The 10 hardest languages to learn for English speakers
Ирина Пономарева - 07/02/2018
People who are interested in language learning and would like to learn one or several languages have to consider many factors when they compile their wish lists and decide on the order in which to tackle their chosen languages. Difficulty is one of the factors that matter a lot, and for someone who is just starting to explore the subtle art of language learning it is highly recommended to start with less challenging languages and then to proceed slowly to the more sophisticated ones.
Our rating doesn’t include very rare languages that no one but the experts have heard of. We have compiled our Top 10 from the languages more or less popular with the world’s polyglot community, and the difficulty is analyzed from the point of view of a native speaker of English, though it may equally well apply to speakers of some other European languages. So, let’s begin.
A close relative of English, since it belongs to the same group, it is nevertheless a tricky one for someone who is just starting to get their mind acquainted to the fact that languages are not created equal, and the patterns of the one’s native tongue, learned from childhood, are not necessarily observed elsewhere.
German, for example, is one of the languages with a well developed case system, and declension is achieved not by means of changing the word itself, but by changing the article. Besides, while Germans are very strict about one rule - the verb in an affirmative sentence has to be on the second position (articles and prepositions don’t count), things that are allowed to happen to the rest of the sentence - just to keep the verb where it belongs - might look unexpected to say the least.
Thus, the simple sentence like “We are going to school” can be translated as either “Wir gehen in die Schule” or “In die Schule gehen wir”. The first one is an example of direct and logical word order; the second version would be reminiscent of the way Master Yoda talks if translated verbatim, and yet it is okay in the German language. Another crazy example would be the translation of “Today I go to the cinema”. It cannot be translated verbatim, since - you remember - the verb has to go second, no matter what. So it has to be either “Heute gehe ich ins Kino” or “Ich gehe heute ins Kino”. Take your pick. And even more interesting examples spring up when we start playing with modal verbs, which obliges us to send the main verb to the very end of the sentence.
Still, German is in many ways friendly to native speakers of English, if only because the two languages have so many words in common. Of course, some false friends will have to be weeded out - that’s always the case - but otherwise German is far less tricky than other languages on our list.
One of the Slavic language group famous for its declensions, free word order (it can get even crazier than the German sentences above), long sequences of consonants (many of them sibilant) and other peculiarities, Polish, when learned as L2, becomes a challenge even to fellow Slavs. For a native speaker of English cases present one of the most serious difficulties, since there are seven of them in Polish. But no less confusing are the multiple ways to describe numbers and quantities.
Pronunciation of certain consonants, especially when they follow each other without any vowels in between, is also the reason of many complaints. Also, it’s not often that the future tense is formed using the verb form of the past tense, but in Polish you can do just that and at the same time you will have to keep in mind that the ending of the verb will depend on the gender of the related noun.
One of the “cousins” of Polish coming from the same group, it is very similar to Polish and yet different enough to earn a separate place on this list. To begin with, it uses a different alphabet that contains 33 letters. Some of them look just like their Latin equivalents (М, О, А), while others also resemble certain Latin letters, but represent totally different sounds (Р, В, Х). And the third group includes letters that look like no known Latin character (Ж, Щ, Ф).
Then there are cases. There are “only” six of them, not seven like in Polish, but to complicate matters the stress in Russian words behaves unpredictably and often changes its place when you change the case. As for chains of consonants, there are not so many sibilants in Russian as there are in Polish, but it doesn’t make them any easier to pronounce, especially the strong, resonant, rolling R. To confuse the learner even further, the same consonant can be either hard or soft, the difference between the two designated by the soft sign.
Add the two infinitive forms (perfective and imperfective) each verb is required to have and all the hundreds of contexts in which you are supposed to use one or the other (sometimes they are interchangeable), reduction of the vowels when they are not under stress and all the multiple ways to say “to go”. Really and truly, you will be much better off if, before tackling this particular language, you play with something easier and closer to your own native tongue, like, for example, Dutch or Swedish.
Until now we have dealt with the languages coming from the Indo-European family, to which English also belongs. Despite all the glaring dissimilarities, all Indo-European languages still have a lot in common, which can be seen mainly in the structure of the sentences. Once we leave the comfort of the Indo-European language family and move elsewhere, the art of language learning is immediately raised to a completely different level.
If six or seven grammatical cases typical for the Slavic group sound like a lot of trouble, how about 15 cases that exist in the Finnish language? Finnish is one of the Finno-Ugric languages, which is itself a sub-branch of the Uralic family, and is famous for its tricky grammar. It modifies verbs, nouns, adjectives and numerals. While using the Latin alphabet, it has added some accented letters to it, but that is not unusual for a European language, so this is not really a difficulty. Far more confusing is the fact that, being an agglutinative language, it tends to string words together, sometimes cramming a long sentence into one - but very long - word. Any dictionary of the Finnish language is full of really very long words, which can turn into real tongue-twisters for an inexperienced speaker. The stress in these words will be almost indistinguishable - so unlike the all-important English stress - and the R sound in Finnish is even more resonant than in Russian.
Finally, Finnish is not just one language, but two, and that’s not counting the local dialects. There is the standard Finnish used in official communication and the colloquial Finnish, in which people actually talk. The difference between the two is significant, and to live in Finland comfortably it is highly desirable to have good command of both versions.
Another Finno-Ugric language, Hungarian has given so much trouble to its learners that some insist that it should be regarded as the most difficult language worldwide. It counts 18 cases, to begin with, and some researchers count 35 cases, some of which apply to prepositions only. Combined with agglutination, total absence of cognates and loads of unfamiliar vowels and consonants, it all really makes this language a challenge.
Also, it relies on idioms more than other languages do, and that creates an additional difficulty for the learners. The rules of verb conjugations are also extremely complex - the speaker has to take into account a lot of factors to decide on the right verb form to choose. And, finally, there is the four-tiered system for expressing levels of politeness.
Confusing? And we haven’t even moved out of Europe yet. Now let us take a look at what other continents have in store for us.
This is in fact not just one language, but dozens of dialects grouped under the same name. For this reason Arabic habitually forces the learners to decide even before they start their studies which dialect they would be targeting in addition to the so-called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the lingua franca of the diverse and swiftly changing Arab world.
The language of religious texts, formal speeches and literature, MSA is understood by the majority of the modern educated speakers of all dialects, and yet local dialects are very much preferable for actual conversations. Therefore, in order to decide which of them to tackle, the learner has to answer the question: where am I going to travel to speak Arabic? Egyptian Arabic thus becomes one of the popular choices, since it is widely understood even outside Egypt.
But whichever dialect we look at, we will have to deal with the particularly tricky alphabet written from right to left. Besides, many of the letters look differently depending on where in the word they are located - at the beginning, in the middle or at the end. When it stands alone, it might have the fourth different form. Vowels are usually not written at all, though some letters may represent long vowel sounds, but there are different opinions on whether they should be called vowels.
As for consonants, the language contains a lot of them, which are totally unfamiliar to Europeans, some of them sounding very similar to each other, and the grammar is rather challenging, too. Because of all the above, it is estimated that an average learner whose native language is English will have to spend at least 80 weeks in the classroom - twice as long as in the case of Finnish - before being able to maintain a general conversation in Arabic. That would still be very far from the near-native level, the famous C2 that the most enthusiastic language learners usually strive for.
The African continent, a home to a lot of rather challenging languages, is represented on our list by Xhosa, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. The most unusual feature of Xhosa is the clicking sound designated by the X in its name. Most people can click their tongues, but doing that at the beginning of nearly every word is an entirely different story. To add to the difficulty, Xhosa happens to be a tonal language also, and though it has only two tones, combining that with the clicking is not going to make matters any easier for a beginner.
There are a lot of videos on YouTube, in which smiling native speakers of the Xhosa tongue happily demonstrate their skill to foreign reporters, who marvel at what they hear, but never undertake to repeat a single word.
One of the most mysterious and beautiful languages of the East, Japanese is, to a learner, a task of some magnitude, and in more ways than one. First and foremost, it’s a subject-object-verb (SOV) language. Most of the languages we are talking about are SVO (subject-verb-object), which means that for Japanese we would have to get used to a completely alien sentence structure. It might not seem such a difficulty for short sentences, but advanced speakers need to have good command of more complex syntax, and that’s where SOV becomes a real problem.
Then there are the three writing systems. Here we have the thousands of characters (the Japanese word for them is kanji), which came to Japan from China centuries ago and, for historical and cultural reasons, are still lovingly preserved . But there are also two alphabets - Hiragana and Katakana. The former is used for conjugational endings and for words that have no kanji representation; the latter is for the words that came to Japanese from foreign languages such as, for example, Russian, Portuguese and English. Thus, English speakers learning Japanese receive an unexpected bonus in the form of anglicisms, which comprise up to 30% of the modern Japanese vocabulary, even if some of them have been so altered that recognizing them for what they are requires a lot of imagination.
Regarding pronunciation, most of the sounds are relatively easy to reproduce, but the intonation is rather different and will require some exercises. One of the most confusing features of the Japanese language is the so-called honorific speech used to express politeness, which can be rather different from the ordinary everyday talk among friends even in vocabulary and grammar (using some alternative verbs, special polite endings, etc...). Even native Japanese children are not expected to go into the intricacies of the honorific speech until they become teens, so for an L2 learner it is certainly going to be a tough nut to crack. But the presence of the honorific speech in the Japanese language is a perfect reflection of the Japanese culture as such, and definitely adds to the charm and to the mystery of this enchanting country. So, difficult or not, this language is worth looking into, if only for the uniqueness of the whole experience.
The language with the largest number of native speakers and the official language of China and Taiwan, Mandarin Chinese is swiftly acquiring popularity among language learners, so nowadays there are a lot of experienced online Chinese teachers available to teach you Mandarin. It is considered a special distinction among the polyglot community to be able to speak this fascinating language. But people flocking into classrooms, full of excitement and happy expectations, have no idea what they are letting themselves in for.
At first glance, the fact that Chinese has no inflections of any kind may seem a simplification. But when you explore into the language, you discover that this absence of word forms has to be compensated for. One of such compensations is the strict word order, from which beginner learners tend to deviate, thus producing sentences utterly incomprehensible to the Chinese. Then add measure words and the ubiquitous multi-purpose particles… you get the idea. Besides, there will be no cognates to rest your brain on.
Another difficulty is the shortness of the words - Chinese words are seldom longer than one or two syllables. Surprisingly, it makes them much harder to memorize. Besides, many words sound just the same to the uninitiated; the vowels and especially the consonants are so similar to each other, and the tiniest difference in pronunciation changes the meaning utterly. It will take you a lot of listening practice to get the grip of all these nuances. And the chances are that the native speaker you later encounter will be speaking a slightly different local dialect, and your thoroughly learned sounds will suddenly become unrecognizable once more.
Then there are the tones, four of them altogether, not counting toneless syllables and the question tone. Easily reproduced for separate syllables, they become a complete nightmare when the syllables are made into words and words into phrases. Suddenly you can no longer tell them apart, let alone stick them together correctly in your own speech. Years of practice are needed to fix them once and for all.
Last but not least, there are characters. There will be thousands of them, if you are aiming at being considered an educated person by the Chinese, and nearly each of them (except the easiest ones like 下 or 上) is a nightmare to memorize. Even the Chinese themselves sometimes forget their own characters after leaving school and have to go through life semi-literate. Mainland China has now largely switched over to the simplified system, and even so it is still an enormous task to undertake.
Being another variety of Chinese, spoken mainly in Guangzhou and its vicinity, as well as in Hong Kong, Cantonese shares a lot of roots with Mandarin Chinese, and yet is considered mutually unintelligible with it. What makes it even more difficult to learn than its more widespread relative? Well, to being with, it has six tones (nine if you add the stop consonants), as opposed to four in Mandarin. Besides, while in the mainland China it shares the same writing system as is used in Mandarin Chinese - the Simplified Characters - in Hong Kong the Traditional system is still very strong, and that is much harder to memorize than the simplified variety.
There is another reason why Cantonese is considered harder to learn than Mandarin: the absence of a sufficient number of trained teachers capable of explaining the tricks of the language to the overwhelmed foreigners. And while various romanization schemes exist for Cantonese, none of them is as universally recognized as Pinyin is for Mandarin. Of course, these difficulties will be overcome with time, since international interest in Cantonese is on the rise, but for now the enthusiastic learners of this beautiful language have to struggle with these rather subjective obstacles on top of everything else.