Is Spanish Easier Or Harder Than German?(Surprising Answer)


When anyone looks into which language to learn as their second language, Spanish is usually recommended for someone’s first attempts. That is, if they speak English as their first. German is usually labeled as ‘too hard’ for a new language learner. Yet, is this really true? Is Spanish easier to learn than German?

No, in the end Spanish is not easier or harder to learn than German for English speakers. German starts out with a bit more of a learning curve with its complex grammar, but Spanish has increasing difficulty in the later stages. German and Spanish end up being fairly similar to master.

According to the Foreign Services Institute, a division of the U.S. State Department, after over 70 years of experience teaching languages to U.S. diplomats they have concluded that it takes a mere 6 weeks longer to learn German to a basic conversational fluency than Spanish. What they don’t mention is that these two tend to even out as the learner progresses further.

Read on and I will explain why the State Department is technically correct, but when more than basic conversations in the office are needed the playing field levels.

The FSI Analysis Of The Ease Or Difficulty In Learning Spanish Vs. German

One thing that needs to be understood right from the start is that the predictions of the State Department about how long it will take for its prospective Foreign Services Officers and others is just that. They are only predictions of an average length of time.

Keep in mind that every learner is different. Each have different education levels, motivations, discipline, backgrounds, etc. FSI gives tests that require a minimum intelligence level and do screening, but they are still faced with a wide variance in their language students.

What we have in their statements are educated guesses. This is valuable information. Don’t get me wrong. But the fact is that the line that separates the ease of German or Spanish to learn is much more fuzzy than some would admit.

How They Judge Hard Or Easy Languages To Learn?

FSI sets their goal of fluency at a very specific point. The student must be able to function at a basic level in a governmental office setting. The vocabulary, grammar, and other skill sets are aimed fairly narrowly at this goal.

For a couple years while we considered where to buy a house, we rented a townhome from a couple that were U.S. Foreign Service employees deployed to Malaysia. My husband had a chance to talk to them about the FSI language program and what it entailed. They confirmed the same as I stated above.

If you were to learn Spanish or German with their School of Language Studies you would be taught specifically how to function in your duties. To learn how to function in the rest of society comfortably, more study would be needed.

What Is The FSI Verdict On Spanish?

The official designation of Spanish by the State Department is set as a Category I Language. This is based on the fact that it has the least linguistic and cultural differences from English when compared to most other languages.

FSI believes Spanish is a ‘Very Easy’ language for English speakers to learn.

They estimate that a student could take as long as 30 weeks to learn the language in their classroom setting. That comes out to around 750 hours of class time.

They consider that Spanish, even though it is a Latin based Language, is more similar to English than German. Yet, we need to keep in mind that they are only looking at the beginning and intermediate stages. You may be surprised to learn that English is not a Latin based language.

It simply has more in common with German than with Spanish in their pure forms. English is a West Germanic language! More on that below… so keep reading.

Their Verdict For German

Category II is the level that the Foreign Services Institute assigns to German. This difficulty level looks at vocabulary, grammatical structure, and cultural differences to makes this designation. They assume it will take 36 weeks to learn.

FSI considers German to be an ‘Easy’ language to learn for English speakers.

My husband who has studied both of these languages extensively attests that in the beginning, it is true that German’s vocabulary and grammar are a bit of a shock. The splitting of verbs into two parts and ‘throwing’ one half to the end of the sentence was first on his list of dislikes in the beginning.

The one thing that begins to ease up though as time goes on is this initial surprise. He even says that the strange sentence structure actually is one of his favorite parts now that he has a handle on it.

He goes further, “Germans make systematic rules, and they follow them. This makes it easier later.”

How Do Spanish And German Stack Up On The Easy / Hard Scale?

As you can see from above, there is really only 6 weeks more class time needed for German than Spanish in the FSI system. This really is a wash even at the beginner to intermediate level.

With that in mind, what makes these two languages turn out to be the same to learn, rather than easier or harder than one another?

How Does German Get Easier As More Is Learned?

Here is my husband Mat volunteering with the Easy German crew in Berlin! He even did the editing on this one.

One thing that has to be kept in mind is that for English speakers, German is our linguistic ancestor. According to a study published in the Nordic Journal of Linguistics, English was and still is a West Germanic Language.

It actually takes a while to see it, but later in the learning process it starts to become readily apparent.

The vocabulary though a bit different from English at the start, becomes much easier in more advanced levels. The words are not changed many times to accommodate new meanings. They are simply tacked onto one another into compound words. This becomes a big help in vocabulary retention.

The structure of the sentences are actually similar to ‘Old English’. The grammar is consistently challenging from beginner stages through to the end. Yet, once the rule system is grasped it is solidly stable and very predictable.

How Is Spanish Harder As Learning Progresses?

Spanish in the beginning has many words in common with English because of the large amount of borrowing English cultures have done. As these lists of cognates begin to be assimilated, the ones that are left have quite a bit of difference from English vocabulary.

The grammar also does get much more difficult as levels increase. In fact, compared with the rest of the languages of Europe, Spanish grammar is more complex than the majority of them. Spanish is deceptively simple in the beginning and becomes quite a bit more challenging later.

Spanish And German Both Are Some Of The Easier Languages For English Speakers To Learn

To be sure, both of these languages are easier than many others for English speakers. This has to do with the loaning of words from the Latin based Spanish and the ancestral roots that English shares with German.

Once the intermediate stage is reached, both are nearly on the same level of hard or easy for most students. Where one may be difficult, the other may pose an easier route and vice versa .

When not in a dedicated classroom though, there is much to be said about the availability of speaking, listening, and reading opportunities afforded the Spanish language student. At least in America, there are ample opportunities to practice nearly every day if a little effort is put into it.

This is compounded by the fact, that in general Germans tend to have very Good English language skills. When you are desperate to practice your newly acquire language with the rare German speaker you meet, it usually turns out to be a disappointment.

Germans are polite about it, but they normally have a much higher level of English than you will in German. This inevitably leads to the conversation being mostly in English.

This was even a problem for my husband on our many trips to Germany and Switzerland. He would start out in conversations that began in German, only to have most of them devolve to English.

The Final Talking Point On Spanish Being Easier Or Harder Than German

As you can see, sometimes solid ‘facts’ come with caveats. Yes, the information put out by the Foreign Services Institute is backed by over 70 years of experience and can be trusted.

On the other hand, they note themselves on their website that this is highly dependent on the student, aimed at office style conversations, and is only an average designation.

Given that they even put these two languages so close together on their own scale of difficulty, it is not hard to understand how they could actually end up being remarkably similar in their actual learning experiences.

Whether it is Spanish or German that strikes your motivational nerve and stirs you into action, both are great choices. Each will have their hurdles and easier components. Though, in the end, they are both going to require similar time frames and levels of effort.

The journey begins with the first step. Which one will you choose?

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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