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Top Seven Hardest Languages to Learn

This blog will be of great help learning languages for English speakers.

Learning a new language can be a fulfilling and gratifying accomplishment. However, some languages may be more difficult to learn than others for certain individuals, depending on how closely related the new language is to your native dialect. For example, a Chinese person may find it easier to learn Japanese than it is to learn Spanish or German. Since European languages (i.e. – English, Spanish, German, French etc) all have origins that can be traced to Latin, there are similarities that make it easier for speakers of these languages to learn another Latin-based language. For this reason, Asian,, Middle Eastern, and Slavic languages are often the most challenging for Westerners. 

Whether you're trying to become multilingual with minimal effort, or are simply confused about which language you'd like to learn next, knowing the challenges associated with learning specific languages can help you make an informed decision in your lexicon-expanding endeavor. The following are the top seven hardest languages to learn for English speakers:

1. Arabic

Learning to read Arabic can be a challenging task because of the limited usage of vowels. In addition, there are many Arabic words that do not have exact counterparts in English, so it can be difficult to make effective associations between the new words you'll learn and words you've already become accustomed to in your native tongue.

There are also two main types of Arabic – formal (the dialect seen in Arabic publications like the Koran, typically spoken by the Arabic media and upper class) and informal (a more relaxed, modern dialect spoken by much of the general public). So even if you're well-versed in formal Arabic, you may not be able to understand or communicate with the average Arab without knowledge of informal Arabic as well.

To learn Arabic you'll also have to become familiar with the pronunciation of guttural/pharyngealized  sounds (emitted from the throat) that you've never encountered before. Finally, learning to read/write Arabic is an entirely separate challenge from learning to speak it, as the letters are extremely eloquent and feature curved calligraphic strokes, unlike characters in other alphabets that mostly incorporate straight lines that are easy to draw. 

2. Chinese

Chinese is perhaps one of the most complex languages in the world, with an extensive alphabet that consists of literally tens of thousands of characters, some of which are rarely ever used. Like other Asian languages, Chinese is also a tonal language, so the meanings of words can change depending on the tone they are spoken in. Many of the words sound similar and are also very brief, with only one or two syllables, so it can be easy to become “tongue twisted” when trying to increase the speed of your speech. 

3. Japanese

Like Chinese, Japanese also has an alphabet with thousands of characters that must be memorized. Furthermore, there are two separate syllabary systems that utilize symbols to describe the pronunciation of each syllable. One of the most challenging aspects of learning Japanese is gaining proficiency in the reading/writing system – Kanji. The use of words also vary for men, women, and children, and depending on the context the words are used in. For example, there are four variations of the words “I” and “you” – a formal, highly formal, informal, and highly informal version of each. 

4. Korean

Korean sentences are structured much different than the way phrases are worded in European languages, so the order in which clauses are spoken can seem counterintuitive initially. Punctuation and syntax rules are very unfamiliar, and you'll have to adapt to a new way of using verbs altogether. The written Korean alphabet also relies on the usage of some Chinese characters that are hard to remember and write properly. Nonetheless, there are much fewer letters in the Korean alphabet than the two aforementioned Asian languages, which is why it is ranked lower on our difficulty list.

5. Hungarian

Hungarian is difficult to learn because words can take several forms - masculine, feminine, and neutral – depending on the context. These verb conjugations can take some time to get used to, as much of the the way the word is interpreted is determined by the beginning or ending. There are more than a dozen ways to modify a word to change its intended meaning. Unlike European languages, Hungarian cannot be traced to Latin, so most words bare no similarity to any English words. However, native speakers of other Uralic languages (i.e. - Finnish, Estonian, Udmurt) may find it easier to learn Hungarian.

6. Hindi

Hindi is challenging to learn because it not only features a unique alphabet with exquisite characters, it also incorporates the usage of phonetic sounds that are unfamiliar, such as “Rda” or “dha.” The way words are placed in sequence can also seem confusing at first, as the verb almost always preceded by the object it is complimenting. In other words, instead of saying “Chris threw the rock,” in Hindi it would be phrased “Chris the rock threw. ” The exact pronunciation of the letters D and T can also vary depending on the word, and it can be hard for an English speaker to distinguish between these subtleties.

7. Polish

One of the most frustrating aspects of learning to speak Polish is understanding the case system. There are seven cases that can be applied to words to change their overall meaning in the context of a sentence. For example:

In the English phrases “on the moon,” “over the moon,” and “under the moon,” the word “moon” is always included, and the relation of the location to the moon is described by the words that precede it (i.e. - on, under, above etc). However, in Polish there are several variations for the word “moon” that would change entirely based on whether the sentence was describing something on, under, or above the moon.

Not only are there several variations for nearly every word, but sentences are also arranged backwards to English. So the English phrase “There are plenty of tourists in New York,” would translate roughly into Polish as “In New York are plenty of tourists,” and of course if you wanted to add more information about tourists to that sentence, a different variation of the word “tourist” may have to be used.

As in other Slavic languages, Polish nouns can take 3 different forms, depending on whether they're used in the masculine, feminine, or neutral context. Reading, writing, and understanding Polish grammar are challenges in and of themselves, but learning how to differentiate between and pronounce sounds you've never encountered (like “sz”) may be even more difficult. Even after you've  become acquainted with these unique pronunciations, successfully stringing together a tongue-twisting Polish sentence with a perfect accent and no errors is still an incredibly formidable task for the non-native speaker.

Conclusion

If you're intimidated by the challenge of learning any of the above languages, consider the linguistic and communicative capabilities you'll have after doing so. With each language you learn it becomes slightly easier to learn another, particularly if they're related in some way. So if you have enough willpower to learn even one of the languages on this list, learning any other language after that would be relatively simple.

About

Published: 6/2012. Author: Joaquin. Updated: 7/2015.