar and pronunciation also bring their own nuances. There’s a lot in its favor, though, including the fact that it is a phonetic language and that there’s a fair amount of flexibility in word order.

Beyond the personal rewards of understanding Arabic, knowing the language opens up job opportunities with multinational organizations in the oil-rich Gulf and elsewhere around the world. Increasingly, job postings in these areas specify a command of the language; however, given the time and effort involved, it only makes sense to go beyond an introductory course if you want to spend several decades in the Middle East.

Mandarin: a difficult language with good job prospects

Close to 1.2 billion people speak Mandarin, which is also called standard Chinese or Putonghua; it’s the world’s most-spoken language and the second-most popular on the Internet. That being said, few master it well enough to conduct business in Chinese. The FSI doesn’t consider Mandarin to be anywhere close to being the easiest language to learn; they advise 2,200 language learning hours to working proficiency.

Chinese megacities like Shanghai are easy enough to move to as an expat, but speaking Mandarin can help you stand out from the crowd (Photo: Adi Constantin / Unsplash)
Chinese megacities like Shanghai are easy enough to move to as an expat; speaking Mandarin can help you stand out from the crowd (Photo: Adi Constantin / Unsplash)

A lot of Mandarin’s canonical incomprehensibility comes down to its famously complicated script, which has over 50,000 ideograms. Educated people are usually able to recognize some 8,000 of these; only about 3,000 or so are necessary to read a newspaper. Or so the BBC estimates – but other scholars disagree. Then there’s the fact that spoken Chinese has several different tones, which can change the meaning of a word or syllable quite dramatically. A common example is the word ma, which can mean mother, hemp, horse, and to curse, depending on the tone. However, language learners attest to Mandarin’s elegance, its simplification for the digital era, and the warm reception and help they receive from Chinese people when they attempt to speak it. These factors all greatly accelerate the learning process.

Job prospects for Mandarin speakers

Learning to speak Mandarin doesn’t mean you’ll be able to communicate with everyone in China, however. The country is home to between seven and 14 different language families, which the government confusingly calls dialects. Taken together, they date back 3,000 years; this was enough time for Mandarin, Cantonese, Min, Wu, and Xiang to all follow their own evolutionary paths. In general, they’re not mutually intelligible, although some share common words.

Interest in Mandarin and demand for people who can speak it has risen in line with China’s economic clout. Between 2016 and 2019, British job postings for Chinese speakers rose 35%, according to recruitment site Indeed. In 2018, more British students took Chinese instead of German at their qualifying A-level exams (although overall numbers were still lower than those for French or Spanish). Similarly, across Africa, hundreds of school children are learning Mandarin as Chinese loans finance ports, highways, bridges, and skyscrapers under President Xi Jinping’s multibillion flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Anyone seeking Chinese nationality through naturalization needs to understand Chinese. The Confucius Institute was set up to promote the country’s culture and language with branches all over the world. A comprehensive list of universities offering language learning courses in China is available from Cucas.

Not everyone agrees that the effort pays off, however, so do your research before spending money and time trying to decode Confucius. Mandarin is nowhere close to being the easiest language to learn – consider how you plan to use the language before you dive too deep.