Here we cover 12 of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. In contrast to the easier languages which we have covered in another article, the languages on this list are linguistically very different from English.
Chinese tops this list of the hardest languages for English Speakers to learn. Even native Chinese speakers admit 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 Italian or Spanish is that most of the words are pronounced as they are spelled.
This is 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.
Recognizing the difficulty of learning Chinese characters, the People's Republic of China introduced simplified Chinese characters back in the 1950s to increase literacy rates.
Today, there are two versions of Chinese characters in use:
The table below offers a side-by-side comparison of traditional and simplified Chinese characters, showcasing the complexity of some Chinese characters before their simplification.
|Traditional Chinese character
|Simplified Chinese character
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.
The first challenge that English speakers encounter when learning Arabic is that, unlike English which is written from left to right, Arabic is written from right to left.
Another difficult aspect of learning Arabic is that the letters change shape depending on where they are located in a word. Take the letter « ب » (ba) for instance, and its three forms:
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.
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.
The other one is called Kanji, which is a pictographic alphabet. This writing system is based on Chinese. That alone hints at its complexity.
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 is challenging for anglophones. This is because, in Japanese, the verb often 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。 » (Watashi wa umi ni ikimashita.), which translated word-for-word gives: “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:
Each of these comes with its own set of rules, including specific prefixes and verb endings, thereby making polite communication a complex endeavor.
Believe it or not, one of the most difficult things for English speakers when it comes to learning Korean is its vocabulary.
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 or Japanese since Korean vocabulary consists of around 25% Chinese and Japanese loanwords. Also, Korean words are generally not that hard to pronounce.
A big obstacle for anglophones learning Korean is that many Korean words sound similar and so they can be hard to distinguish. For instance, there’s the word « 낳다 » ( nahda ) which means “to give birth.” It sounds very similar to the word « 낫다 » ( nasda ), 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.
For example, the word “use” translates to « 사용하다 » ( sayonghada ) in Korean. Another example is the word “sorry”, which translates to a 5-syllable word in Korean: « 미안합니다 » ( mi-an-ham-ni-da )
The Foreign Service Institute ranks Thai in Category III 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 changing the tone of a word changes its meaning. 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.
Remember the “ mai mai mai mai mai ' ” illustration in 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.”
The Vietnamese word for car is « xe hơi »
The first European language to appear in this list of the hardest languages is Finnish.
The reason that Finnish is among the hardest languages for English speakers to learn is that Finnish and English belong to completely different language families.
English and most of the languages that are spoken in Europe belong to the Indo-European language family, whereas Finnish belongs to the Uralic family of languages.
The Uralic languages which include Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are very different from English.
Linguistically, one of the interesting things about Finnish is that it is a genderless language. For instance, the English pronouns “he” and “she” both translate to the Finnish pronoun “hän”.
It's not the absence of gender distinctions that makes Finnish one of the most difficult languages; rather, it's the numerous Finnish grammatical cases that are a hurdle for language learners.
Finnish has 15 grammatical cases. For comparison, Latin with its six grammatical cases is already considered to be a difficult language to learn.
Vocabulary is another difficult aspect of learning Finnish. Have a look at the 1000 most common Finnish words, and you will notice that very few of these are similar to their English translations. This is another consequence of Finnish and English belonging to completely different language families.
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 requires 1100 classroom hours of study to reach fluency.
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 is 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 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.
In 2010 when a massive volcanic eruption from a hard-to-pronounce glacier on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean happened, the world got an education on how hard the Icelandic language can be for English speakers.
“Eyjafjallajökull” was a hard word for newscasters to pronounce when they read the news.
Having a vocabulary unaffected by languages outside Iceland, and grammar way more complex than English speakers are used to, has led to Icelandic being consistently ranked as one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Especially for English speakers.
The two primary challenges posed by the Icelandic language are pronunciation and conjugation.
Icelandic is a Germanic language at its roots, and it’s also closely related to the Norwegian language. If you’ve encountered languages that are somewhat similar to Icelandic (like German and Norwegian), you know the challenges 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 (i.e. “Eyjafjallajökull”).
It is also the case that noun morphology is highly irregular in Icelandic. Also, verbs are conjugated based on mood, person, and number, and not just tense. And adjectives are declined in more than a hundred different ways (according to gender, number, and case — with both strong and weak forms!).
A linguistic feature called “instant compound words” is yet another reason why Icelandic is among the hardest languages. In Icelandic, it’s not unusual for words to be compounded extemporaneously. These words are referred to as “augnablikssamsetningar”, which means “(compound words) assembled in a moment”.
Overall, Icelandic is a highly irregular language. Consistent rules and structure are what make a language easy to learn; the 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 “bjöguð íslenska” or “distorted Icelandic”.
Polish is a difficult language to learn since it differs not only from English but also from most other languages, aside from the languages from the West Slavic group. In comparison to English, Polish has complex grammar and unusual sounds.
For starters, the phonology of the Polish language can be very challenging for English speakers. Polish utilizes numerous consonant clusters that don’t exist in English, such as dz, rz, and sz. This is one of the main reasons it’s one of the hardest languages for English speakers to master. It also uses letters that don’t exist in English, such as ą, ę, ć, or ż.
But words with consonants placed side by side and unusual accent marks are not the only challenges when learning Polish.
Unlike English, the Polish language has gender and declension. This means that Polish nouns and adjectives change their endings depending on their gender, number, and case. There are 7 cases, and every noun and adjective must be put in the right case depending on its role in the sentence.
In addition, Polish verbs can either be imperfective or perfective, and the sentences will change meaning depending on which one you use. For example, if you want to say "I ate," you'll need to use the perfective form of the verb "to eat" (zjadłem), but if you want to say "I have eaten," you'll need to use the imperfective form (jadłem). Finding the correct verb form to use in a sentence can be very confusing for English speakers.
Another reason Polish may be difficult to learn for English speakers is its relatively free word order. The English language is based on the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. While this sentence structure is prevalent in Polish, its word order is flexible. So, it's not uncommon to see sentences with an entirely different structure. This can make it hard for an anglophone to figure out which words are doing what in a sentence.
Moreover, Polish vocabulary is entirely different from English vocabulary. Polish doesn't have many common words with other European languages. Czech and Slovak are the closest you can get, but even then, there aren't as many similarities between them as you’d imagine. This means that, even if you already speak Czech or Slovak, you'll be learning dozens of completely new words when you start learning Polish.
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. In the Russian language, it is more complicated, 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.”Conclusion
The 12 languages on this list are among the hardest languages to learn (for English speakers). In compiling this list we have tried to focus on languages that are fairly widely spoken.
The hardest languages (for English speakers) are generally very different from English in both their vocabulary and their grammar.