10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

When I was a teacher, I’d come across two types of students: the ones who really loved learning a language and excelled at it, and the ones who thought languages were the hardest subject of all. There was very rarely a middle ground.

It’s no surprise really – it’s statistically much more difficult to get the top grades in a foreign language than it is in other subjects in the UK. While learning any foreign language is challenging, some languages are harder for English speakers to learn than others. 

Stress of learning a hard language

Language Difficulty Rating Explained

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a federal training institution in the U.S. worked out how difficult it is for English speakers to learn different languages and ranked them according to how long it takes to master these languages up to professional proficiency. 

This is what the FSI produced:

  1. Easiest languages for English speakers closely-related languages like Romance language (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, Galician, Catalan), and other languages with historical influence in English (Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian). These languages take up to 600 hours to master.
  2. Other languages like English – German, which takes around 750 hours to master.
  3. Languages with cultural or linguistic differences – e.g., Swahili, Malaysian, Indonesian. These take around 900 hours to master.
  4. Languages with significant cultural or linguistic differences – e.g., Russian, Polish, Greek, Urdu, Turkish, etc. These languages take around 1100 hours to master.
  5. Languages that are extremely different and difficult – e.g., Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic. These take around 2200 hours to master, which is almost four times as long as the first category of languages.

Hardest languages to learn for English speakers

1. Arabic

Hand writing on a blackboard in a Arabic language learning class course with the text "Arabic" written on it.

Arabic is part of the hardest category and takes up to 2200 for an English speaker to become proficient at a professional level. This language is widely spoken across the world. While mainly spoken in Arab League countries, it’s also become much more widely spoken across Europe during the last fifty years or so too and is also the liturgical language of Islam. 

Arabic is a Semitic language that had a wide influence over other languages during the Early Middle Ages, which is why we have many borrowed words in English like algebra, mattress, orange, safari, alcohol, magazine, and coffee. Despite this, it is exceedingly difficult to master.

What makes it one of the most difficult languages to learn is that it looks nothing like English and is written from right to left. Furthermore, the pronunciation is tricky, and the root system requires lots of practice and memorization. Nouns, plurals, and verb agreements are particularly challenging. 

Finally, as Arabic is so widely spoken, you’ll often come across dialects and different words, especially if you’re communicating with Arabic speakers from rural areas or of an older generation. Don’t let its difficulty put you off learning though, Arabic is a beautiful language!

2. Mandarin Chinese

Beginner Chinese language learner writing Hello word Nihao in Chinese characters and pinyin

It probably comes as no surprise to discover that Mandarin Chinese has made it onto this list of hardest languages to learn. Mandarin is a Sinitic language that is spoken across most of southwestern and northern China. There are lots of languages spoken in China, including many versions and dialects of Mandarin, though it’s standard Mandarin that comes first in terms of native speakers (of which there are almost one billion).

What makes Mandarin so difficult for English speakers to master is its alphabet – or lack thereof. The Mandarin writing system, like many other Chinese writing systems, relies on logograms, or characters. Why is this such a problem? Well, there are upwards of 50,000 Chinese characters with 20,000 in modern use. It is believed that the average Chinese person knows around 8,000 characters.

Not only that but the character tells you nothing about how the word is pronounced so learners of Mandarin also need to learn this too. Finally, when speaking Mandarin, you need to get the tone right. For example, the word ma in Mandarin means different things depending on the tone. It can mean mother, horse, numb, and scold.

What’s great for English speakers though is that there are no articles (a/the) and no tenses! Imagine how difficult that would be as well!

3. Japanese

Hand writing some the word "Japanese" in Kana syllabary on a blackboard in a Japanese class.

Just because Japanese has the same level of difficulty as Mandarin and has characters, it doesn’t mean it’s anything like it. However, Japanese speakers do use Chinese characters, but they also have two syllabic scripts: katakana and hiragana. So, to write and read in Japanese, you need to learn thousands of characters as well as two separate alphabets! 

Unlike learners of Mandarin, Japanese learners do have to think about grammar. The Japanese language uses an agglutinative SOV (subject-object-verb) morphology and also has lots of different verb structures and particles. What’s more, there is an extraordinarily complex system of politeness to get to grips with too!

All that said, learning Japanese comes with a silver lining – there are so many resources available, not forgetting interesting things like manga and anime. The culture is so fascinating, which makes learning the language fun!

4. Korean

Beginner Korean language learner writing Hello word Annyeonghaseyo in Korean characters

Learning Korean as an English speaker is punishingly difficult. Korean relates to virtually no other language, which makes it difficult for anyone to learn, not just English speakers. 

The word order of Korean can be exceptionally challenging for English speakers to get to grips with. For instance, verbs come at the end of a sentence. Another thing that makes Korean challenging is the pronunciation rules. Pronouncing the individual sounds of vowels and consonants is difficult on its own, but when you add in correct inflection, you can easily get overwhelmed!

Even when you’ve mastered pronunciation and grammar, you’ve got the Korean honorific system to get your head around. This system is integral to Korean culture, and it can be easy to offend someone if you get it wrong! You’ve got to consider formality, politeness, age, status, respect deserved, and the seriousness of a situation! 

Like Japanese, though, the Korean culture is full of learning material including fantastic movies, video games, TV shows, and the famous K-pop, which has even found success outside of the country.

5. Hungarian 

Pupil of language school with Hungarian flag on color background

Hungarian is part of the group of languages with significant cultural and/or linguistic differences to English. Therefore, Hungarian learners can expect to spend twice as long at becoming professionally proficient compared to the easiest languages. 

Hungarian has lots of irregularities, which makes it a real learning challenge. It’s also an agglutinative language, and so different morphemes together express different meanings. 

6. Icelandic

Icelandic and English; Learning New Language with Handwritten Flash Cards.

Though there are only around 330,000 native Icelandic speakers, which makes it a cool language to learn! Since Icelandic as a language hasn’t changed since the 9th or 10th century, old words end up taking on new meanings and so it’s very archaic.

What’s more, it has tricky pronunciation, it is an irregular language with many verb forms needing to be fully memorized. The sentence structure is also irregular and there are up to ten different tenses!

7. Finnish 

puhutko suomea (translation: do you speak finnish)

Like Hungarian, Finnish has extremely complicated grammar. It’s also commonplace to find lots of double vowels and double consonants so you’ll come across words like liikkeessään meaning showroom, or kääntäjää meaning translator!

There are good things about learning Finnish though. It’s a phonetic language, which means you say everything you see, and there’s no future tense so there’s one less thing to learn!

8. Polish

Flag of Poland and slogan Learn Polish

Polish is defined as difficult firstly because of its pronunciation. Even the first word you learn hello (cześć) is a challenge for English speakers because the ‘s’ and the ‘c’ are not pronounced like they are in English.

Even more challenging is the case system. There are seven cases for gender, and seventeen for number. So yes, there are seventeen ways of saying each number in a sentence.

9. Russian

Beginner Russian language learner writing Hello word in Russian cyrillic alphabet on a notebook close-up shot

It comes as no surprise to find Russian on our list of hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

With its Cyrillic alphabet, we might be able to read Russian slightly easier than other difficult languages like Mandarin and Japanese, but there are other things that make this language difficult. This includes the six different cases and the fact that Russians don’t use the verb ‘to be’ when talking in the present tense.

10. Turkish

national flag of Turkey, a notebook with the inscription hello in turkish

Finally, the last language on our hardest languages to learn list is Turkish. This is another agglutinative language and so you’ll see long verb forms as a result. What’s more, there’s a concept called ‘vowel harmony’ in Turkish which means that vowels are changed to make words smoother. 

There are positives though, Turkish doesn’t have as many grammar exceptions and the spelling is straightforward too!

Final thoughts

Learning a language is always a challenge no matter the language you choose. Whether you choose to learn the hardest language in the world or an easier one, it doesn’t matter.

Learning any language is a wonderful skill, even if you never reach complete fluency. The most important thing is that you enjoy learning it and have a fulfilling experience.

Finally, learning a language helps you understand more about your own, no matter which you choose!

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