What Are The Hardest Languages In The World To Learn?

Very often, moving countries as an expat means that you will need to learn the language of your new country of residence. Not only will this help you navigate everyday life in your new home better, it will also help you make friends with the locals and fit in better. Depending on the length of your stay, you will either learn just the essentials of the language or become fluent.Learning a new language can be both loads of fun and challenging at the same time. The amount of time it takes to learn usually depends on a variety of factors. According to a study by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, these include how close the new language is to your native tongue or other languages that you are already familiar with; the complexity of the new language; the level of commitment and drive you have; the learning environment and resources that are available to you; and the amount of time you can devote to learning.

Some languages, of course, are harder to learn than others, and each learner is unique – it is entirely possible that some people may learn a “hard language” sooner than others. Proficiency also usually depends on the learner and their own motivations. Here’s our list of some of the hardest languages in the world for a native English speaker to learn.

Japanese

Asian languages present a certain level of difficulty for native English speakers because they have little or nothing in common with languages that they may already know. The one advantage that these learners may have is that vowel and consonant sounds in Japanese are very similar to those in English, making pronunciation and picking up words easy enough. However, you could have trouble memorizing a thousand or more unique characters across three writing systems—the Chinese-influenced pictorial kanji, and the phonetic systems hiragana and katakana. The Roman alphabet is used for imported acronyms and to write Japanese words in a setting where non-Japanese speakers need to know how to say a particular word.

Japanese also has no diphthongs (two adjacent vowel sounds in the same syllable) and contains only pure vowels or monophthongs. The one aspect of Japanese that most non-native learners find very hard is its system of honorific speech, which varies with levels of politeness and where each level has set rules and forms. You need to take a lot of care not to sound rude or inappropriate in any way. Learning and understanding honorific speech will give you a deep insight into how the culture of Japan actually functions.

Japanese belongs to the Japonic system of languages, which includes the diverse and distinct languages of the Ryukyu Islands. It is usually considered a language isolate (a natural language with no genetic relationship to any other known language) since the Ryukyu Islands languages are treated as dialects of Japanese. According to the FSI, it would take a person on average 2,200 class hours, 88 weeks, or 1.69 years to reach a reading and speaking proficiency in Japanese.

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Chinese (Standardized Chinese or Mandarin)

Linguists have estimated that there are hundreds of dialects of Chinese and the differences between each dialect become more pronounced as the distances between two places increase. The varieties are classified into seven dialect groups. Mandarin is the group of dialects (including Standard Chinese) that is spoken by the largest number of native speakers – nearly a billion people!

If you thought Japanese was hard, written Mandarin is also pictorial and it contains over 50,000 characters, a large number of which need to be understood and memorized! A comprehensive dictionary will list about 20,000 characters that are in regular use. A highly educated person knows about 8,000 characters. To be able to read a newspaper, you would need to know about 3,000 characters. However, the more characters you learn, the more the patterns between the characters emerge and it gets easier to learn more of them. Interestingly, written and spoken systems of Chinese are completely different, which makes reading and writing a different kettle of fish from speaking Chinese!

Additionally, Chinese is a tonal language and the meaning of words change with the tone in which they are said. Hence, you should be very careful about how you use words because a mispronounced tone or inflection could give grave insult. Chinese has very few grammatical inflections – there are no tenses or voices and there are only a couple of articles. It also doesn’t have any numbers in terms of nouns being singular or plural. The structure of sentences in Chinese is in the subject–verb–object word order and uses the topic-comment construction, quite like a number of other East Asian languages. As with Japanese, Mandarin will take an average of 2,200 class hours for a learner to gain speaking and reading proficiency.

Arabic

This is spoken as the official language of the twenty-two countries in the Arab League and is the native language of the 200 million people that live there. Classical Arabic or formal Arabic is what the Qur’an is written in, and this is the base of the syntax and grammar of Arabic. This is the form that is used by scholars and is taught in educational institutions globally. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is similar to but simpler than Classical Arabic. This is the Arabic used in the media—on television, online media and the newspapers. MSA is also the version of Arabic that is taught as a foreign language.

The Arabic script has evolved from ancient Phoenician and is a twenty-eight letter alphabet with twenty-five consonants and three vowels. Since Arabic is a consonantal language, vowels could hypothetically be omitted in writing. However, vowels are represented by diacritical marks either above or below the letters. A learner must master vowel markings as these can significantly change the meaning of a word. Many letters in Arabic share the same shape and the difference between these can only be made out by the number and placement of dots above or below the letter. Forgetting a single dot while writing can lead to saying something entirely different from what you intended. You should also remember that multiple words can be formed from the same root by using different forms.

Some of the main difficulties that people face while learning Arabic are a completely unfamiliar script, and the need to read from right to left. Another difficulty is that Arabic contains speech patterns and sounds that are not found in English. Pronunciation in Arabic is usually hard for native speakers of English as consonant sounds are made at the back of the throat. Like Chinese and Japanese, it would take an average of 2,200 class hours for a learner to gain speaking and reading proficiency in Arabic.

Polish

This is a language that is spoken by 40 million people globally, but very few actually learn it as a foreign language. Polish is, by all accounts, one of the most complex languages to learn, especially given its tongue-twisting pronunciation, complicated grammatical gender systems (seven genders!) and many cases. There is also an overwhelming assortment of forms between each case, gender and mood, which adds to the complexity of the language. For example, there are seventeen different ways of saying the number six. It is said that the average English speaker is fully fluent in English by the time she is twelve. For Polish speakers, it usually takes until age sixteen.

The consonants sound very similar to the way they do in English, and Polish has thirty-three letters in its alphabet. This includes all the letters of the English alphabet and a few more with additional diacritical marks such as ą ć ę ł ń ó ś ź ż. These letters appear directly after their Latin equivalents in the alphabet. Polish is also a sibilant language, which means that words slither and hiss as they are pronounced and the stress of the word is always on the second-to-last syllable.

In the post-communist era, starting 1989, Polish borrowed from English, and there are several easily recognizable loan words. For example, words like komputer have entered the Polish dictionary, where the c is replaced with k in Polish. However, be careful of words that look like English words, because these frequently mean something else altogether. For example, the word ordynarny in Polish means vulgar! According to the FSI, it would take a person on average 1,100 class hours or 44 weeks to reach a reading and speaking proficiency in Polish.

Estonian

An estimated 1.2 million people speak this language across the world and it belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages. It is most similar to Finnish and distantly related to Hungarian, both of which are also hard to learn. Estonian has a very rigid noun case system – there are as many as fourteen cases in the language. Additionally, the nouns and pronouns do not have a grammatical gender. As far as the verbal system is concerned, Estonian does not have a future tense either. There are no articles in the language.

Both consonants and vowels are of three lengths and depending on use, are used to change the meaning of words. For example, the word lina means linen while the word linna means city. Estonian gives vowels a very important role (more than in most other European languages). It contains words where a group of vowels are used to form words around a few consonants. For example, the word töö-öö means “working night” and the word õueala means “courtyard”. Estonian also has twenty-five diphthongs. Interestingly, there are no words native to Estonian that start with the letters C, F, Q, W, X, Y or Z. Most learners will also find that there are many exceptions to grammar rules, some of which may seem very arbitrary.

Pronouncing Estonian isn’t too hard as long you remember to avoid aspiration – which means that ‘p’ and ‘t’, should be pronounced without a puff of air coming out of your mouth. Vowels and consonants are distinctly pronounced. Diphthongs are usually pronounced as a series of vowels in succession instead of being blurred together like in English. Just like Polish, it would take a person on average 1,100 class hours or 44 weeks to reach a reading and speaking proficiency in Estonian.

Hungarian

Most European languages come from a single language family: the Indo-European languages. This is, however, not true for Hungarian which is a member of the Finno-Ugric group of languages. There are about 15 million speakers of the language worldwide and the language is also known in Hungarian as Magyar – a word which, in English, is used to refer to both the Hungarian people and the language.

Hungarian is a highly inflected language and nouns can have as many as eighteen cases. Hungarian has fourteen vowels and twenty-five consonants. Vowels can be either long or short and have a similar pronunciation. They differ in the duration for which they are pronounced. Although Hungarian is written in the Roman script, it is far from easy to pronounce and read since it includes unique vowel sounds (á, é, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, ű, í) and consonant clusters (ty, gy, ny, sz, zs, dzs, dz, ly, cs) which are very hard for native English speakers to grasp.

Additionally, Hungarian sentence structure is very flexible because possession, number and tense are indicated by the suffixes of root words and not word order. Alter the suffix slightly and your sentence could take on a completely new meaning! Like Polish and Estonian, it would take a person on average 1,100 class hours or 44 weeks to reach a reading and speaking proficiency in Hungarian.

Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5]


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