10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

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Written By Francesca Stephens

Founder of Linguatics. Passionate multilinguist.

If you’re wondering what are the hardest languages to learn, you probably already know that the answer is not so simple.

The difficulty of a certain foreign language depends on many factors, so it’s hard to say what is the hardest language in the world. The problem is – it depends on who you ask.

However, there are some general difficulties that some languages entail and others don’t. For example, if a language has a different writing system, it will probably be more challenging for English speakers.

Also, English speakers might find some accents hard to master. Then there are strange grammatical concepts, complex idioms, tones, and so on.

Without further ado, let’s look at the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.

10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

1. Mandarin Chinese

Is Chinese hard to learn?

Although it’s one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, Mandarin Chinese has a reputation for being an extremely difficult language to learn. One of the main reasons why people find it difficult is its tonal nature.

Learning Chinese characters is another challenging part for English speakers. In fact, it’s quite hard for anyone accustomed to the Latin alphabet. There are simplified Chinese characters that might be a bit easier to learn, but they are still generally complex.

To master Chinese writing, you’ll have to learn thousands of characters. But the biggest challenge for Chinese learners are usually the tones. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that a single word can be said with four different tones and convey four different meanings.

Learning Chinese might be a long (and bumpy) ride, but as with most of the languages on this list, it will be a rewarding one.

2. Arabic

Hardest languages to learn for English speakers

According to experts and language learners, Arabic is also among the most difficult languages to learn. In fact, if you ask the Foreign Service Institute, Arabic is on the top of the list (along with Chinese).

The problem with Arabic is that it’s based on a completely different script. It’s also written from right to left, which also takes some time to adjust. To make things even more interesting, words are often written without vowels.

Plus, there are some unique sounds in spoken Arabic, which can make things complicated for native English speakers.

Another challenge you will come across if you start learning Arabic is a variety of dialects. So, if you learn a certain dialect, there’s a chance you might not be able to understand the locals from another region.

3. Finnish

Learning Finnish language

Without a doubt, Finnish is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers. In fact, Finnish grammar in particular has a bad reputation.

With its consonant gradation, noun cases, and confusing word order, it definitely doesn’t seem like a beginner-friendly foreign language. On the other hand, some people find its grammar system logical and straightforward.

Either way, if you decide that Finnish grammar isn’t a problem, you won’t have so many obstacles in learning Finnish. You might come across some words like  Käsipyyherullajärjestelmä now and then, but how often do you mention the ‘hand towel roll system’ anyway?

4. Hungarian

Why is Hungarian hard to learn

If you’re up for a challenge, you can try to learn Hungarian. Although it might not seem like the most popular language at first, Hungarian can actually open doors to many European languages.

But since it’s a member of the Uralic language family, it doesn’t have many connections to the English language. So, learning vocabulary is one of the challenges.

The second challenge is the fact that Hungarian has 35 different cases. You’ll have to be patient to learn them all. Plus, the Hungarian language relies on idioms a lot, which is always tricky.

Thirdly, word order is often flexible. You can also create a word from just a prefix and a suffix. If you’re a language buff, you’ll have a lot of grammatical rules to explore and play around with.

But if you simply want to learn how to speak Hungarian, you’ll have to approach your Hungarian lessons with a lot of patience. 

5. Japanese

Learning Japanese language

Japanese is another language with a reputation for being the most demanding language to learn. So why is Japanese hard to learn?

First of all, the Japanese language has three separate writing systems. Hiragana and katakana (or simply kana) are native to Japan and they represent syllable sounds, but the modern Japanese writing system uses kanji which are actually adopted Chinese characters.

Also, for English speakers, many Japanese grammatical concepts are rather unusual and completely foreign. Then there’s also a hierarchy of politeness – there are three levels of formality in Japanese, and you’ll have to learn when to use which.

Another difficulty you’ll come across if you want to learn Japanese is the opposite sentence structure to English. So, learning Japanese takes a lot of time and dedication, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

6. Vietnamese

Learning Vietnamese

Just like Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese is a tonal language. And that automatically puts it in the category of the world’s hardest languages to learn. There are six different tones, and you’ll have to master each tone. Otherwise, you might get weird looks from local people.

And just like Japanese, Vietnamese has differences in formalities, so you’ll have to learn which form to use in which situations. Mastering greetings in Vietnamese may also take a while, as they are many rules to memorize.

The high number of vowels is another potential difficulty for English speakers. Although it’s actually very consistent, Vietnamese pronunciation can be quite tricky, especially if you’re not surrounded by the language.

Nevertheless, some elements of learning Vietnamese are very clear and straightforward. And with a good teacher or reliable online Vietnamese lessons, you’ll be able to overcome all obstacles.

7. Navajo

Is Navajo difficult to learn?

Navajo is one of the most widely spoken Native American languages. Navajo (or Diné) is also known as one of the most difficult languages to learn for English native speakers.

And did you know that Navajo was used as a code by the US military during World War II? Navajo speakers who were also fluent in English were recruited as the so-called code talkers. They would convey coded messages, and that code was never broken.

The most difficult aspect of Navajo is the complex formation and meaning of words. Although it’s based on Latin script, there are a bunch of accents to become familiar with. On top of that, Navajo is a tonal language, so you also need to pay attention to the pitch.

Generally, Navajo grammar is very different from English. It takes some time to get used to the ‘subject-object-verb’ order.

So, is Navajo worth learning? Of course, that depends on your goals and wishes, but the very fact that it’s categorized as an endangered language might be appealing to some people.

8. Korean

Learning Korean language

There’s a general consensus among language experts and learners that Korean is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers. While that might be true, Korean is also quite straightforward, and it doesn’t have complex grammar like some European languages do.

However, the Korean language has a different writing system, Hangul. What makes it a bit easier to understand (compared to Chinese) is the fact that it’s syllabic, so it actually won’t take you long to learn it. You just need to practice and get used to it.

Another challenging aspect of Korean is that it’s a hierarchical language. So, you have to use different words depending on who you speak to. To make things easier, you can always use a regular form of the word, but if you want to become fluent, you’ll have to put a lot of effort into it.

All in all, Korean is definitely not easy to learn, but it’s not as hard as some other languages on this list.

9. Russian

Russian language lessons

According to many learners and linguists, Russian is a very demanding foreign language. But there are also many reasons why Russian shouldn’t be so hard to learn.

As with many other languages that are considered tough, Russian seems difficult because it has a different alphabet. But compared to some other writing systems we mentioned today, Cyrillic script is actually not that hard to learn.

However, Russian has gendered nouns, and that can be a challenge for English speakers. All Russian nouns have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, and there are no strict rules regarding their use. Gender in a language is usually arbitrary.

Another thing that makes Russian complicated for English speakers is the variety of cases. Changing the end of a word depending on the case they’re in isn’t super hard, but it will take some time and persistence to master.

But if you manage to get through Russian grammar and pronunciation, you’ll find some languages like Polish and Czech much easier to learn.

10. Basque

Learning Basque language

One of the reasons that some languages are harder than others is a lack of cognates. Cognates are words in two languages that have the same origin. They share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.

Some languages aren’t related to any other language, and one of the best examples is Basque. Basque is a language isolate, and it has very distinctive characteristics. In other words, you’ll have to learn a completely strange, new vocabulary, no matter where you come from.

The Basque language also has a rather complex ergative-absolutive grammar system, so it has a case denoting the agent of an action. And this type of alignment in language can be quite confusing for English speakers.

Without a doubt, Basque is one of the most unique languages in the world, and it’s definitely challenging to learn.

What is the Hardest Language in the World?

So, are the languages we mentioned today really that difficult? And how long does it take to learn a difficult foreign language?

Well, that depends on several important factors.

First of all, whether you’ll find a language demanding or not largely depends on your native language. For English speakers, the languages listed above are generally considered hard to master because of their different writing systems, complex grammar, pronunciation, or a lack of cognates.

But if you’re familiar with Slavic languages, you won’t find Hungarian so challenging. So, it all comes down to what you’re accustomed to. The thing is, it’s just a matter of time – if you’re an English speaker, it will just take you a bit longer.

Another important factor is your experience. If you’ve already taken some Japanese classes, you’ll probably be able to learn Chinese in a quick and easy way, even if your native language isn’t related to it at all.

After all, the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one.

Hardest languages to learn

If you already speak a language from the same language group, that will make your learning process significantly shorter. But even if you don’t, your knowledge of any other foreign language will help you grasp the basics much quicker.

Learning a new language comes with a lot of advantages. You’ll become more flexible, improve your cognitive skills, and build strong conversational skills. And all of that will not only help you learn another language but also be beneficial to you as a learner in general.

Another essential step in learning a new language is to find a reliable learning source. Online language lessons are a great way to learn if you’re searching for flexibility, convenience, and informal learning. You can choose from online language courses, language apps, online tutoring, and so on.

Regardless of what you opt for, it’s important that you learn in a way that makes you feel engaged as well as comfortable. Learning a new language can be incredibly rewarding and fun – you just need to do it the right way!

Final Thoughts   

As you can see, it’s not easy to rank languages by difficulty. It all depends on your previous experience, learning source, and motivation.

However, there’s a general consensus among learners and experts that some languages are very hard to learn for English speakers.

Languages like Chinese, Vietnamese, and Navajo are very challenging because they are tonal languages. Other languages like Hungarian and Russian might be difficult to learn because some parts of their grammar (like cases) are really tricky.

Each of these languages is demanding in its own way. If you need a good challenge, take your pick.

But at the end of the day, with the right approach, no language is impossible to master. It will just take some time and persistence, as it should with every relevant skill.