10 Hardest Languages To Learn For English Speakers

  • Johann Brennan
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10 Hardest Languages To Learn For English Speakers

There is no such thing as a ‘hardest language for English speakers’.

That needs to be said up front. Language difficult is completely relative to the individual learner. Some people may find a language challenging whereas other people find it quite easy.

There are many factors involved.

However, there’s a general consensus among learners and the Foreign Service Institute that some languages typically take a lot more time to adjust to than others for a native English speaker.

I’ve outlined 10 of the so-called “hardest languages” for English speakers below (in no particular order).

Many English speakers find themselves hearing other languages and wondering how they’re structured. They also wonder which languages are the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. A close look at the languages of the world reveals a great deal of diversity.

In general, the most difficult languages for English speakers to master share certain things in common. They have different alphabets, lack cognates and have grammatical concepts unfamiliar to English speakers.

If you’re really looking for a challenge, consider the hardest languages to learn first.

The hardest languages for English speakers to learn (supposedly)

1. Arabic

According to the Foreign Service Institute, Arabic’s at the top of the list for languages that are the hardest to learn. There are definitely good reasons why this Semitic language presents obstacles to fluency for English speakers.

Arabic uses an entirely different script for one. Letter forms change depending on which position the letter takes in the word. Dialects also vary significantly from place to place. Arabic is a series of dialects. That means the Arabic you master in Morocco may have an entirely different pronunciation than the Arabic spoken in Bahrain.

Yet Arabic is also widely used, sacred to one of the largest religious groups on earth and offers a chance to study a language with a huge geographic spread.

Donovan has written at length about why he personally believes Arabic is an easy language.

Foreign Service Institute got it wrong with Arabic - it’s actually an incredibly straightforward language to learn to fluency.

2. Basque

Another language often seen as one of the hardest languages to learn is Basque.

For many language learners, the answer to what is the hardest language to learn is this language isolate (some believe it may be related to Georgian which is also an isolate).

Many noun cases and an unfamiliar ergative-absolutive grammar system make this one often confusing.

Despite this, mastering Basque is fun and a chance to see the world through different eyes.

3. Finnish

Finnish is often considered one of the most difficult languages for many reasons. Finnish grammar is said to be notoriously complicated.

For English speakers, there is confusing word order. Many Finns don’t always follow these rules, making it even more difficult to communicate with people in person.

However, once you get past the grammar, you’ll find a language with fewer letters than English and one that is written as it is pronounced.

4. Hungarian

Hungarian and Finnish are related.

Like Finnish, Hungarian is said to be one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn.

Over a dozen cases, a form you won’t find in English, means the language has rules that can feel baffling. Hungarian also has lots of idioms you need to know that aren’t apparent when you’re studying it.

On the other hand, Hungarian is an increasingly popular language to learn.

Learn it and you’re opening a path to one of Europe’s most interesting cultures.

5. Japanese

Japanese is not content with a single alphabet.

Choose this one and you will need to get acquainted with three different writing systems. That’s the first major hurdle that Japanese learners face.

However, speaking Japanese can be surprisingly easy. Unlike many other Asian languages, Japanese does not have tones. The sounds of Japanese are familiar to English speakers.

If you are thinking about taking up Japanese consider tackling the spoken language first.

6. Korean

Korean is quite similar to Japanese in many ways but also regarded as one of the hardest languages for English speakers.

The writing system is Hangul, which is syllabic. Hangul appears to be difficult for English speakers, even though it’s very straightforward. It isn’t quite an alphabet or the pictograph system but rather syllabic.

The word order is often difficult for English speakers to understand, as well as the honorifics and levels of respect (see Donovan’s post about why it’s easy).

Overall, Korean is easy to learn compared to many European languages due to its simple grammar and pronunciation.

7. Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is actually the world’s most spoken language.

Millions of expats speak, read and write Chinese, though it has a reputation for being hard to learn for English speakers. Chinese has earned that reputation for being difficult primarily due to its tones and writing system.

Mandarin Chinese has four tones. Use the wrong one and you’re likely to be greeted with a stare when you try to communicate to a native speaker. The written form is equally harsh.

You’ll need to master about two thousand characters just to read a newspaper.

Yet the rewards can be vast. Chinese is one the world’s fastest growing economies. Learn the language and you’re on speaking terms with millions of consumers.

Read this list of Chinese resources.

8. Navajo

Navajo is so obscure it was used as a code to convey info during World War II.

As a Native American language with a proud tradition, it’s still very much alive today (though endangered).

If you want to make this one your own keep in mind it has a very different way of looking at the world. English speakers are hard pressed to get familiar with even the basics. There are many sounds that have no equal in English. Word length is not the same and verbs provide descriptions.

Adjectives are hard to translate, confusing translation even further.

If this language is part of your heritage or you live in the region, learning even a few words can connect you with your roots and the region’s original inhabitants.

9. Russian

Russian is actually quite easy but many believe it’s one of the hardest languages for English speakers.

Russian is written using the Cyrillic script. Stress changes frequently and grammar taxes even native speakers. Some sounds are so hard you’ll probably just approximate them at best as a new learner. Each rule has many exceptions.

This is a language of consonant clusters (like all Slavic languages) unfamiliar to many Americans and it has a large case system.

At the same time, it’s also the world’s seventh most widely spoken language. Russian is also part of a larger language family.

If you master it, you’ll find it easier to learn other Slavic languages such as Bulgarian and Czech.

10. Vietnamese

Vietnamese is the language of one of the world’s fastest growing Asian nations.

It has much in common in terms of difficulty with many neighbors. As a tonal language, you’ll need to master each tone and how it is used. Vietnamese also has a series of formal relationships with people.

You need to know which form to use in order to speak with everyone from a close family member to an older person you’ve just met. Using the wrong form can make you seem quite rude.

While it has a familiar alphabet, many letters have diacritical marks indicating pronunciation. You’ll need to get them correct when you write it down.

Mastering Vietnamese can seem difficult for an English speaker.

However, the joys of ordering the wonderful food and exploring this lovely, elegant country can make it truly worthwhile.

There is actually no hardest language for English speakers

There are many more languages I could have listed here that are ranked as difficult for English speakers.

Even though there are steeper learning curves with some languages (especially ones with different writing systems or structures), there is in fact no such thing as a “hardest language”.

It’s all relative.

Some people may find Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult, whereas others may enjoy it and find it easy.

It’s going to depend on many factors, such as your motivation, previous languages you’ve learned and how quickly you can grasp new linguistic concepts.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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