What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
Learning a new language is one of the most productive challenges you can take. But do you know what is the hardest language to learn? Equipped with this information, you can decide just how easy or hard you want the challenge to be. To give you a satisfactory answer, we’ve researched linguistic publications and articles published by well-known polyglots.
What Is Language Difficulty Ranking?
When language learners research most difficult languages, they often stumble upon the language difficulty ranking published by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the United States federal government’s training institution for employees of the U.S. foreign affairs community.
The FSI ranked many languages based on the approximate amount of time a native English speaker needs to spend learning them in order to reach what the FSI calls general professional proficiency in speaking and reading.
Here’s what the FSI thinks:
- Languages closely related to English (575–600 class hours) – Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish.
- Languages similar to English (750 hours) – German.
- Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English (900 hours) – Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili.
- Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English (1100 hours): Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Xhosa, Zulu.
- Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers (2200 hours) – Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean.
Despite being cited by many language-learning websites, the ranking is based solely on the FSI’s view, and there are many experts who would rank certain languages differently.
Top 5 Hardest Languages to Learn
The question “What language is the hardest to learn?” is similar to the question “What is the farthest place on Earth?” It all depends on your starting position. For someone whose mother tongue is the Cantonese variety of Chinese, learning Mandarin won’t be nearly as big of a challenge as it will be someone who’s been born and raised in the United States, among native speakers of English.
Our list of the top 5 hardest languages to learn for English speakers doesn’t include languages with a relatively small number of native speakers, such as Navajo or Basque.
The hardest language in the world to learn for English speakers is Arabic. Native to countries of the Arab League and a member of the West Semitic language family, this beautiful and highly expressive language is guaranteed to torment any English speaker who dares to learn it.
There are several things that make Arabic so hard to learn. First, there’s the alphabet, which is written from right to left and looks nothing like the English alphabet. Then there’s the pronunciation, which is crucial for conveying the meaning of words. The root system of the Arabic language requires a lot of memorization and practice, and the same is true when it comes to plurals and noun/verb agreement. Even if you get over all these obstacles and learn Modern Standard Arabic, you will have a hard time communicating with older Arabs, who use archaic words or only understand a certain dialect.
2. Mandarin Chinese
As you may know, Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken across most of northern and southwestern China (there’s also Cantonese Chinese, which is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau, and the wider Guangdong province) doesn’t have a traditional alphabet. Instead, its writing system relies on characters, or logograms if you want to be precise.
The biggest problem with Chinese characters is that there are approximately 50,000 of them, with some sources saying 100,000. Out of these, around 20,000 is in use, and the average Chinese person knows around 8,000 characters. Yes, to read Chinese, you need to learn several thousand characters. On top of that, Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, so words differ not only in consonants and vowels but also in tones. It takes just one wrong tone to say “Can I kiss you?” (Wǒ kěyǐ wěn nǐ ma?) instead of “Can I ask you?” (Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ ma?).
Many people wrongly assume that Japanese is similar to Chinese. In reality, the only thing the two languages have in common are Chinese characters, which are used by Japanese speakers in combination with two syllabic scripts: hiragana and katakana. Yes, to read and write Japanese, you have to learn two alphabets as well as thousands of Chinese characters.
Whereas the learners of Chinese usually don’t have much trouble with grammar, the same can’t be said about the learners of Japanese, who must get used to its agglutinative subject-object-verb (SOV) morphology, particles, many different verb forms, and incredibly complex politeness system.
The silver lining when it comes to learning Japanese is the almost overwhelming amount of resources available online. From complete online courses to books, anime, manga, and video games, the learners of Japanese have no shortage of learning materials to choose from.
Korean can be punishingly difficult to learn because it has no relationship with other languages. English speakers often struggle with its honorific system, which calls for different words and phrases to be used depending on who you speak to. Of course, there’s also the fact that Korean uses its own writing system, called Hangul, which consists of 24 basic letters with 14 consonant letters and 10 vowel letters. Of course, learning 24 letters beats learning thousands of Chinese characters, but that doesn’t make this hurdle any easier to overcome.
Another reason why Korean is often one of the hardest languages to learn ranked by English speakers is its pronunciation. Just pronouncing the right consonants and vowels can be a huge challenge, let alone adding proper inflection to them.
The good news is that there’s a huge wealth of learning material to choose from, including books, movies, music, TV shows, and video games. Especially worth mentioning are Korean dramas and KPOP, both of which have found success outside Korea.
According to the language difficulty ranking FSI, Hungarian is a language with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English, which is why most learners can expect to take around 1,100 hours to learn it.
Hungarian is infamous for being full of irregularities, which make it impossible to learn the language in a systematic way. What’s more, Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that it glues together different morphemes to express different things. For example, “from the house” in Hungarian is “házból”, but “from the garden” is “kertből”. Native English speakers often don’t even notice the difference, let alone understand it.
Tips to Help You Learn Even the Most Difficult Languages
The right strategy can make it much easier to learn even the most difficult language in the world. Here are our top three tips for language learners:
- Use a language learning app: Technology is your friend when learning a new language. For example, Encore!!! provides a massive library of language content, with words and sentences organized into lessons according to their difficulty. To start learning, you can simply pick a lesson and let the app be your teacher. Since Encore!!! runs on your smartphone, you can learn anywhere and at any time.
- Make it fun: Despite what you may remember from school, learning a new language should be a fun experience. There are so many things a language can be used for that there’s absolutely no reason to spend time on boring activities. You can watch movies, play video games, listen to music, chat with strangers online, read books and online articles, and much more.
- Connect with native speakers: Many language learners feel intimidated by native speakers, fearing their ability to instantly notice every single mistake they’ll make. While that may be true, most native speakers know better than to point out mistakes made by non-native speakers of their language. By connecting with native speakers, you’ll gain access to valuable language practice opportunities, and you’ll also gain extra motivation from the desire to impress your new friends.
Some language learners enjoy a difficult challenge. If you count yourself among them, there’s no reason to be afraid of the hardest languages to learn. Even if you don’t achieve complete fluency, the linguistic knowledge and appreciation for a different culture you inevitably gain along the way will stay with you for the rest of your life.