I recently wrote a list of the easiest languages, but some of the popular foreign languages are difficult languages to acquire. But what are they? Let’s dive into the seven hardest, but also rewarding tongues to learn.
Learning a new language is an enthralling adventure. The globalization of business has resulted in the need for specialized foreign language specialists across the globe. Although studying a different language is always fun, but not all are the same based on language complexity.
According to Ethnologue, there are currently 7,111 known living languages in the world. The precise number varies, but nevertheless, it is simply overwhelming. Some are difficult languages to acquire, whereas many are relatively straightforward. I’ve only considered major world languages here, which means no less taught languages.
7 Hardest and Difficult Languages for English Speakers
Do you like challenges? If yes, then why not pick a foreign tongue that can open a world of possibilities? Here, you can explore the seven most difficult languages to learn.
1. Mandarin Chinese
Mandarin is the most widely spoken Chinese language. If you want to learn Mandarin Chinese (the world’s most spoken language with more than 1 billion native speakers), be ready to sacrifice to spend upward of 2,000 hours from whatever time you might have.
Chinese is a tonal language, which makes it even more challenging for people to learn and convey the different meanings of words according to the tone and pitch used. The ability to speak the Mandarin language doesn’t help you read it, and vice-versa.
Mandarin characters, with an infinite amount of intricate hanzi drawings, are quite hard. You need to learn a minimum of 2,500 characters to be able to read a single newspaper or to pass the Intermediate level 5 of the HSK exam, and up to 5,000 characters to communicate fluently and master Mandarin.
Mandarin is probably one of the most difficult languages in the globe for an English speaker to learn. Regardless of the language challenge, it’s a feat that is amazingly impressive for those who speak Mandarin fluently.
- Speaking and Writing: Very Difficult
- Grammar: Difficult
- Conclusion: Very Difficult
With the rise of K-pop, K-drama, and K-movies, the demand for the Korean language has been on the rise as one of the most popular tongues. Korean is spoken by roughly 75 million people, mostly in South and North Korea.
Unlike Japanese and Chinese characters, Korean alphabets (Hangul) are ridiculous straightforward. You can start sounding out words and sentences pretty quickly. Despite easy characters to read, Korean is one of the most difficult languages to study.
The Korean language is hard due to its contextual nature, where one sentence can be said in three different ways. Verbs and syntax can also be conjugated in hundreds of different ways intense, age, seniority, and mood. Besides, the pronunciation is unique and hard-to-master rules.
- Speaking and Writing: Tough
- Grammar: Very Tough
- Conclusion: Very Tough
No other popular language sounds—or feels—quite like Japanese.
The Japanese grammar is uncomplicated since Nouns have no gender, no articles, and no plural forms: only two verb tenses, present, and past. With only five vowel sounds and uniform phonetic orthography, the language is moderately simple to pronounce.
Like its Chinese counterpart, learning Japanese requires that you master thousands of different elaborate characters. It has a two-syllable system and three independent different writing styles (Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji), which further complicate the learning process.
The language also has a highly contextual format that requires different forms depending on the formality of the situation. It is tricky to express yourself in a culture with such strict rules. Besides, it also has a complex system of honorifics.
- Speaking and Grammar: Difficult
- Writing: Very Difficult
- Conclusion: Very Difficult
Boasting a whopping 300 million speakers, Russian is one of the more popular languages on the planet earth.
While Russian is not that hard for some language speakers in Eastern Europe, it appears challenging for English language speakers. It’s beautiful and useful when you travel to that side of the world.
The alphabet looks complicated, and the pronunciation seems impossible in sounding. The fact that it doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, but the Russian alphabet in its Cyrillic script form. There are several unique letters like Ю, Я, Ж, Д, Ф, Г, Щ, Э, Б, Й that look difficult for native English speakers. However, the language is phonetic as well, and with the right mindset, you can learn Russian and speak it just as other native speakers do.
It is, undoubtedly, isn’t an easy language. However, as long as you are motivated enough, it isn’t that challenging to study either. Despite its complexity, Learning the Russian language might be worth the extra effort to acquire.
- Speaking and Writing: Difficult
- Grammar: Very Difficult
- Conclusion: Difficult
Arabic is spoken by more than 400 million speakers spread across more than 20 countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. Arabic is a widespread but equally tricky language to learn.
While the letters are fewer than the ones in Chinese and Japanese, they also look intimidating as well. Moreover, there are only three sounds in Arabic, not present in English.
The Arabic cursive script includes 28 letters with three vowels supplementing them. There are 13 verb forms, and the pronunciation is difficult to master.
Additionally, there is a wide variety of Arabic dialects across the region. Some of them are mutually intelligible, meaning that the Arabic language spoken in Saudi Arabic or UAE is different from that spoken in Egypt or Sudan.
- Speaking, Grammar, Writing: Difficult
- Conclusion: Very Difficult
Turkish is one of the most popular Turkic languages. More than 80 million people speak Turkish, and the vast majority of speakers live in Turkey. It is an agglutinative language, which means prefixes and suffixes are attached to words to determine their meaning and indicate the flow of the sentence.
While Turkish uses similar Latin alphabets like French, German, or Spanish; however, it is totally different in terms of complexity of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. In linguistic typology, it follows the structure of subject-object-verb (SOV), which is like that of Spanish or French.
Turkish is a phonetic language, and the pronunciation of each letter is unique. Besides, there are no confusing double constants. To sum up, you speak it the same way as you write it. Also, Turkish has loaned more than 5,000 words from French alone. Hence, if you know French, it will benefit you immensely when you’re trying to acquire Turkish vocabulary.
The words, however, can be challenging to remember. The vowel harmony offering endless possibilities, plenty of words from Arabic and Persian origin, accusative cases, and too many tenses adds to the difficulty of learning the Turkish language. To add to the misery, bewildering grammar and numerous affixes, which is quite different from other European languages, make it a little tricky to learn.
- Speaking, Grammar, Writing: Slightly Difficult
- Overall: Somewhat Difficult
7. Persian (Farsi, Dari, Tajik)
Persian is an Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European languages. It is called ‘Farsi’ in Iran, ‘Tajik’ in Tajikistan, as well as ‘Dari’ in Afghanistan.
The Persian language is a very straightforward type of grammar functionality. The verbs are ridiculously uncomplicated. The language morphology for the classical and contemporary forms has not changed significantly.
Moreover, there aren’t lots of exceptions. People and objects are referred to in the same way. There are no cases or articles. Comprehension is manageable because it has essential words from English, Arabic, Turkish, and French.
However, Pronunciation is a bit difficult for English speakers. There are two different varieties, a literary form, and a conversational style, both with very distinct features. Moreover, Persian words with Arabic roots have complicated rules for being transformed into different ways.
Mastering the art of speaking Farsi, Dari or Tajik can take up to two to three years or even more, depending on one’s native language.
- Speaking: Moderate
- Grammar: Moderately Easy
- Writing: Difficult
- Conclusion: Slightly Difficult
This list is not exhaustive. There are many other difficult languages like Cantonese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Mongolian, Polish, Slovenian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Thai, to name a few.
While some languages are more comfortable to learn and adapt than others, the key to successful language learning is developing the right mindset and strategy. Any language would be difficult for you to learn if you aren’t genuinely motivated. So, which language you’re going to learn? If you wish to ask any questions, leave a comment below.