The 21 Hardest Languages to Learn For Native English Speakers
The hardest languages to learn are definitely not Java, Python C++ or other programming languages that are out there.
Some human languages are just very difficult to learn.
And that’s why I laugh when someone makes a sales offer and says “learn German in 24 hrs.”
I am like, oh my … Another Internet scam!
But, let’s face it. Which language is easy to learn?
As long as you didn’t grow in the midst of people of a certain culture or tribe, their language automatically becomes very difficult to learn.
Moreover, the difficulty of learning any language is also dependent on what your first language is.
For example, I have spent about half of my life among the Igbo people of Nigeria and the only few words I have managed to pick are greetings, business or money-related words and a few swear words. Especially the swear words.
I just can’t get a hold of the language.
On the other hand, I have barely spent 2 months among the Cameroonians, and French is already my fourth language.
Now can you imagine the difficulty level of some languages since the Igbo language is not even on our list of the most difficult languages to learn or the hardest languages to learn (as my partner prefers to put it).
There are Khoisan languages in Africa that communicate using a system of click consonants that you probably can’t even make with your mouth.
Like I earlier said, some languages are hard to learn.
Nonetheless, learning a new language can be fun.
It opens the door to interactions with completely different cultures and with it, many doors of opportunity.
With that said, let ‘s dive into our list of the hardest languages to learn.
The Hardest Languages To Learn In The World
1) Chinese Mandarin
How do I explain that the most difficult language in the world is actually the most widely spoken language in the world?
About 1.2 billion people speak Chinese worldwide.
Mandarin is a tonal language and every sound in its phonetic transcription system pinyin has four distinct pronunciations.
Wait for it, wait for it…
It is said that knowledge of 3,000 characters will enable you to read a newspaper while a highly educated person might understand 8,000 characters – out of a total of over 50,000! Amazing. Right?
We can’t dispute the fact that Chinese is a Beautiful and artistic language. I like how fascinating Chinese scripts appear.
But equally more perplexing is the fact that learning to use a Chinese dictionary is as difficult as learning an entirely different language.
There are various Chinese dictionaries. Some use the Wade-Giles Romanisation, others use pinyin, while some rely on surrealistic Romanisation methods.
There are other dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on.
Sorry for bothering you. Good luck learning Chinese.
It will take about 2,200 hours to learn to speak Arabic fluently.
That is about 90 weeks of intense continuous learning. Not bad. Right?
So, if more than 221 million people speak Arabic fluently, then why is it among the hardest languages to learn?
Arabic script is a phonetic, 28-symbol alphabet descending from Phonecian. In fact, when you’re learning Arabic, the easiest thing about it is the alphabet. And that’s where the fun ends.
In Arabic, most letters are written in 4 different forms depending on where they’re placed in a word, and to complicate things, vowels are not included when writing.
Most letters change shape depending on their position in the word, and letters may or may not be joined.
Even more difficult for native English speakers is that written Arabic is read from right to left.
Not to mention that Arabic forms words by adding a series of sounds to a base root, usually three consonants; the pattern of sounds around the root determines the part of speech, grammatical case, number, gender, all of this leading to the actual meaning.
When it comes to speaking, there are various Arabic dialects depending on where you live.
Can you believe that the spoken version of Arabic in each country varies so much that speakers of different Arabic dialects often can’t understand each other?
I can almost not tell the difference between a Chinese speaker and a Japanese speaker. They all sound alike and probably Jargon to me.
Some have argued that Japanese is the most difficult language for a native speaker of English to learn.
Similar to Chinese, Japanese language learners must take to heart thousands of characters.
Furthermore, the Japanese language has three different writing systems (Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana) and a numerical system with two totally different pronunciations.
Simply put, the Japanese writing system is catastrophically confusing.
The language is a mixture of Chinese, Roman and Native characters.
Perhaps, the only consolation about the language is that there are just 3000 characters to learn and unlike Chinese, it isn’t a tonal language. So, pronunciation is straightforward.
It is becoming quite obvious that Asian languages are among the hardest languages to learn in the world.
Unlike Japanese, native speakers of the language are less than 70 million.
The Korean language has what is arguably the most brilliant, efficient, and effective writing system ever developed in the world.
Learning to read and write Korean does take effort, but only about as much as learning the Arabic script.
You might be initially deceived to believe that the language is far easier than other East Asian tongues. No tones! No pictorial writing system! Alas, you have never been so wrong.
The greatest challenge with learning the Korean language lies in the grammar.
Verbs can be conjugated hundreds of 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 listener. Adjectives are conjugated too, with hundreds of possible endings.
The complexities of the Japanese numbering system also exist in the Korean language.
In case you have a friend who speaks Korean, it might be ideal to buy such a bottle of Coke. They deserve it.
I know what you are thinking- Iceland.
You are right. The language of Iceland.
Decide to learn Icelandic and you’ll join an illustrious group of just over 300 thousand speakers and help bring light to one of the unique Germanic languages.
Speakers are majorly in Iceland with a few in Denmark, Canada, and the USA.
This language is near impossible to figure out without a seasoned teacher due to the difficult unique looking “letters” and the length of their words.
The Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters.
In Icelandic, there are different rules governing the use of Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives.
And once you’ve learned the rules, you have to familiarize yourself with the numerous exceptions…
Let us consider word order in Icelandic.
Word order is a bit different from English since the verb must always be placed second in the sentence.
For example, you do not say “Yesterday I went to the Town square”, but rather “Yesterday went I to the town square”.
Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages you’ll come across in the world.
Unlike most European languages that arise from one language family, Indo-European, Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language spoken by 13 million people.
In Hungarian, a sentence can take on several meanings if the suffixes are altered slightly.
For example, “Olvasok könyvet” means “I read a book,” while Olvasom a könvyet is “I read the book.”
Sadly, the terror of Hungarian doesn’t end there.
Hungarian has 14 different vowels, nearly twice as many in English and the language relies heavily on the use of Idioms as a means of expression.
Luckily, the language can be mastered in just 44 weeks.
“W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie”.
That’s Polish, and don’t ask for what it means.
You can help translate the sentence after you have successfully mastered the language.
Take note, however, that you need to spend about 1100 hrs. learning the language and probably some cash.
Polish is spoken by 40 million people worldwide, but, compared to many other languages on this list, very few people learn it as a second language.
Many polish words are difficult to pronounce. In fact, polish words can be used as tongue twisters while playing word games.
A simple hello, ‘cześć’, is a nightmare for many non-native speakers, combining the heavy, strung-together ‘cz’ and the high, sibilant ‘ś’, followed immediately by a similarly sibilant yet dropping ‘ć’ (by the way, none of these sound anything like an English ‘s’ or ‘c’).
Have fun learning.
Finnish takes our compilation of the hardest languages to learn to new extremes. The bond of unity between Finnish and English in terms of lettering and pronunciation are entirely shattered when it comes to grammar.
Finnish words can also become absurdly long.
For example, the longest Finish word has 61 letters and when translated into English, it comprises of 11 words.
If you do manage to learn it, though, you can brag that you’re learning one of the languages that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language (Lord of the Rings trilogy) is based on.
You are probably not interested in learning Georgian.
But if your mastery of this language, spoken by just over 4.4 million people, will determine who your next girlfriend will be, then you are in for it.
To begin with, you have to learn that the Elvish-looking alphabet (the word for Georgia, Sakartvelo, is საქართელო), and that’s probably the easiest word in the language.
Georgian has a completely different writing system.
It is not related to any other language in Europe or Asia and there is a problem even finding a good source to learn the language because it is not so popular.
Vietnamese is a language of 70 million people and the national and official language of Vietnam.
Similar to Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language. There are six tones denoted by different symbols.
A school of thought believes that Vietnamese is even harder to learn than Chinese.
Vietnamese has single, double and even triple vowels.
The pronunciation of a consonant can change depending on whether it occurs at the beginning or end of a word.
Worse still, there is a multitude of nasal and glottal sounds that don’t exist in English or Mandarin.
Vietnamese is indeed one of the hardest languages to learn but it is also a very rich language.
Unfortunately, many foreigners who visit Vietnam give up on learning the language after a few trials. What a loss?
Thai is a tonal language much like some of our previously mentioned languages.
It uses five different tones, which can change the context of what is being said.
It is the official national language of Thailand and has about 20 million native speakers.
It’s a member of the Tai-Kadai language family and almost half of its words are borrowed from Pali, Old Khmer or Sanskrit.
Thai alphabet contains 44 consonants, 15 vowel symbols, and four diacritics marking tone.
The spoken and written forms of the language belong to two different registers that are used depending on the social context, which means more to memorize.
Unlike the language, the people of Thailand are forgiving and wonderful people.
They are often thrilled by anyone who makes an attempt to speak their language.
If you say even one semi-coherent word, they’ll praise you effusively: “Pood passa Thai geng ma!” (“You speak very good Thai!”).
Who wouldn’t love such a people?
Compared with the other languages, I would say that the biggest hurdle when learning Mongolian is pronunciation.
Fewer than 6 million ethnic Mongols in Mongolia and China speak the language.
In Mongolian, there are the basic hard guttural sounds that require you to use parts of your mouth like the side for example. Your mouth has to be much more mobile than with English.
And yes, vowels can be either masculine or feminine in Mongolian and it makes a big difference – not only in terms of pronunciation but also basic grammar.
Estonian is one of the hardest languages to learn. But some still consider it a simplified version of Finnish.
Consonants and vowels in Estonian can come in three lengths (short, long, overly long), and often change the meaning of a word (lina is ‘linen’ while linna is ‘city’).
It gets much worse than that. This web page shows that the noun kauppa – shopcan has 2,253 forms.
A simple adjective + noun type of noun phrase of two words can be conjugated in up to 100 different ways.
Little wonder the language is spoken by barely 1.2 million people. And most of them live in Estonia.
There is an old myth that says that since no Basques were going to hell, the devil decided to learn Basque so he could corrupt them and send them to hell. But after 7 years of listening in on them, he couldn’t understand any of it. The only words he finally picked were Yes and No.
The British Foreign Office also affirmed the difficulty level of Basque by ranking it as the hardest language to learn.
Despite being spoken by less than 700,000 people, there are at least five distinct Basque dialects, so not only is it tough to learn, but you need to pay attention to which version you’d like to learn as well.
Even the Devil didn’t stand a chance!
Albanian is an ancient language and maybe that can account for its difficulty.
Worse still, Albanians nod their head “yes” when they mean “no”, and vice versa.
It’s one of those languages you need to learn when you’re a kid and preferably have a parent that speaks it.
Better still, go and live in Albania for many years. Otherwise, it’s pointless to begin to learn the 5000 dialects of the Albanian language.
You need a lot of motivational talks to get through the other half of a football match in which you are already 6 goals down by half time.
Learning Croatian can be compared to this situation.
It takes inner strength, courage and patience to master the language.
Nonetheless, Croatian is the official and literary standard of Croatia and one of the official languages of the European Union.
Today, approximately 6 million people, primarily in the country of Croatia, speak the language.
While Russian is spoken majorly in Russia, it is also an official language for the countries Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Unofficially, it is still spoken widely in those countries that were also constituent republics of the USSR.
Around 278 million people around the world speak Russian, with 164 million of those people speaking it as a primary language and around 114 million people speaking it as a secondary language.
So, why on earth is Russian one of the hardest languages to learn?
Cases, irregular verbs, aspects, motion verbs, and pronunciation are nothing like what you find in English.
The Russian alphabet is like a cryptic code from the CIA.
An English P is a Russian R, C is an S, H is an N, a backwards N is an I and a backwards R has a “ya” sound.
If English has around 250 common words that account for 60% to 65% of common words used, then Russian will require 1,000 known words to reach the same level of understanding.
Russian words are long, hard to pronounce and sound similar to each other.
If anyone tells you that Russian isn’t hard, they’re lying to you.
If you’ve only learnt Spanish or French it will be a major step-up. If you’ve learnt German, that will help but it’s harder.
The mere mention of Persian puts me in the mood for another round of nerve-wracking, adrenaline-pumping moment with the famous epic adventure game, Prince of Persia.
I guess the language isn’t much as fun.
The Persian language is mainly spoken in Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Tajikistan and other countries with Persian influence.
Worldwide, 110 million people speak the language.
Persian has a rich and plentiful history of over 2500 years of literature and poetry, with many beautiful stories and traditional epic pieces. Learning the language is a great move for anyone looking to expand their literary knowledge.
The Urdu language is the national language and one of two official languages of the country of Pakistan. It is also one of 22 of the official languages that exist in India.
It is mutually intelligible with Standard Hindi and is identical to Hindi in terms of grammar and basic structure.
It was regarded by as one of the hardest languages to learn, especially for native English speakers. But if you love Bollywood movies, learning Urdu may come in handy.
Ancient Hebrews and Israelites first used it during the 10th century BCE.
It is one of the official languages of the State of Israel, as well as Arabic.
Hebrew has a reputation for being one of the most difficult languages to learn for a number of reasons.
Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, is based on the root system. Each word is composed of a three (or four) letter root with a specific vowel/prefix/suffix pattern.
The letters are unique (about 22 consonants) and the scripts are read from right to left.
But like most languages, the difficulty of the language depends on where you are coming from.
The Turkish language is considered as one of the world’s hardest languages to learn, but that’s why it’s one of the most beautiful languages in the world.
In total, there are around 83 million speakers of the Turkish language around the world, with the majority of those speakers, around 74 million, being native speakers.
It is the official language in Turkey and Cyprus.
Generally speaking, the grammar is the biggest challenge as well as one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of the study of Turkish.
Speakers of Finnish, Hungarian, Mongol, Korean and Japanese should find the grammar familiar, very easy and much comprehensible.