Learning a language represents one of life’s greatest pleasures, a challenge that will open doors to rewarding career paths. However, when learning a second or third language, you will find vast differences between individual languages. Some languages prove much harder to learn than others due to their tongue-twisting pronunciations, complex scripts, and expansive vocabularies.
Do you want to learn a new language? If so, how many hours do you think you need to devote to it? In this article, we look at some of the most difficult languages to learn and consider why they present more of a challenge than others. Which tongue do you think will be the hardest language to learn overall? Let’s find out!
Ranking one of the world’s languages as the most difficult is a tricky undertaking. The difficulty of learning a language depends on a learner’s native tongue and any second languages they have already learned.
A language’s difficulty level depends on a seemingly endless set of variables. For example, I speak English as my native language and learned French, Spanish, German, and Latin at school. Spanish gave me the most trouble. But why? Does Spanish present inherent difficulties, or did I struggle with the intensive, one-year course? Would I have enjoyed a longer period of study? Or did my Spanish teacher’s style not suit me?
Later, when I learned Portuguese, I found it easy to pick up. Would I have encountered more difficulty without my initial grounding in Spanish and Latin? What if I had a different native tongue?
These questions elucidate the complexity of naming a single language as the most difficult to learn. However, thousands of other considerations come into play, as well. Some languages prove hard to learn due to their sheer inaccessibility. If you want to learn a language with fewer than 100 speakers, like Sarcee or Potawatomi, you will not find classes online or at your local adult education center. Many languages do not have dictionaries or written forms, making them hard to access, much less learn.
Then again, we do love a challenge here at Tomedes! So, let’s take a look at the hardest language to learn.
Your native tongue will dictate the difficulty level of other languages. People who already speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, or one of the other tough languages stand at a distinct advantage. Since I am writing this article in English, here are the top 10 hardest languages to learn in the world for native English speakers:
Many languages in the Sino-Tibetan language family create difficulties for English speakers. Let’s discuss some of the hardest ones.
Some people debate whether Cantonese deserves recognition as a language in its own right or a dialect of Chinese. Either way, Cantonese poses plenty of problems for students, even if they already speak Mandarin! But why is Cantonese harder than Mandarin for English speakers? Click the link below if you want to delve further into this topic!
The Cantonese and Mandarin writing systems share many similarities but the spoken languages are not mutually intelligible. Students of Cantonese learn the meaning of thousands of logographic characters and use eight tones to shape the meaning of a spoken word. But, besides Cantonese, let’s examine some other Sino-Tibetan tongues, the toughest of language groups. In contrast, Mandarin uses only four tones, which is why students face more difficulty with Cantonese.
Is Chinese difficult to learn? Some of the world’s oldest, hardest-to-learn languages originate from China. Mandarin is one of the trickiest languages for English speakers to pick up due to its tonal nature and complex script.
In the past, a lack of learning resources created issues for many Mandarin students. However, that roadblock once a vast range of resources became available online for individuals interested in learning Mandarin.
In the UK, the number of students learning Mandarin continues to increase. Over 3,500 pupils took the Mandarin Chinese GCSEs in 2018. The British Council reports that 8% of state-run schools and 32% of independently run schools offer Chinese as a GCSE option.
Read more: What Are the World’s Oldest Languages?
Another one of China’s many languages, Bai has over one million speakers of the three or four main dialects. Mainly located in Yunnan province, Bai speakers use eight tones when they converse. This nuance poses a problem for English speakers, just like it does when learning Cantonese. The modal and non-modal tones prove hard to crack for students from a non-tonal linguistic background.
English speakers find it easier to learn Burmese than Mandarin or Cantonese. The Foreign Services Institute (FSI) ranks it as a Category IV language, meaning it takes about 1,100 hours of study to achieve general proficiency in reading and speaking. Mandarin and Cantonese fall into Category V, requiring around 2,200 hours of study to reach the same proficiency level.
Why is Burmese hard to learn for English speakers? The lack of high-quality resources and teachers outside of Myanmar set up significant hurdles for students who wish to learn Burmese. The limited geographical range of Burmese offers few learning opportunities. Also, Burmese script, grammar, and vocabulary all pose challenges for native English learners.
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English speakers consider romance languages easy to pick up, including Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, French, and Romanian. FSI ranks all six of these Latin language descendants as Category I tongues. At just 575-600 hours, they take the least time to achieve general proficiency.
Most students rank Romanian as the hardest Romance language to learn, but let’s look at some contenders, too.
While Romanian has much in common with other Romance languages, it features several grammatical quirks that separate it from the rest. As a result, many people consider it the hardest language to learn in this language family.
In many ways, Romanian remains truer to its Latin roots than other Romance languages, especially Latin grammar. It is the only FSI Category I language with case inflections. Neuter gender nouns are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural, adding an extra wrinkle for students.
Those who try to learn Portuguese and Spanish often consider the former more challenging because you do not pronounce Portuguese words as expected. However, once you master the basic rules of Portuguese pronunciation and can pronounce unfamiliar words, the learning journey becomes much smoother.
In 2020, we ranked Spanish as one of the 15 best languages to learn. You can click the link below to discover the other 14. Spoken in Spain, Latin America, Equatorial Guinea, and the Philippines, Spanish remains a popular second language for English speakers in the United States to learn. Students appreciate its relatively simple grammar and phonetic pronunciation.
Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020
French causes English speakers some difficulties with phonetics and grammar. The language’s many rule exceptions and difficult pronunciations put learners off.
Germanic languages include English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian. Let’s see which of these languages are the hardest to learn.
Of all the Germanic languages, the FSI considers Icelandic the most difficult to learn. It ranks as a Category IV language, requiring about 1,100 of studying to become proficient. With archaic vocabulary, complex grammar, and tricky pronunciation, Icelandic throws down the gauntlet for the average English speaker.
English speakers usually have an easy time learning German. FSI ranks it as a Category II language, which calls for 750 hours of study to reach proficiency. German’s noun genders and tongue-twisting compound words make it more challenging than a Category I language! By the way, nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit means “food intolerance.”
To the English ear, Dutch sounds like an impossible tongue to master. However, you can learn it more easily than you imagine. The only aspect that trips up most students is the language’s two articles, de and het, instead of English’s one: the.
Like Dutch, Danish is ranked by FSI as a Category I language, requiring 575-600 study hours to attain proficiency. Although grammatically simple, Danish is the hardest of the Scandinavian languages to learn. For English speakers, the struggle centers around the language’s speaking patterns and the incredible speed at which Danish speakers talk!
Yoruba, Igbo, and Fula stand together as the most widely spoken Niger-Congo languages by native speakers. But which proves the hardest to learn? And how much difficulty do students of Swahili, the most used Niger-Congo language overall, face?
Yoruba presents a tough challenge for English speakers. Subtle differences in timbre, rhythm, and articulation change the meaning of commonly used words. The number of similar-sounding vowels creates a steep learning curve for English speakers who want to learn Yoruba.
With multiple dialects and a range of unfamiliar sounds, you can not even decide which form of Igbo to learn! While the grammar remains simplified, the tones and pronunciations often stymy English speakers.
In some ways, Fula proves easier to learn than other Niger-Congo languages due to its dearth of tones. However, what the language lacks in tones, it makes up for in noun classes. Fula dialects commonly differentiate between 24 or 26 noun classes, each of which uses a different suffix to modify the meaning of a root word.
Many people consider Swahili the easiest African language to learn. It’s not tonal, and its script reads phonetically. However, the particles placed at the beginning of words to indicate tenses create a stumbling block for many new students.
Learning a difficult language increases the satisfaction. It connects you with new people and helps you understand different cultures. You will feel frustrated sometimes, but stick with it, and you will prevail!