This question is different than the previous one titled “Which features make a language easier to learn?” in that I'm not interested in making it easy for L1 learners. For them learning the language spoken by their society is an inevitability.

Specifically, I'm interested in making a language that is objectively as easy to learn as possible for people learning it as a second language. And these features should help people regardless of what language they speak natively.

It seems intuitive that there would exist features that would help to create that.

For example, take French or German and remove the genders. This seems like it should make the languages easier to learn without losing any communicative power. Another example would be phonology. If English were to remove the 'th' sound it would be easier for speakers of other languages to learn.

I also realize that it may be the case that there just isn’t enough research on this topic to know definitively what features are best for this.

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    You should take a look at the very minimal Toki Pona. It basically makes everything simpler. 14 phonemes, about 120 root words, mostly CV syllables (for native Austronesian language speakers) and an extremely small grammar (Wikipedia gives 10 syntax rules). All these features make for easier learning, but certain information must often be inferred from context. – Richard Jul 31 at 17:56
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    Look at sen:esepera language - it tries to take the ease of learning Esperanto vocabulary and eliminating those features that are not universal among synthetic languages. – Radovan Garabík Aug 1 at 9:19
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    You definitely lose some communicative power by removing gender from French or German, it is used, e.g., to disambiguate coreference. – jknappen Aug 1 at 10:19

It depends very much who your target audience is.

It is easier to learn languages that are similar to your own; as a German speaker, learning English is not that hard, apart from the grammatical features (aspect, for example) that don't really have a German equivalent. It's mainly a matter of learning the huge vocabulary with all its not-quite-but-almost synonyms.

Same with Esperanto. Grammar is easy, and most of the vocab is not too hard either. Here it's the particles which are the tricky bit.

I'm currently learning Dutch and Swedish, which are both similar to German, in some respects. No big deal. But both Arabic and Korean are a lot harder, and I gave up on Russian. These languages are very different from German, and thus harder for me to learn (the different alphabet is not the issue).

Klingon is hard for me to learn, because it has a different sentence structure (OVS, as opposed to SVO). If my native language had OVS as well, for example Apalaí or Hixkaryana, I think I would find Klingon much easier. Especially since Apalaí is also agglutinative, like Klingon.

There is a list of languages ordered by difficulty (from the Foreign Service Institute). The 'easy' languages are all Indo-European, and the hard ones are Asian/Semitic. You can imagine that the same list produced by a Chinese or Japanese institution would look very different.

Languages have no 'absolute' difficulty, but only relative. So to answer your question, you can make a language easier to learn for people if you make it more similar to their L1. Which, I guess, is the reason why there is no universal 'easy' language that we all speak...

  • Absolutely the answer I would have given (i.e. it depends on your L1). However, I didn't find French too difficult from English, and I've all but given up on German despite it being "closer" than French to English. I find Dutch, and Norwegian (after the initial shock) easy to learn. Norwegian grammar seems to be about 90% the same as English, although the vocabulary is very different. Dutch grammar is also similar to English and has many familiar words. German is full of rules that simply don't exist in English or have anything similar (e.g. a lot of grammatically distinct versions of "the"). – CJ Dennis Aug 10 at 2:56
  • @CJDennis English lost most of its inflectional morphology, which German retained. I guess it also depends on which elements of your L1 you find easy. When I did Swedish and Dutch at the same time, I found they were actually too similar and I would confuse them, so I did some Dutch first and then revisited Swedish, which now works much better. – Oliver Mason Aug 10 at 8:15

Measuring Easiness

I agree with Oliver that we measure language difficulty based on how hard it is to learn from a given native language. However, I still believe that we can come up with language features that make a language easy to learn in general. To measure this, you would want to take the number of hours it takes to achieve a certain level of proficiency in a target language from 50 source languages (the languages with the most speakers). After this come up with an average by weighting the numbers based on number of speakers. A language with an average of 456 hours would be easier to learn for the average person than a language with an average of 678 hours. This is of course not a method of deriving 'absolute' difficulty but it's good enough for what I want. Now, actually running this experiment would take a lot of time but for now it's good as a thought experiment to figure out what the goal is.

Phonology

Trying to get the sounds right in a new language can be very time consuming. To counteract this an easy language should use phonemes that are common amongst the world's most spoken languages. As Richard noted in the comments the language Toki Pona has a very simple phonology that would be perfect for this. Toki Pona has nine consonants p, t, k, s, m, n, l, j, w and five vowels a, e, i, o, u. Not only are these very common phonemes but there is also the added benefit that there are no voiced/voiceless pairs. The reason this is useful is because it helps people whose language contains only one of the voiced or voiceless forms of a consonant. As an example, Arabic has no 'p' sound and therefore when they see the world 'pala' in a theoretical easy language they might pronounce it as 'bala'. Since there is no 'b' sound people will recognize that they are saying 'pala'.

Vocabulary

Having a vocabulary that everyone would recognize would be useful but it's unfortunately not possible. The best attempts at creating such a vocabulary would only be useful for around 15 percent of the world's population. Add to this the fact that phonology is more important, and using the simplified phonology, you would not even be able to mimic a lot of the vocabulary from a natural language. However, there are still some things that would help make a language's vocabulary easier to learn: avoiding homonyms, making common words short, constructing words to be easy to pronounce (ex. avoiding complex consonant clusters).

Writing System

It has been proven that phonetic writing systems are easier to learn than logographic systems. Between phonetic writing systems (alphabet, abugida, abjad) it's less clear what the easier to learn system is. However, it doesn't really matter due to the overwhelming adoption of the Latin script world wide (70% of the world's population use it). Even in places where the native language does not use the Latin script people will still have significant exposure to it. Because of this an easy to learn language should use the Latin script. The words should also be completely phonetic in their spelling. This allows learners to read, pronounce, and spell any word without having to memorize a bunch of spelling rules and exceptions.

Regularity

This one is self explanatory. A language that has regular grammar and no exceptions to its grammar rules is easier to learn. This should apply to all forms of grammar (inflections, word order, usages). As an example, if English were to always use -ed to make verbs past tense it would be easier to learn (swimmed, eated, falled).

Lack of Unnecessary Features

Just as biological evolution has left human bodies with a large amount of inefficiencies, language evolution has left natural languages with a large amount of inefficiencies. It would take a long time to go through these as there are many, so I'll just use the gender example from the question. As jknappen said in the comments grammatical genders do have a small amount of communicative power in that they can, on occasion, avoid ambiguity of two things. However, this only happens when there are two things potentially being referred to, when it's not clear based on context which thing is being referred to, and when the two things are different genders. Example from Wikipedia: "a flowerbed in the garden which I maintain" vs "ein Blumenbeet im Garten, das ich pflege". This is very rare and not useful enough to merit spending a significant amount of time learning genders.

I agree with everything Oliver Mason said.

EDIT: After some more thought...for easiness that is only easy when in the presence of a first language, the question has the answer, which is: languages most similar to your first language. Otherwise, an easy language is an easy language.

I'd add that there is something to be said for:

Small languages, which have most content word classes are closed. In English, only function word classes, like prepositions are closed. When people are working from a small known set of words (or morphemes), sometime the lexemes they create are transparent and their meaning can be guessed. This reduces the burden of memorizing 7000-12000 words (or lexemes-- depending on the linguist, word count accounting can vary).

Smallness also applies to grammar- the fewer rules, the easier to learn, albeit at a cost of expressiveness.

Examples would be toki pona and Esperanto before the community began bulk importing of loan words from French, et al.

Creole-like. Creole languages tend to have certain predictable features that in part are explainable because they were spoken by communities that can't be bothered to learn the complex parts of the six languages in the community. Languages like this are more likely to be SVO, analytic, simplified and smaller, etc.

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