- When choosing a second language, non-English speakers will most typically learn English.
- English has a vast vocabulary shared with many other languages. This helps newcomers relate words to their own language.
- Many native-speakers are horrible at English, but it's still fairly easy to read and understand. Eevn wtirnig wtih eorrrs can be pserad. In short, you can get your point across even if you suck at the language.
- English has no standard on pronunciation, either.
- Even with its many exceptions, there are often patterns so you can guess when the norm will be broken.
- It's everywhere. Immersion is easy, as are (good) free books at a library or online.
What makes a language difficult, anyway? I suspect it's the character set, grammar complexity, and vocabulary memorization. English has only 26 letters and no accents, so it's fairly simple in that respect. It's grammar is also straightforward, especially being Latin-based. (It is often said English is a Germanic language with Latin rules.) Every verb tense in French (I remember 14 but I'm too lazy to count them right now) exists in English, even though many English speakers don't realize it, which is the key to note it's not complicated. (In French, a slightly different conjugation table exists for each tense, so you have to know about them. In English it's often just a single word plus a form of the verb consistent for all subjects.)
As said, English has a vast vocabulary, but I don't really think it hurts the language. It's also important to note that many words under three syllables are often Germanic, while those over three syllables are often Latin-based. There are a lot of words in both classes, and certainly enough to express yourself. Short words are easy to memorize (so long as they point to already-understood concepts which may or may not be simple--"God"/"Deus"/"Dieu" is short, but far from simple (try explaining the Christian God to an alien race who knew about evolution from their beginnings)).
Is English the easiest language? I don't think so, but I certainly think it's an easy language, and at the very least much easier than many others. I'm just tired of people saying "English is a difficult language to learn", when really it's not. I think learning to program is harder than learning English, and also has a greater economic incentive for people-in-general to learn, but people don't often try to decide between a programming class and an English class. Programming is even rarely considered. This isn't to say that programming is particularly hard, just that an economics argument doesn't explain why so many people learn English. A self-justifying argument is that English is dominant because it is dominant, which works for explaining its current dominance, but doesn't explain how it got there. I think it got there for a number of reasons, economics likely being one, but I don't think it could have gotten there without it being easy to learn.
Addendum: An article from economist.com analyzes this more thoroughly, and I more or less agree with the article. English isn't hard.
Posted on 2009-11-27 by Jach