Chinese is on the top of the list when it comes to the hardest language for anglophones to learn. Even the Chinese themselves acknowledge that their language is difficult. But what makes this ancient language so hard for English speakers to master?
For one, the writing system can be puzzling.
There’s no question that the Chinese writing system is one of the most beautiful and complex. However, its beauty and complexity are also what make it mysterious. Or maybe “challenging” would be the more appropriate adjective? Just imagine. Altogether, the language has 50,000 characters, but out of these, only 20,000 are used.
Not only is the physical process of writing Chinese characters difficult, but so is the task of memorizing them. One reason English speakers find it easier to learn Filipino or Spanish is that most of the words are pronounced as they are spelled. It’s not the case with Chinese. You can repeat a new word you’ve heard, but the sound won’t give you a clue as to how to write it down.
Finally, the Chinese language so has many Romanization methods. Some of these methods are easier to learn and master than others, but even so, you’ll have to master at least five of them if you’re serious about learning Chinese.
The Arabic alphabet is one of the most unique in the world. There’s something about it that mesmerizes you. It’s that same beauty, however that makes it bewildering. For starters, the language is written not from left to right but the other way around. That alone requires a lot of brainwork.
Not only that, but letters change shape depending on where they are located in a word. For instance, the letter “b” is written as ب when isolated. Compare its form when at the start of a word, such as in بنت or “girl,” or when it’s in the middle of a word like in نبيل or “noble.” This time, observe its shape when it’s the last letter of a word: بآب (“door”). And yes, that’s only for the letter “b.”
The Arabic language also has sounds that are difficult for English speakers to produce. The language has phonemes or individual speech sounds that English doesn’t have.
For instance, in order to make the ‘k’ (ق) and ‘q’ (ق) sounds, you need to pronounce them further back in your throat. And finally, Arabic has several minimal pairs, which means it’s not impossible to say “dog” (كَْلب or kalb) instead of “heart” (ـلب or qalb), or worse, “fart” (طْ ض orَDarT) instead of “stress” (غطْض or DaghT).
Next on our list is Japanese. There are several reasons why English speakers find this language difficult to master. Let me give you three starting with the writing system. Unlike English, Japanese has more than one writing system, three to be exact. Two of these, Hiragana and Katakana, are phonetic, which means words are pronounced as they are spelled.
In Hirigana, for instance, the word hirigana is written as ひらがな, with each character representing each of the four syllables. ひ stands for “hi” sound, ら for the “ra” sound, が for the “ga” sound, and な for “na.”
The other one is called Kanji, which is a pictographic alphabet. This writing system is based on Chinese. That alone should give you a hint that this is not an easy match for anyone. With Kanji, you’ll have to be familiar with more than 2,000 characters, each one having more than one reading. The word 木, for instance, which means “tree,” can be read as either ki or moku.
Aside from the writing system, the word order in Japanese will really mess with an anglophone’s head. You see, in Japanese, the verb always goes at the end of the sentence. English speakers are used to the subject-verb-object sentence structure. If you want to say “I went to the sea” in Japanese, you say it as 私は海に行きました。, which literally is “I sea to went.”
Finally, Japanese has a separate language used for polite speech. This type of speech is referred to as keigo (敬語), which translates to “honorifics.” Japanese honorifics fall into three categories:
I’m not going into the details, but each of these categories has its own rules, which include the adding of certain prefixes and verb endings.
Believe it or not, one of the most difficult things for English speakers when it comes to learning Korean is its vocabulary. This is where you’ll be grasping at straws.
For one, there are almost no Korean words that sound familiar or common with English. Yes, there are some loan words, such as 초콜릿 (“chocolate”), 피자 (“pizza”), and 컴퓨터 (“computer”), but there are only a few of them.
You may have an advantage if you can speak Chinese and Japanese since Korean vocabulary consists of around 25% Chinese and Japanese loanwords. Also, Korean words are generally not that hard to pronounce. The huge obstacle, however, is that many of the words sound similar and can be hard to differentiate. For instance, there’s the word 낫다 (nata) which means “to give birth.” It sounds exactly the same as 낫다 (natda), which means “to recover from an illness.”
Finally, Korean words can get quite long. Even Chinese words don’t get as lengthy. In Korean, root words are usually two to three syllables long. An English word with one or two syllables can get as long as four to five syllables in Korean. The word “use”, for example, is 사용하다 (sayonghada) in Korean. Or how about the word “sorry”, which is 미안합니다 (mi-an-ham-ni-da) in Korean?
The Foreign Service Institute ranks Thai in Category IV in terms of language difficulty. This means it’s a language with significant linguistic differences from English. Not only that, but it’s also listed as one of the few languages along with Japanese and Finnish that are usually more difficult for Anglophones to learn and master. One reason? Tones.
I’m not going to talk about how difficult Thai script is because that’s already a given. Now, what about tones? Thai is a tonal language. More often than not, English speakers find it very challenging to separate how intonations are used in English and how they’re used in Thai. In English, tones are used to stress words.
In Thai, tones are an integral part of a word because. A very popular illustration used to convey the significance of tones is ไม้ใหม่ไม่ไหม้ใช่ไหม' (mai mai mai mai mai'). It means, “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?” This is not something you’ll hear often, of course. However, it should highlight the fact of how difficult it is for English speakers to learn a tonal language like Thai. If you say a certain word using the wrong tone, you will end up saying a different word.
Even after you’ve gotten past this roadblock, yet another one awaits you: Pronunciation. It’s not a secret that Thai pronunciation is very different from that of English. Most English speakers will find it difficult to understand Thai when it is spoken naturally. The unusual combination of vowel sounds in words, the change in the sound of a letter depending on its position, and the absence of an official transliteration that could be very useful for learning Thai all contribute to making Thai a major hurdle for many.
Vietnamese is in the same category as Thai, Hungarian, and Finnish in terms of difficulty. Although its grammar is simple, it’s very different from what English speakers are used to. And while it also uses the Latin alphabet, the characters are heavily modified with diacritics and accent marks. And like Thai, Vietnamese is a tonal language.
Remember the “mai mai mai mai mai'” illustration with Thai? Vietnamese has its own version, which is “ma ma ma ma ma ma.” The base word here, which is obviously ma, has six different meanings. Depending on the tone, it could mean “ghost” (ma), “nevertheless” (mà), “tomb” (mả). “code” (mã), “mother” (má), or “rice seedlings” (mạ).
Vietnamese pronunciation can be challenging not because individual sounds are difficult. It’s the fact that the pitch you make when pronouncing words should be exact if you are to be understood.
Another thing that makes Vietnamese difficult for English speakers is vocabulary. This is a double-edged sword because the fact that most Vietnamese words are short makes them easy to memorize. On the other hand, unlike in English where complicated words are represented with individual words, in Vietnamese, they are formed by combining two or more basic words.
The word thịt bò, for instance, which means “beef,” is the combination of two basic words, thịt (“meat”) and bò (“cow”). This makes sense, but how about máy vi tính, which means “computer?” Literally, this means “machine for figuring out.” The principle is easy, but what makes learning Vietnamese vocabulary laborious is that there are no words to help remind you of the words you’re memorizing.
Let me give you an example with the word “car.” The Finnish word for “car” is “auto.” That makes sense, right? In German, that’s “Wagen.” Still makes sense. “Wagen,” “wagon,” “car.” Okay. In Spanish, it’s “carro” or “el auto.” Clear as day! In French, “car” is “voiture,” but it is also “le car” and “le wagon.”
In Vietnamese? xe hơi.
Let me leave it here.
There are a few languages that are exceptionally more challenging for English speakers to learn. And then there’s Finnish. Some say that it’s notoriously challenging. Others say that it’s simply different. Allow me to give you a glimpse as to what gives Finnish this reputation.
Earlier, it was mentioned that Polish has four more grammatical cases than English. Well, Finnish has a total of 15! You read that right. There’s the elative, inesive, illative, and abessive to name a few. Let me show you how that works. In Finnish, you say autossa if you want to say “in the car.” Instead of three separate words, you only get one. The Finnish word for “car,” by the way, is auto. What happened to “in the?” They were replaced with the suffix -ssa. And that’s not the only suffix you’ll have to memorize. Fifteen cases, remember?
That’s not all. You’ll also have to familiarize yourself with endings called clitics, of which Finnish has seven. Each of these has its own function, which you’ll also have to memorize. For instance, there’s the clitic -hAn, which is a tone particle. It’s often used to make interrogative sentences sound more polite, such as in this question: Onkohan äitisi kotona? (“Is your mother home?”) What’s interesting is that the first word here, which is onkohan, actually has two clitics, -kO and -hAn. You already know about the second clitic. As for the first one, it is attached to a verb when forming a yes-no question.
There’s no wonder Hungarian is one of the most rewarding languages to learn—it’s also one of the most difficult! Ranked alongside Finnish and Vietnamese, Hungarian takes 1100 class hours to study.
There are a few reasons for this. You’d think that Finnish has more than enough of its share of grammatical cases with 15 in total. But, guess what—Hungarian has 18! Each of these cases are represented by suffixes of which the accusative case has five. You need to familiarize yourself with the rules of when and how to attach these suffixes.
For the accusative case, for instance, the suffix -t is added to the word if it ends in a vowel. If the word ends in a consonant, you also need to determine first if a back vowel or a front vowel is involved. There are irregularities, too, which you have to master through constant practice.
In addition to this, word order in Hungarian is more flexible than that of English. The basic structure is subject-verb-object, but this order can change depending on what you’d want to emphasize.
For instance, A barátom szeret nekem means “My friend loves me.”
Exchanging the positions of the verb and the object makes it A barátom nekem szeret, or literally, “My friend me loves.”
In Hungarian, it still means “My friend loves me,” but this time, there’s the implication that my friend loves me and no one else.
Finally, there’s the challenge of pronouncing Hungarian words. If you don’t believe me, try saying this word out loud: Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért (“for your [plural] continued behavior as if you could not be desecrated”)
This is considered the longest Hungarian word, but due to the agglutinative nature of the language, there’s really no true “longest word” in Hungarian.
With vocabulary so archaic and grammar so complex, Icelandic has consistently been ranked as one of the most difficult languages to learn. English speakers, in particular, find this language a tough skull to crack. The two primary challenges posed by the Icelandic language are pronunciation and conjugation.
Icelandic has the German language as its roots, and it’s also related to the Norwegian language. If you’ve encountered these two languages, you know how challenging they can be, too, in the area of pronunciation. One reason for this difficulty is that Icelandic words can be very long, with syllables pronounced completely differently from how they are spoken in English.
Moreover, noun morphology is highly irregular in Icelandic. In addition, verbs are conjugated based on mood, person, and number and not just tense. And adjectives are declined in more than a hundred ways.
If that’s not enough, Icelandic also has what’s referred to as “instant compound words.” In Icelandic, it’s not unusual for words to be compounded extemporaneously. These words are referred to as augnablikssamsetningar, which means “assembled in a moment.”
Overall, Icelandic is a highly irregular language. Consistent rules and structure are what make a language easy to learn; this obliqueness of the Icelandic language can be intimidating for most learners. It also doesn’t help that native speakers are not used to foreigners speaking their language. As a result, Icelanders are not too tolerant of foreign accents and what they refer to as gölluð íslenska or “faulty Icelandic.”
Take a look at the words szczęście (“happiness”) and Szymankowszczyzna (the name of a small village in Poland) and tell me that Polish is not hard. And there are many others like this in the Polish language. Polish utilizes consonant clusters a lot, and this is one of the main reasons it’s one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. But words with consonants placed side by side are not the only challenge here.
Even individual elements can be just as brain-wracking. Take diacritics, for instance. Nine of the 32 letters in the Polish alphabet are unique in the sense that they are formed with diacritics. And not only that. Four of these letters, the letters Ć Ś Ń and Ź, have an alternative notation. When placed before a vowel, they are pronounced the same way but are written another way, and that is with an “i” next to them.
Moving on, another thing that makes Polish difficult is that Polish grammar can take time to get used to. For one, Polish has a total of seven cases, whereas English only has three. English sentences largely depend on word order. In Polish, word order is not as important. You can drop a pronoun off in Polish if the context makes it clear who the doer of the action is.
For instance, if you want to say “I am reading a book,” you can say it as Czytam książkę. You can also say the same thing by saying Ja czytam książkę to emphasize the doer of the action. You can even interchange the positions of the verb and object: Ja książkę czytam. Sure, Polish people will still understand you even if you mix up the words, but you still have to understand the foundational rules, and that’s where the rubber hits the road for many students.
Russian is another language English speakers find a tad bit challenging in many ways than one.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Russian grammar is verb conjugation. Russian is an inflectional language, which means words can go through a lot of changes depending on their grammatical case. In English, verb conjugation is very simplified. Not so in Russian.
Let me show you how that works:
What makes things even more difficult is that verb tenses also work differently. Russian verbs have two forms or tenses: the perfective form and the imperfective form. Some languages have these two tenses, too, but what makes things difficult in Russian are the small nuances.
For example, if you wish to convey that you are going to the park, in English, you simply say, “I’m going to the park,” with “going” as the only verb you’ll use. You don’t have that luxury in Russian. In Russian, you need to consider everything involved in that process of you going to the park.
One way you can say that is Сегодня я пойду в парк. (“Today, I’m going to the park.”). The verb пойду conveys that you’re leaving point A and have started your walk to the park. Another way to express this is by saying Я приду в парк через час. (“I’ll be at the park in an hour.”). In this case, the verb you’re going to use is прийти, which describes your arrival at the park.
Not only that. Any action that has no clear borders requires that you use an imperfective verb. So, if you want to say you’re going to the park and you imagine the trip to be about an hour long, the verb you’re going to use is идти. You can say, Я буду идти в парк час, which means “It will take me an hour to reach the park.”
Along with Thai, Finnish, Vietnamese, and even Greek and Hebrew, Filipino is ranked as a category IV language. This means it takes more than a thousand hours to study. Even Filipinos who don’t speak Tagalog as their native tongue have a hard time with the language.
I’ve already mentioned some of the potential barriers you might encounter while learning Filipino. One of those is the fact that many words can be difficult to pronounce. What I haven’t mentioned is that there are words that are spelled the same, or may even have the same meaning, but are pronounced quite differently.
The word papasok, for instance, could mean “coming in” or “about to come in” depending on how you pronounce it. Prolong the second syllables and you get the first meaning. Pronounce both the first and second syllables quickly and you get the second meaning.
There’s also a thing called the “trigger system.” Unlike the voice system that typically has the active and passive voices only for you to focus on, the trigger system is a bit more flexible, and this is exactly why it confuses learners. Here’s an example:
Both sentences mean “You are eating an apple.” Both ka and ikaw mean “you” in Filipino. The difference is that ka is placed after a verb, while ikaw appears before the verb in the sentence. There’s also the word mo, which also means “you.” It’s used differently, though: Kainin mo ang mansanas. “(You) eat the apple.”
It’s safe to say that these 12 languages are “Greek” to most English speakers. But should language interference keep you from learning them? Of course not! Practice makes perfect. In any case, one of the best ways to start learning a difficult language is to build your vocabulary. You can do just that with VocabChat. With this free tool, you can create vocabulary lists and phrase lists for every language in article. Soon enough, you will realize that there’s no barrier to stop you from becoming a polyglot!