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The 7 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

by Anne Merritt Mar 28, 2022

With a lot of effort and passion, English speakers can learn any languages, but some are definitely more difficult to master than others.

The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a branch of the US government that trains officials before they are sent to work abroad, knows all about the difficulties involved in teaching English speakers a foreign language. After teaching languages to US diplomats for 70 years, the people at the FSI have drawn from their experience and created a list of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. The list is divided into “hard languages” and “super-hard languages”.

The FSI defines “hard languages” as “languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” “Hard languages” require an average of 44 weeks of training, i.e. 1100 class hours, to reach proficiency.

“Super-hard languages” are explained to be “languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.” The FSI estimated the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency in a “super-hard language” is around 88 weeks, AKA 2200 class hours. It is double the amount of time believed to take to learn a “hard language.”

The list of seven languages below consists of a mix of “super-hard” and “hard” languages and is not exhaustive (there are, after all, more than 5,000 languages spoken in the world today), but they are some of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

Hardest language to learn #1: Arabic

Arabic is considered a “super-hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

Arabic breaks down into families. One is the Modern Standard Arabic of print, media, and online content. The other is spoken Arabic, which encompasses many dialects which vary by region. This means that if you pick up conversational Arabic in Tunisia, it might still be tough to be understood in Kuwait.

For all dialects of Arabic, pronunciation is difficult for English speakers, as many consonants are formed at the back of the mouth.

Arabic script is a phonetic, 28-symbol alphabet descending from Phoenecian. Most letters change shape depending on their position in the word, and letters may or may not be joined. The most basic challenge in tackling written Arabic is in reading from right to left, working against an English speaker’s deeply embedded instinct.

Arabic grammar has very few parallels with English and Indo-European languages. The plural is expressed by changing the vowel structure of the word: kitab (book) becomes kutub (books). The bulk of verbs are irregular and can be formed 25 ways.

For a taste of Arabic, check out Matador Network’s “8 Idioms Only Arabs Understand.

Hardest language to learn #2: Cantonese

Cantonese is considered a “super-hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

Cantonese is a tonal language, which can be very challenging for English speakers who are used to speaking with emphasis (“I didn’t eat YOUR sandwich!”) and inflection, i.e rising tones to pose a question. Cantonese can be difficult even for those fluent in other Chinese dialects because of its tonal system. While Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has six, with pitch and contour shaping a syllable’s meaning.

Cantonese has a logographic (pictoral) writing system of thousands of characters. This gives a new hurtle to language learning, since a reader of Cantonese can’t sound out syllables in a text as we can with phonetic alphabets. They must know and recall the name of each character. It is a myth that all Chinese languages are written in the same logographic form, though Cantonese and Mandarin share many traits of their writing systems, and the Mandarin writing system is often used by Cantonese speakers.

Read “I Haven’t Spoken Cantonese for 30 Years. Here’s What Happened When I Tried To Speak It Again” on Matador Network.

Hardest language to learn #3: Japanese

Japanese is considered a “super-hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

The good news about Japanese? For English speakers, pronunciation is a cinch. Japanese vowel and consonant sounds are very familiar to those fluent in English, which makes the language easy to parrot and understand.

The tough part? Written Japanese can be a headache to learn. It uses four alphabets including the Chinese-influenced kanji (pictoral), two phonetic writing systems, and the Roman alphabet (Romanji).

The notion of honorific language is challenging for learners. Japanese speech can vary with levels of politeness, with each level having set forms and rules. English has no set way of speaking honorifically or intimately, and learners may have trouble recalling when and where to use honorific speech.

Grammatically, Japanese is a mixed bag. There are only three irregular verbs and a pretty consistent structure, with verbs at the end of the sentence. Nouns carry no gender or number, though they can function as adjectives or adverbs, which can be confusing for readers.

To learn more about the Japanese language, check out Matador Network’s “30 Awesome Japanese Idioms We Should Start Using in English.

Hardest language to learn #4: Mandarin

Mandarin is considered a “super-hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

Written Mandarin is pictoral and contains over 20,000 characters. Some base characters, like root words, appear in other symbols, like the character for “woman” forming part of “sister.” The written form of the language has no phonic connection to the spoken form.

Mandarin, like Cantonese, is a tonal language, and a misused inflection can change the meaning of a sentence. The syllable “ma” can mean mother or horse, depending on the inflection, which could lead to grave insults at the dinner table.

Grammatically, Mandarin is far simpler than Indo-European languages. Words, for the most part, have only one grammatical form. Their function is shown through prepositions, word order, and particles. Building and comprehending this syntax, however, takes time. There are some tough elements like Mandarin adverbs: a dozen words which have no direct English translation.

Read “Mandarin Is Both Incredibly Hard and Ridiculously Easy To Learn. Here’s What Travelers Can Master” on Matador Network.

Hardest language to learn #5: Korean

Korean is considered a “super-hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

At first, the language seems far easier than other East Asian tongues — there are no tones and no pictoral writing system.

It’s true that reading and writing in Korean is easy to master, as the language uses the very logical Hangul phonetic writing system. Speaking and listening, while tone-free, can be challenging with unique sounds that are hard for English speakers to recognize, let alone master.

The biggest challenge with Korean lies in the grammar. Verbs can be conjugated in countless ways, depending on tense, mood, age, and seniority. Like Japanese, one sentence can be said in three different ways, depending on the relationship between the speaker and addressee. Adjectives are conjugated too, with many possible endings. Also, there are also two different number systems, quite different from one another.

For a taste of Korean, read Matador Network’s “The 14 Funniest Korean Expressions (and How To Use Them).”

Hardest language to learn #6: Finnish

Finnish is considered a “hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

Barry Farber, the author of How to Learn any Language and a polyglot many times over, says that Finnish is one of the hardest languages for him to learn.

Finnish is in the Finno-Ugric language family, with Estonian and Hungarian. Without Germanic or Latin influence, Finnish vocabulary is completely alien to English speakers. Its grammar is also somewhat notorious. There are fifteen noun cases, sometimes with subtle differences. Talotta means “without a house,” while talolta means “from a house.” Tricky.

There are six verb types, classed by their stems. These stems alter as the verbs are conjugated. The language is agglutinative and verbs are conjugated with a succession of suffixes.

The good news? Finnish is written as it sounds (in the Roman alphabet), and pronunciation is comfortable for English speakers. A common speaking problem lies in remembering single or double vowel sounds, as in tuli (fire) and tuuli (wind).

Read “What the Finnish Concept of Sisu, or Inner Strength, Can Teach Us” on Matador Network.

Hardest language to learn #7: Hungarian

Hungarian is considered a “hard” language by the US Foreign Service Institute.

Though it uses the Roman alphabet for writing, don’t think that reading Hungarian will be a snap. Unique vowel sounds (á, é, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, ű, í) and consonant clusters (ty, gy, ny, sz, zs, dzs, dz, ly, cs) make it difficult for English speakers to read and pronounce Hungarian.

Instead of articles, Hungarian conjugates verbs in one of two ways for definite and indefinite objects. Olvasok könyvet means “I read a book,” while Olvasom a könvyet is “I read the book.”

Because possession, tense, and number are indicated by suffixes, not word order in a sentence, Hungarian sentence structure is very loose and flexible. And while this may sound forgiving for a novice speaker, the truth is that any sentence can take on several meanings if the suffixes are altered slightly.

Learn more about the Hungarian language by checking out “The 17 Funniest Hungarian Expressions (and How To Use Them)” on Matador Network.

A version of this article was previously published on February 24, 2011, and was updated on March 28, 2022.

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