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Looking to learn a new language? Are you looking for a challenge? After our last post on the easiest languages to learn, we will now go through the most difficult ones! So what are the hardest languages to learn for English speakers? Read on to find out.
What are the hardest languages to learn?
As adults, we are exposed to many different cultures and languages. For most of us, it can feel frustrating not being able to communicate with someone just on the basis of not knowing the same language.
For parents looking to introduce a new language to their children, it can feel overwhelming if you don’t speak a second language yourself.
Luckily, in the modern world, there are tons of resources for learning a new language.
The tricky part is deciding which one you want to dedicate your time to. Some are easier than others, but for those up to the challenge, learning a more difficult language can be very rewarding!
What makes a language difficult to learn?
Before we dive into the details of the languages on our list, we need to go over what makes a language so difficult to learn.
The main factor is how different it is from your native language. For English speakers, any language that uses a non-Romanized alphabet is already considered to be tough to learn.
Add that to a lack of opportunities to interact with native speakers of the language and you end up with an extremely daunting endeavor. Depending on where you live, finding effective resources to learn a specific language can also hinder your quest to learn this new language.
Adults on the other hand almost always plateau at the stage before they can achieve true success. This phenomenon is called ‘fossilization’ because people can’t seem to get past this stage.
Even if they learn something new, they inherently come back to their old ways and habits. Because of this, learning a language as an adult can easily be considered one of the most difficult endeavors a person can take on. However, not impossible.
Why are some languages harder to learn than others?
Learning a new language will always be difficult, but there are definitely ones that will be significantly more challenging to learn than others.
The different factors that create these gaps in difficulty include learning hurdles that come with adopting a new language and grammar system.
There’s also the amount of exposure to consider as someone who is living in the country where only that language is spoken will have an easier time acquiring that language.
If you’re looking to give your brain some great exercise, however, it might be great for you to choose one of the languages on our list.
The top 10 hardest languages to learn for English speakers
Now that we have covered what makes a language difficult to learn, let’s dive into which language we have chosen as our top 10 hardest languages to learn for English speakers.
Though Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, it has been notorious for being one of, if not the, most difficult language to learn for English speakers.
Chinese characters are already extremely hard to learn since there are more than a hundred different characters, but the intonation is what truly prevents people from casually picking up this language. The intonation is challenging for English speakers to pronounce, thus there are several different phonetic transcription systems.
The main system is hànyǔ pīnyīn, which is used officially in China as well as Western Chinese publications. Although this Romanization system uses letters of the English (Latin) alphabet, these romanizations are still difficult to pronounce if you’re just reading them off the page.
Although one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, learning Mandarin has many benefits
As one of the oldest languages to exist, Arabic stands at our number two spot for good reason. Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are the two main written forms of Arabic, Classical being used in the Qur’an and classical literature. Modern Standard is the type that all Arabic speakers use today and has different vocabulary from Classical.
Along with this distinction, there are variations within each Arabic speaking region. The direction of writing is not the same for numerals as they are for words, and Arabic can be written using Hebrew, Syriac, and Latin scripts in addition to its own script.
All of these factors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how Arabic is a difficult language to learn. However, if you happen to master this language, you’ll be able to expand your accessibility to over 221 million speakers across more than 35 countries.
Spoken by over 128 million individuals across the world, Japanese is not a language for the faint of heart. While this language has a great amount of Chinese ‘loan’ words, Japanese shares no relation to Chinese, making it difficult for even Chinese speakers to learn. There’s also the distinction between female and male intonations when speaking Japanese that learners need to account for.
What’s more, Japanese can be separated into three main written types: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Luckily for learners, the popularity of Japanese anime has made it easier to pick up the pronunciation of this complicated language.
Mongolian is a lesser known language with only about 5 million speakers across 4 countries. The nation language of Mongolia is actually Khalkha (Halha), which is just one of several varieties of Mongolian.
Traditional Mongolian script is written left to right in vertical columns from top to bottom while the more modern Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet is written in the familiar left to right direction.
The lower rate of speakers makes this language difficult to access as well as the learning hurdles of a new alphabet and intonation system. Once you learn this language, however, you’ll be able to communicate easily with natives you meet during your travels.
Moving away from Asian languages for now, let’s take a look at the next language on our list. Finnish is under the Uralic language family and is the official language in Finland. With under 6 million speakers across the world, it’s one of the more difficult languages to get access to.
The main factor of difficulty that learners must overcome, however, is its vowel harmony system. Once you get past this, the rest should be very doable.
Remember the Cyrillic alphabet we mentioned for Mongolian? Well, the Russian alphabet originates from the same Cyrillic script. Boasting a whopping 260 million speakers, Russian is one of the more well-known languages on our list.
With that said, don’t underestimate the difficulty of this Eastern Slavic language. What makes Russian so difficult to learn is the pronunciation. Good thing that there are tons of media that has brought Russian to the mainstream public!
Getting back into Asian languages, next up on our list is Thai. This is a language that pulls from several other languages including Lao, Sanskrit, and Old Khmer. While multiple letters can represent the same consonant, what makes Thai so difficult to learn is that it is a tonal language with 5 tones.
The structure is also very different from English as spaces represent the end of clauses and sentences instead of words. Fortunately, Thailand hosts some of the most tourist-friendly cities. So as long as you can get the important phrases down, you should be good to go!
With the rise of K-pop and Korean dramas, Korean has been on the rise as one of the most popular languages to learn. If we ignore the more traditional Chinese influenced alphabet, the modern alphabet, hangeul, is fairly easy to pick up.
The tricky part is learning how to combine letters into syllable blocks, which are used to form words. The palatalization is also very different from English, with some consonants being nonexistent or combined to form one consonant. The grammar is also extremely difficult to get used to as it follows the verb-final word order. If you need help learning this language, though, there are a million and one resources including mainstream K-dramas and K-pop songs.
If you’re a fan of tzatziki sauce or Mamma Mia!, then Greek might be the language for you. Be warned, though, as this is still a very challenging language.
The Greek alphabet was developed from the Phoenician alphabet with the Greek alphabet using Phoenician consonants to represent vowel sounds. This alphabet is what makes Greek such a challenging language to learn for English speakers.
Though one of the most difficult languages to learn, it isn’t impossible. So, head over to your nearby Greek restaurant and see if you can find a native speaker to practice with!
Our last on the list for most difficult languages to learn brings us back to Asia, and specifically, the Philippines. The national language is Filipino, which is a standard register of Tagalog.
Tagalog has a distinct type of writing system, the Baybayin alphabet, where every consonant contains the vowel /a/. To differentiate into another vowel, separate vowels or dots are needed. The transition into the Baybayin alphabet will likely be a challenge for most, but those looking for either a challenge or those looking to move to the Philippines will find learning this language very fulfilling.
Just because a language is difficult, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn it
Whether you’re on a quest to impress your friends with one of these difficult languages or you’re looking to travel to one of the aforementioned countries, all of the languages on our list will be sure to give your brain the workout of its life.
Just because these languages may be the most difficult to learn, don’t be discouraged by all the factors we mentioned. It might take much longer to learn one of these languages instead of one of the 10 easiest languages to learn for English speakers, but it might turn out to be much more rewarding.
Don’t forget that you have endless resources at your fingertips in the modern world. You can access language learning apps, dictionaries, language books, and even apps that connect you to a language exchange partner.
With these tools, along with traditional classes, you’re bound for success. For those are truly dedicated to learning one of these languages, traveling to the country where that language is primarily used would produce the best results.
No matter what your motivations are, learning a new language is an exciting endeavor that everyone should expose themselves to. Take some time out of your busy schedule and try to tackle one of the languages on our list. You may be surprised at what you discover about yourself.
We would love to hear your thoughts, of our list of hardest languages to learn for English speakers, do you speak any of them? Do you think they are so difficult?