This post was most recently updated on February 22nd, 2023
[A collaboration post with Day Translations – all thoughts are my own.]
What are the hardest languages to learn?
It depends on what your native language is.
I can speak two languages, my native one (the Indonesian language) and the English language. When it comes to learning a new language, the hardest ones can take more than three times as long as the easiest ones. However, learning a difficult language has several advantages and will take your learning game to a new level.
Learning a second or third language might be a little different than learning your first language because the way you think has already been shaped by your past experiences. So when it comes to learning a foreign language, how hard a language is to learn depends on how different it is from the language you’re already fluent in.
For example, the English language will differ more from my native language in terms of syntax, word order, writing system, vocabulary, and so on. So when learning English, I have to figure out how to memorize more stuff and have to spend more time listening to the flow of the language.
If you are asking why you should learn a hard language, the most common reason is communication. As adults, we are exposed to many different cultures and languages. While children are able to learn languages more naturally, and the younger they are, the easier it is. For parents looking to introduce a new language to their children, it can feel overwhelming if they don’t speak a second language.
And that’s how translators and language specialists are made, you know. With foreign language skills, knowledge of a certain pair of languages, and a little patience, you will ace it as a translator. You can even work remotely as an interpreter or as a tour guide in Bali.
The main factor is how different it is from your native language. For English speakers, any language that uses a non-Romanized alphabet is already considered to be tough to learn. That’s why it’s not really difficult for me to start learning English because both Indonesian and English use the Romanized alphabet.
That’s why the hardest languages to learn for native Mandarin speakers will be different from those that are hardest for native English speakers. Language difficulty is completely relative to the individual learner. Some people may find learning a language challenging, whereas others find it quite easy.
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) divides languages into four categories based on difficulty. In general, the hardest languages to learn for English speakers share certain things in common. They have different alphabets and grammatical concepts unfamiliar to English speakers.
I’ve outlined five of the so-called hardest languages to learn for English speakers below (in no particular order).
Mandarin may be the most widely spoken language in the world, but it is the hardest language in the world to learn.
First, Mandarin uses a writing system unfamiliar to English speakers. Mandarin doesn’t have an alphabet; instead, written Chinese is comprised of one-syllable characters. Every Mandarin word is either its own character or a composite of characters.
Second, since Mandarin is a tonal language, words that differ only in terms of intonation can have radically different meanings. Mandarin has four tones; add to those thousands of characters, Chinese dialects, and the language’s richness in homophones, and you can begin to imagine the difficulties this could cause English speakers.
I have a Chinese friend who I met years ago; luckily, he can speak good English, so he teaches me a little bit of Mandarin. Well, Chinese characters are already extremely hard to learn since there are more than a hundred different characters, but the intonation is what truly makes me think twice about learning Mandarin.
The intonation is challenging for English speakers to pronounce, even though they have the Hanyu Pinyin system, which is used officially in China as well as in Western Chinese publications. This romanization system uses letters of the English alphabet, but it’s still difficult to pronounce if you’re just reading them off the page.
In Bali, hundreds of tour guides, ex-pats, and foreigners read and speak Chinese, though it has a reputation for being hard to learn for English speakers. Yet the reward can be vast. China is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. I’ve seen a lot of companies looking for a Mandarin translator for their business. Learn the language, and you’re on speaking terms with millions of consumers.
Japanese is the second language I find interesting to learn after English. Because I have read manga a lot since I was 9, I grew up learning about their culture, arts, and animation. My lifetime favorite animation that has grown up with me until now must be Detective Conan. Do you know this animation?
Well, about the language itself, the writing system is based on Kanji, which are characters adopted from Mandarin Chinese. Japanese characters tend to be similar to Mandarin, although some differences have arisen over time. While this language has a great deal of Chinese “loan” words, Japanese shares no relation to Chinese, making it difficult for even Chinese speakers to learn.
Japanese writing isn’t the only brain-working aspect of the language for English speakers. Japanese grammar generally takes more time for English speakers to get down because it has less in common with English. For example, the verb goes after the objects in Japanese sentences, so learning Japanese is probably the quickest way to get rid of any habits English might have given you.
Japan has three independent writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Before they can start writing, Japanese learners need to learn thousands of different characters in these writing systems. It is, however, significantly easier to learn than Mandarin!
Choose this language, and you will need to get acquainted with three different writing systems. That’s the first major hurdle that Japanese learners face. There’s also the distinction between female and male intonations when speaking Japanese that learners need to account for.
However, unlike many other Asian languages, Japanese does not have tones. When you speak Japanese, it’s familiar to English speakers. That’s why speaking Japanese can be surprisingly easy. If you are thinking about taking up Japanese, consider tackling the spoken language first. Luckily, the popularity of Japanese anime has made it easier to pick up the pronunciation of this complicated language.
I recall the rise of K-pop and Korean dramas in 2009-2010. Back then, I was still addicted to Japanese anime and Chinese dramas. Korean has been on the rise as one of the most popular languages to learn. The modern Korean alphabet, hangeul, is fairly easy to pick up if we ignore the more traditional Chinese or Japanese alphabets.
For the last hundred years, written Korean has primarily used Hangul, an alphabet consisting of 24 letters. Hangul is probably the easiest writing system for English speakers to learn out of the five languages on this list (probably a little easier than Arabic, definitely much easier than Japanese or Chinese).
The difficult part is learning how to combine letters into syllable blocks, which are used to form words. Korean is also very different from English, with some consonants being nonexistent or combined to form one consonant.
Korean grammar is similar to Japanese grammar but a little more intricate. For example, Korean has more particles and uses more sounds than Japanese, many of which English speakers aren’t accustomed to.
Both Korean and Japanese are also steeped in complex social etiquette that requires English speakers to adjust their mindsets. In both languages, there are several different degrees of politeness you can use, ranging from the formal to the familiar. The word order is often difficult for English speakers to understand, as are the honorifics and levels of respect.
Of course, it can be a little tricky learning to navigate this aspect of the language with ease, but it’s a great example of how learning a new language also means learning a new culture.
As one of the oldest languages to exist, Arabic stands at my number four spot for good reason. Despite having 200 million native speakers you can learn from, Arabic is still one of the hardest languages to learn.
First, vowels are not included when writing. And, what makes me confused, most Arabic letters are written in four different forms, depending on the placement of the word. Along with this, there are variations within each Arabic-speaking region. The direction of writing is not the same for numerals as it is for words, and Arabic can be written using Hebrew, Latin scripts, or Syriac.
Moving away from Asian languages, Finnish is the official language in Finland, and with under 6 million speakers across the world, it has become one of the most difficult languages to get access to. Finnish is often considered one of the most difficult languages for many reasons. Finnish grammar is said to be notoriously complicated. Many Finns don’t always follow these rules, making it even more difficult to communicate with people in person.
If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings, you’ll be familiar with the elves’ language (I’m a fan of Legolas, though). The Finnish language is what the author J.R.R. Tolkien based the Elvish language on. Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language in which grammar complications are taken to the extreme, which makes it difficult for English speakers.
Furthermore, just when you’ve got the hang of translating Finnish to English, you’ll quickly find that modern Finnish speakers have their own way of expressing emotions that’s different from the traditional translation.
There are many more languages I could have listed here that are ranked as the hardest to learn for English speakers. The hardest languages for English speakers to learn depend on a number of different factors: the number of speakers, the language’s origins, its similarity to English, and other factors that contribute to determining how much difficulty you’ll have learning it.
As the world becomes smaller and we are able to travel more and experience other cultures, the ability to speak more than one language is now considered an essential skill. Remember, whichever language you decide to learn, your time will be well worth the investment.
Go ahead and pick one language to start practicing today, you won’t be disappointed.
If you need a translator, reach out to Day Translations here!
On my list of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, do you speak any of them? Do you think they are so difficult?