Have you ever wondered which languages are the hardest to learn? Is it Mandarin, Arabic, or Cantonese? Or maybe it’s a language you’re not familiar with?
Although it’s impossible to say which language is the “hardest,” there are a few that stand out as being particularly challenging. After all, some languages are more difficult to learn pronunciation-wise, while others have complex grammar systems.
So, whether you’re planning on learning one of these languages or are just curious about what they entail, experts say these are the hardest languages in the world and the reasons why:
Associate Professor of French and Arabic in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Towson University
Arabic requires learning a variety of languages to communicate efficiently
First, it is essential to remember that no language is intrinsically difficult to learn. It depends on how different it is from the language you already speak.
Portuguese is easier to learn for a Spanish speaker than it is for a Japanese speaker because Portuguese and Spanish are closer to each other. So it is more helpful to think of languages as close or distant from each other than to ask if a given language is naturally difficult to learn.
Likewise, Arabic may be difficult to learn for an English or French speaker but significantly easier to learn for a Hebrew or Farsi speaker. Here are things that make Arabic challenging to learn:
This is undoubtedly the biggest factor in making Arabic hard to learn. There are several varieties of the language.
Modern Standard Arabic (or MSA) is used in writing, the media, academia, law, and politics. Outside of those contexts, a different variety, often called Colloquial Arabic, is used. Modern Standard Arabic is relatively the same everywhere Arabic is used.
Colloquial Arabic, however, varies a lot from region to region. This makes the language difficult to learn because after mastering the alphabet and the grammar rules of MSA, the learner still has to learn a new variety of language to communicate with people efficiently.
A different alphabet
Learning a new writing system takes time and effort and presents an added challenge compared to learning a language that uses a script we already know.
Arabic is written right to left rather than left to right. It is also written in cursive, so letters connect to each other to form a word. That being said, there are exceptions, so some letters randomly don’t connect in the middle of words.
This also means that letters can look differently depending on whether they occur at the beginning, middle, or end of the word. Getting used to this takes time and makes learning Arabic more difficult.
Most Arabic sounds also exist in English. So learning to pronounce new words is mostly easy. However, there are a few crucial sounds that are formed in the mouth in ways and places that our mouths are not used to when speaking.
Unfortunately, pronouncing those sounds correctly is essential because they can change the meaning. The words “dog” and “heart” sound similar to the uninitiated.
So until you learn to say the sound in “heart” correctly, people may think you left your heart somewhere when you were simply talking about your pet.
Deciding to learn Arabic is not an apolitical decision. There is a broader context and history of conflicts, politics, and ideology attached to the language.
No matter where the learner falls on the political spectrum, that context can cloud perception and present an added hurdle when trying to absorb and learn the language. When we come to a new language with preconceived notions, we have to unlearn them before we begin to learn.
That process of unlearning makes the journey more difficult. The best way to make it easier is to try to approach the language with an open mind.
Teacher and Co-founder, Tiro
Mandarin Chinese is a Category IV language
What do we mean by “easy to learn?”
Here’s the thing. No one language is easier or harder to learn than another. Babies all around the world learn any language they’re exposed to—and if babies can do it, so can you!
A better question to ask is, “how much time and effort will it take for me to learn a new language?”
One of the biggest factors in language acquisition is how much time you spend exposed to words and sentences that you can understand—what linguists call “comprehensible input.”
The more time you spend listening to or reading words where you understand at least 90% of the content, the more you will learn. It’s all about the time exposed to comprehensible input.
Language immersion environments are great only if you already have enough of a basic understanding so you can understand the input. Immersion can provide people with lots and lots of comprehensible input so people will learn the language more rapidly.
Also, if the target language is similar to the one you already know, it will be easier for you to understand what you’re reading or hearing.
What do we mean when we say you’ve acquired a language?
When learning a new language, you need more than just input. You need the opportunity to use the language and create “output.” Output means writing or speaking in the target language.
Applied linguists (people who study language and how it’s used) have conducted research to see if we really need output to learn a language or if we can just learn a language through enough comprehensible input.
These studies have shown that people need the opportunity to produce language and make mistakes to really get the grammar and pronunciation of a new language.
When we say something and the other person says, “huh?!.” it helps us know we have a language gap we need to fill. We can target that word, sound, or a bit of grammar and fix it. Then we can really say we know the language when we can use it correctly in addition to understanding it.
Using apps to learn a language isn’t enough to do the trick because they only give you input and limit opportunities for output. You need to communicate (and make mistakes) with live human beings to really refine your pronunciation, grammar, and word choice.
How similar is the target language to English?
One of the biggest questions when asking whether a new language will be easy for an English speaker to learn is, “how similar is this language to English?”
The Defense Language Institute (part of the U.S. military that, among other things, trains translators) groups languages into four categories of difficulty to learn based on their similarity to English. They look at several things to measure similarity.
Some of those things include:
- Whether you have to learn a new alphabet (orthography)
- The similarity of the sounds of the language (pronunciation and phonetics)
- The similarity of the grammar (syntax and morphology)
- The similarity of the words (vocabulary)
Spanish is considered a Category I language because it uses nearly the same alphabet as English, many of the sounds are the same, they both mostly use Subject-Verb-Object word order, and there are many cognate words (words with similar origin, meaning, and spelling).
On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is a Category IV language (the highest level), meaning it takes the most time to become fluent. This is because Mandarin and English use completely different writing systems.
Mandarin uses tones much more than English does, the word order and grammar are very different, and the two languages don’t share a common root, so the words are very different.
Of course, English speakers learn Mandarin, Arabic, and other Category IV languages all the time, it just takes more time, more comprehensible input, and more opportunities to create output than a Category I language.
If you’re curious to see a partial list of DLI’s language categories, you can go to their website.
Why am I even learning this language?
One question you have to ask when learning a new language is, “what’s my purpose in learning this language?” This will determine how much time you’ll need and the difficulty you’ll face in your language study.
For example, ACTFL, a US organization that, among other things, writes language assessments, has five levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished.
If your goal is to just talk to your cousin about your day, reaching an Intermediate level may be enough for you.
On the other hand, if you’re a research scientist looking to read academic journals in a new language, you’ll probably have to put in the time and take classes to get to a Superior level.
Of course, if you’re training to be a spy and sound like you know the slang and pronunciation from a specific town, nothing lower than the Distinguished level will do.
Margaret J. King, Ph.D.
Klingon would have to be one of the most challenging
Are you up for a real language challenge allowing you to speak to under 100 other specialists after years of work? Then consider the constructed language (conlang) domain.
This language was invented for Star Trek III (1984) as a formal, integrated speech for the Klingons in the Trek universe.
After a dictionary was published, many people dabbled in its difficult spelling and pronunciation, but only a handful (under 100 estimated) have become skilled speakers able to converse with each other and understand the film tracks.
In addition, since Klingon speech focuses largely on spacecraft and warfare, it has limited use for day-to-day conversation.
Mandarin Chinese is the hardest to learn for English speakers
Of natural languages (as opposed to constructed cases), it is interesting that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest to learn for English speakers—because of the thousands of ideographs necessary for written comprehension and a four-tone scale for meaning.
But it is also the most widely spoken global language. Arabic, Polish, and Russian follow, the first forcing a totally unfamiliar writing system.
The US Foreign Service calls difficult languages “hardship languages” and pays a premium salary to its officers who are fluent in Turkish, Finnish, and Danish, among others.
How about learning a tribal language? There are many still active around the globe, the most in New Guinea (numbering around 850), the most diverse linguistic area known.
Closer, in the US, the three leading tribal languages still spoken are:
- Navajo (by far the largest and hardest) in Arizona
- Yupik in Central Alaska
- Sioux in the upper Midwest and Canada
They are all difficult, made more so by their roots in exotic and antique cultures that are quite arcane to learn about and relate to vocabulary—and have only had a written format in modern times.
So there are many “hardest languages” out there to appreciate, if not to master as a fluent speaker, and each has a rich cultural component.
Translator and Linguist, Libra Translation
Georgian: A true grammar heavyweight
Georgian is one of those languages that seem tough from the outset. It boasts a beautiful yet unusual alphabet and some extremely rare sounds, with an aspirated “t” that you have to breathe out to pronounce and a “k” sound that mimics a table tennis ball bouncing on a table.
Yet that’s just the beginning for a language that seems to get increasingly harder as you continue to study it.
Ergativity—the language learner’s worst nightmare
Georgian has a case system, meaning that every noun has six different endings depending on the grammatical function of the word, which takes a long time to learn and even longer to put into practice, especially when speaking.
Georgian goes one step further in terms of difficulty, as sometimes the cases used can switch from subject to object when using the past tense (a feature called ergativity), making an already challenging grammatical point extremely difficult to master.
Take a breath, as we haven’t even got to the hard part yet. Georgian verbs have a complicated system of infixes, meaning that it’s not just the end of the verb that can change as in most European languages, but also the middle of the verb.
Georgian can also compact features such as indirect objects into the verb itself, meaning the five-word English phrase “I wrote it to them” can be reduced to just one in Georgian, “davuts’ere.”
While the space-saving nature of some Georgian verbs might seem like a good idea, the nuances between different forms can make it very tough for foreign learners to decipher the exact meaning.
The final nail in the coffin for Georgian learners is that, as a rare language, good study materials are hard to come by, making the task even harder.
CEO, Industry Arabic
The universal standard measurement of language difficulty is the time it takes an average person to become fluent through consistent study. However, even some of the hardest languages in the world might come easier to you than others.
From a native-English speaker’s perspective, the hardest languages are Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese Chinese.
Mandarin and Cantonese because they are tonal languages
There are multiple aspects these languages share that make them difficult for English speakers. For example, Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, where the spoken pitch of certain syllables can alter the entire meaning of a word.
Differences in writing systems also make these languages the hardest to learn, as they all feature different alphabets and characters. Here, you lose your chance to rely on phonetic pronunciations early in your studies.
Arabic language is read from right to left
It’s common for students to struggle while adapting to new ways of reading and writing, and for many, it is too high of a barrier to attempt learning in the first place.
Arabic is read from right to left and requires learners to adapt to the practice of omitting certain vowels in written text.
Know what you’re getting yourself into
Understanding these unique details prior to instruction can make a difficult language easier to learn. Matching a new language with your own skillset and interests can help guide a person towards language learning success.
Additionally, any language will be hard when you don’t appreciate the culture, so it’s best to do some research before committing to a complicated language. Creating a personal stake or interest in the language can boost your engagement and morale.
Difficulties in language learning are not always fully dependent on the typical objective reading, speaking, and writing skills — popularity and learning accessibility also play a large part. Nearly 23% of the world’s population speaks one of the five languages included above.
If a traditional classroom method does not work, many applications (DuoLingo, Babel, Rosetta Stone, Busuu) can offer different learning formats that suit you better.
Learning a “hard” language also becomes easier if it is business relevant or has significant global media influence.
Languages with small native populations or no diaspora populations are less likely to be taught in English-speaking countries, effectively making them also difficult to learn. This is especially true for minority or endangered languages, like Hawaiian, Gaelic, or Kazakh.
Dylan Llyr Morgan
Content Executive, Twinkl
Welsh is a hard language due to the difficulty of picking up the differences in the alphabet
I would consider Welsh to be a very hard language to learn if you were not raised with it as a first language and attended a Welsh-medium school.
Although adoption is increasing in the country, and the language is listed as an option to learn on Duolingo, it remains the second language behind English in Wales.
I’d argue this is due to the difficulty of picking up the differences in the alphabet, such as dd, th, ch, etc., all counting as one letter in the Welsh alphabet.
Additionally, treigladau (mutations in English) to phrases and dialects dependent on tense and sentence structure makes picking up Welsh difficult on a grammatical level.
A lot of Welsh speakers in the country I would personally not describe as native speakers, with even fewer being able to effectively write in the language professionally.
A lot of Welsh that’s spoken verbally is usually combined with English words and phrases to make it sound more Welsh-y (such as joi-o (joy/enjoy), watch-o (to watch), etc.), known as “Wenglish.”
Although incorrect grammatically, it encourages the use of spoken Welsh, a language that was arguably in peril of extinction just a few decades ago!
Thai is by far the most difficult
I’ve studied three languages in addition to my mother one, English. Thai, Spanish, and Chinese would be. Of all of those languages, Thai is by far the most difficult.
Like English, Spanish is a Latin-based language. Many of their vocabularies are similar, as is their grammar. The definition of “aniversario” as “anniversary” is simple to recall. Vocabulary acquisition is simple.
Spanish was easier than Chinese, how to read specific characters in particular. It was also challenging to recall the tones associated with each word. The pronunciation wasn’t too difficult for me, though, and their grammar was rather straightforward.
It was hell in Thailand. There are 32 vowels and 44 consonants in their alphabet, and the text does not entirely read from left to right. Vowels can come after, beneath, over, or in front of consonants.
Numerous consonants have the same sound; hence the tone of the word depends on the consonant and vowel combinations used. There are hardly many reliable resources for learning Thai.
There also are no gaps between their words. It was challenging, but I managed to learn it successfully.
Hobby Car Detailer and Blogger, Car Detailing Planet
The Croatian Language has a lot of cases
The Croatian language has a lot of grammatical cases, seven in total. For instance, the modern English language only has three of them.
Here is a list of them:
People can learn them with time, but most foreigners make mistakes every time they speak.
It has additional letters
Most languages use the basic alphabet only, while in Croatian, we have: Đ, DŽ, Č, Ć, LJ, and NJ.
Our alphabet has 30 letters in total, while the English one has 26 (we don’t use X, Y, and W). Even though these letters aren’t hard to speak, most people get confused with writing, especially if compared to other languages.
We read everything the same way it’s written, and there isn’t a different pronunciation. This actually makes the Croatian language easy, but many people find it hard when there’s R next to the P or some other similar letter.
We also pronounce R like Russians, and most people can’t pronounce it because they have learned to pronounce some kind of “smooth “or “soft “R.
Managing Director, Nexus IT Group
The Polish language
From my perspective, Polish is the most difficult language in the world to learn. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine, and Lithuania all recognize Polish as a minority language because it is the most widely spoken EU language.
It’s not easy to learn Polish; in fact, it’s one of the most challenging languages in the world. Polish pronunciation might be difficult for native English speakers due to the complexity of the language.
Though it is written using the Latin alphabet, the language includes:
- A few more symbols
- A sophisticated grammar libre system
- A heavy reliance on consonants
Despite its reputation as the most challenging language, fluency in Polish can lead to exciting new experiences, such as study abroad programs in Poland or even relocation there.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes a language difficult to learn?
The grammatical structure of a language can significantly affect its difficulty level. For example, languages with complex inflectional systems, such as Hungarian or Finnish, may be challenging for learners who are accustomed to languages with simpler verb tenses and declension patterns.
Additionally, languages with irregular verbs, such as English or Spanish, can also pose a challenge for learners.
Pronunciation is another factor that can make a language difficult to learn. Languages with unique sounds that are not found in one’s native language, such as the tonal system used in Mandarin Chinese, can be particularly challenging for learners. Pronouncing words correctly is crucial for effective communication and can take a lot of practice to master.
The vocabulary of a language can also contribute to its difficulty level. Languages with a large number of words, such as English or German, can be challenging to learn, particularly for learners who are not accustomed to memorizing long lists of vocabulary.
Additionally, some languages have words with multiple meanings or that are difficult to translate into other languages, which can pose an additional challenge for learners.
Finally, the writing system of a language can also be a significant hurdle for learners. Some languages use characters or symbols that are not found in the Latin alphabet, such as Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, or Japanese. Learning to read and write in these languages can require significant effort and dedication, as well as the use of specialized resources and tools.
In addition to these language-specific factors, learners may also face challenges related to the availability of resources and opportunities for practicing their skills.
For example, some languages may lack quality textbooks, audio recordings, or other resources that can support learners. Also, finding native speakers or language exchange partners may be difficult for less commonly spoken languages.
These challenges can make learning a difficult language even more challenging, but with the right approach and resources, it is possible to overcome them.
Can anyone learn a difficult language?
Anyone can learn a difficult language with dedication, practice, and the right resources. While it may seem daunting at first, with the right mindset and approach, anyone can become proficient in a challenging language.
Here are a few tips to help you on your language learning journey:
• Start with the basics: It’s essential to build a strong foundation in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Begin with basic phrases and simple sentences, and gradually progress to more complex structures.
• Immerse yourself in the language: Surround yourself with the language as much as possible. Listen to podcasts, watch TV shows and movies, and read books and news articles in the language you’re learning. This will help you become more comfortable with the language and improve your comprehension skills.
• Practice regularly: Consistency is key when it comes to language learning. Set aside dedicated time each day to practice speaking, listening, reading, and writing in the language you’re learning. The more you practice, the faster you’ll progress.
• Find a language partner: Learning with someone else can be highly motivating and beneficial. Look for a language exchange partner or join a language learning group to practice speaking and receive feedback on your progress.
• Use technology to your advantage: There are many apps, online courses, and language learning software available that can help you learn a difficult language. Take advantage of these resources to supplement your studies and stay engaged with the language.
Remember, learning a new language takes time, patience, and dedication. But with the right approach, anyone can achieve fluency in a challenging language.
Why is it important to learn a difficult language?
• Cultural understanding: Learning a new language opens up a whole new world of cultural understanding. You’ll be able to communicate with people from different countries and gain insight into their customs, traditions, and way of life. It can also help you understand your own culture better by comparing and contrasting it with others.
• Career advancement: In today’s global economy, knowing a difficult language can give you a competitive edge in the job market. Employers often seek candidates who can speak multiple languages, especially if they have business interests in other countries.
Learning a difficult language can also open up new career opportunities, such as translation, interpretation, or international business.
• Cognitive benefits: Learning a difficult language can also have cognitive benefits. It can improve memory, concentration, and problem-solving skills. It can also boost creativity, as learning a new language requires you to think in new and different ways.
• Personal growth: Learning a difficult language can be a challenging and rewarding experience. It can boost your confidence, improve your self-esteem, and broaden your horizons. It can also give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, as you master a new skill.
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