What is the Hardest Language to Learn for English Speakers?
There are about 6500 languages in the world today, which makes many people wonder – what is the hardest language to learn? Knowledge of foreign tongues is an integral part of modern world. Someone lives in a country with two or three commonly spoken languages, so they end up learning one more tongue naturally, while someone purposefully learns them to travel the world or succeed in a professional field. But there are languages on our planet that are very difficult to learn, even if person has a neck for learning foreign tongues as well as a great passion for it.
Learning languages isn’t easy. Each has its own rules and peculiarities that’ll definitely pose a difficulty for learners. If you are curious about world dialects and like educating yourself before taking up a new language, keep reading and find out which ones are more tuff and then others!
Routes We Take in Learning Languages
One should remember that there are countless ways of learning – reading books, watching movies, TV series, utilizing social media, enjoying audiobooks and podcasts, interacting with foreigners – you name it! When debating what are the hardest languages to learn, it’s worth mentioning that children and adults learn a bit differently.
- From young age humans begin using native language spontaneously, on an unconscious level, gradually moving towards consciousness (learning rules, noticing patterns, etc.). Learning a foreign lingo, on the contrary, starts with awareness and gradually, with increasing speech skills and building vocabulary, becomes a somewhat unconscious process. Many recognize that children are more perceptive and intuitive when learning, which is highly beneficial.
- Learning at an older age is usually carried out by building associations. New information, be it specific words or grammar rules, is often layered onto information already known by a person from their native language. That’s why, similar words are always easier to remember than dissimilar ones. That is the reason some languages pose more difficulties than others.
How to Determine the Hardest Language to Learn?
Neurophysiologists believe that most difficult languages are those that engage both hemispheres of the brain. When speaking most tongues, only half of human brain is usually working actively, but when speaking a difficult and complex language, both are engaged in process. Based on that, neurophysiologists often define Arabic and Chinese as complicated.
Linguists have their own viewpoint on this matter. Experts believe that complexity of dialects depends on nationality of person studying it. Some languages are similar, so mastering them may be easier. For example, it won’t be difficult for a Russian person to learn Belarusian or Ukrainian, and for a French person – Spanish or Italian, because they reside within a group, known as language family. Linguists emphasize that complexity of a lingo must be assessed in all respects: vocabulary, writing, spelling, punctuation, phonetics, syntax, etc.
Every Minute Counts
People believe that determining toughest languages to learn must be done in relation to hours that must be spent learning it:
- Easy – about 600 hours of study are enough. This group includes Swedish, German, French.
- Complicated – those that will take about 1100 hours to master. Hebrew and Icelandic fall into this category.
- Very complicated – will require at least 2200 hours. These include Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Finnish.
When we talk specifically about which tongues seem difficult for an English-speaking population, this ranking is expanded. In US languages are divided into four categories instead of three, based on their difficulty for English speakers.
- Easy – French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, etc.
- Moderately difficult – German, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili, etc.
- Difficult – Polish, Russian, Armenian, Kazakh, Azerbaijani, Hebrew, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, Greek, Icelandic, Kurdish, Mongolian, Tagalog, Albanian, Thai, Somali, Turkish, etc.
- Exceptionally Difficult – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic.
Top 10 Hardest Languages to Learn Ranked
How difficult a language is to study largely depends on what language person speaks naturally, so list below will be somewhat relative. However, there are a number of criteria, such as unusual grammar features, complexity of alphabet, pronunciation nuances that are specific to a given dialect, which affect how hard it is. Below we focus on hardest languages to learn for English speakers.
Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters. This is familiar English alphabet with addition of letters á, æ, ö, é, í, ó, ö, þ, ú, ý, but with exception of c, q, w, z. Pronouncing the sounds corresponding to these letters and their combinations is very problematic for non-native Icelandic speakers. For example, let’s recall the case when Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010. Then even most experienced journalists worldwide found it difficult to pronounce name of said volcano correctly, while Icelanders found their attempts very amusing!
There are different Swedish dialects, so it is among most difficult languages to learn. In their formation they managed to avoid influence of traditional Swedish, therefore sometimes have almost unique grammatical and phonetic properties. Swedish has some peculiarities. Some words are spelled and sound the same in Swedish and Danish, but have different meanings. For example, word “by“ has meaning “village“ for Swedes and “city“ for Danes. Curiously, young Swedes speak so-called “Swenglish”, which is a bizarre mixture of Swedish and English.
Although German is very closely related to English, there are quirks of grammar that increase its difficulty and earns its place among the hardest language to learn in the world. German has various dialects, and phonetics has 44 sounds, including 16 vowels. Each of the German nouns has its own gender, while it often does not coincide with meaning of word. For example, word “girl“ (“Mädchen“) in German is of neuter gender.
Traditional Hindi writing is Devanagari syllabary. Learners find it difficult that verb is placed at the end of a sentence, and postpositions are used to connect words. Hindi has a relatively free word order. Word order without designations in this language may look like this – subject-object-verb. Nouns in Hindi have suffixes, and adjectives change if they are placed before nouns.
When we ask ourselves what is the most difficult language to learn Navajo doesn’t always come to mind. Interestingly though, the US military needed this language for encrypting information during World War II, which speaks loudly of its complexity. Its basis is verb forms, which change depending on prefixes. In addition to the familiar vowels and consonants, Navajo has 4 tones: ascending, descending, high and low. Nasalization takes an important role in Navajo and even changes word’s meaning.
The cases, declensions, conjugations, tricky pronunciation, and a huge number of exceptions usually are the biggest challenge for English speakers when attempting learning Russian. It is a laughing point for English-speakers that many Russian letters look very similar, like ш, щ, or и, н, which is the worst, especially if you are reading handwritten text. Moreover, it is among the most synonymously rich lingo.
Japanese is among top most difficult languages. It is difficult hugely because writing is different from pronunciation. That is, you cannot st speaking Japanese by learning how to read in it, and vice versa. Written Japanese has two syllabic alphabets: katakana for foreign words and hiragana for writing suffixes, endings, grammatical particles. Mastering Japanese might take years, so get ready to study for at least 88 weeks before you can freely chat in Tokyo!
When speaking Korean, for correct communication one must take into account status of your interlocutor and say appropriate words, endings, etc. This requires good knowledge of both language and culture. Main alphabet of Korean is Hangul, which looks a lot like Chinese hieroglyphics at first glance but is completely different, yet equally as hard for foreigners to write in.
One of most complex lingos in the world – many call it the hardest language to learn. In Arabic, there are no lower or upper case letters, and word breaking is not allowed. One letter in Arabic can have about 4 different spellings, depending on its location within a word. Also, main feature of Arabic is that words are written from right to left, which makes it extra-challenging for foreigners.
1. Chinese (Mandarin)
According to many – number one most difficult language to learn in the world. It has almost 90 thousand hieroglyphs and four tones. Therefore, meaning of a word depends on the pitch in which it is spoken. Learning Chinese is very difficult for people without good perception and sensitivity to tone. Hieroglyphs are polysemantic, and their meaning changes depending on which hieroglyphs they are adjacent to.
Hard Learning Means Solid Knowledge
So, what’s the hardest language to learn? You decide. General assessment may be profoundly incorrect when it comes to abilities and inclinations of each individual. After all, we all have different backgrounds, life experiences, and predispositions, which can greatly influence our ability to learn a specific dialect. And eventually, it all comes down to amount of time and effort you are willing to put into it. We implore you not to be discouraged by seeming difficulties and to embark on a new learning journey today – you won’t regret it.