What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?

February 23, 2024
What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?

The hardest language to learn varies depending on a person’s linguistic background and personal experiences with learning languages. It 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! 

What Are the 10 Hardest Languages in the World?

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 language they have already learned. 

What Makes a Language Hard to Learn?

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.

The Top 10 Hardest Languages to Learn in the World

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:

  1. Cantonese

  2. Mandarin

  3. Arabic

  4. Korean

  5. Japanese

  6. Hungarian

  7. Finnish

  8. Basque

  9. Navajo

  10. Icelandic 

Hardest Languages in the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

Many languages in the Sino-Tibetan language family create difficulties for English speakers. Let’s discuss some of the hardest ones.

1. Cantonese – Most Difficult Language Overall

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. 

Read more: What Is the Difference Between a Language and a Dialect? 

2. Mandarin – 2nd Most Difficult Language Overall

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?

3. Bai

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.

4. Burmese 

Technically, citizens of Myanmar call Burmese “the Myanmar language,” but most English speakers still call it “Burmese.” 

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.

Would you like to take a break and watch a brief clip? Perfect! We made a short video for you.

Most Difficult Languages in the Romance Language Family

English speakers consider romance languages easy to pick up, including Romanian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan. 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. 

1. Romanian 

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.

2. Portuguese 

Those who try to learn Portuguese and Spanish often consider the former more challenging because they 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. 

3. Spanish 

Spanish remains a vital language in 2024 due to its use in over 22 countries and its growing global influence. Its relative grammar simplicity and consistent pronunciation make it popular among English speakers, further boosted by the rich culture of Spanish-speaking countries. This makes it both a practical and enriching language to learn.

Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn 

4. French 

French is known for its nuanced phonetics and intricate grammar, throws curveballs with silent letters, vowel intricacies, and numerous exceptions. Unlike English, it also navigates gendered nouns and nuanced article usage. Despite these challenges, French unlocks a world of rich literature, art, and history, making it a rewarding pursuit. 

5. Catalan

Catalan, spoken primarily in the Catalonia region of Spain, combines elements of both Spanish and French, making it an intriguing yet complex language for English speakers. Its distinct vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar set it apart from its Romance counterparts. While it shares many features with Spanish, its unique characteristics require dedicated study to achieve fluency, offering a rewarding linguistic journey into a rich cultural heritage.

Toughest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

Learning a new language unlocks cultural and intellectual horizons, but some pose tougher challenges for native English speakers. Languages like Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Hungarian, Finnish, Basque, and Navajo present hurdles with unique structures, unfamiliar sounds, and complex grammar. Mastering these languages requires significant dedication.

1. Arabic – 3rd Hardest Language for English Speakers to Learn

Arabic poses a significant challenge for English speakers, mainly because of its complex script and wide range of dialects. The right-to-left writing system, extensive vocabulary, and unfamiliar sounds further complicate learning. Additionally, the linguistic gap between Arabic and English, with few shared words, makes it a steep learning curve for learners.

2. Korean – 4th Among the Most Difficult Languages

The Korean language poses distinctive challenges, particularly its complex honorific system and the Hangul script, which differs entirely from the Latin alphabet. Its agglutinative structure, where words form through the continuous addition of prefixes and suffixes, requires learners to adapt to a unique sentence construction method. Cultural nuances embedded in the language add further complexity to the learning journey.

3. Japanese – 5th Hardest Challenge for English Learners

Japanese is renowned for its three-script system involving Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana, making literacy a formidable challenge. The language's subtle politeness levels and the concept of "wa" (harmony), which permeates communication, require learners to not just understand the language but also the cultural context. The significant difference in grammar and syntax from English adds to the complexity.

4. Hungarian – 6th Most Complex Language for English Speakers

Hungarian, with its Uralic roots, is markedly different from Indo-European languages, making it a puzzle for English speakers. Its agglutinative nature, extensive use of cases, and free word order pose significant challenges. The language's rich and expressive vocabulary, which allows for nuanced and precise expressions of emotion and action, requires a deep dive into its complexities.

5. Finnish – 7th in the Ranking of Language Learning Difficulties

Finnish, also part of the Uralic family, shares challenges with Hungarian, such as its agglutinative grammar and extensive case system. Pronunciation poses a particular difficulty for English speakers due to the language's phonetic richness and vowel harmony concept. Moreover, Finnish's limited use of loanwords from other languages means learners have fewer linguistic shortcuts.

6. Basque – 8th Toughest Language Learning Challenge

Basque, an isolated language unrelated to any other, poses a distinct challenge. Its intricate syntax, agglutinative structure, and numerous cases make it a linguistic puzzle. Learners must immerse themselves in the Basque culture to grasp its vocabulary and idiomatic expressions deeply rooted in the region's heritage.

7. Navajo – 9th in Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers

Navajo presents a significant challenge due to its complex verb system and tonal usage. The language's structure reflects the cultural and environmental context of the Navajo people, demanding learners to connect with it on a cultural level. Limited written resources and reliance on oral tradition further contribute to the learning curve.

Most Difficult Languages of the Germanic Language Group

Germanic languages include English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian. Let’s see which of these languages are the hardest to learn. 

1. Icelandic – 10th Most Difficult Language 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. 

2. German – Nahrungsmittelunverträglichkeit

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.”

3. Dutch 

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.

4. Danish 

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! 

Niger-Congo Language Group’s Hardest Languages to Learn

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? 

1. Yoruba 

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. 

2. Igbo

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. 

3. Fula

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.

4. Swahili

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. 

Final Thoughts

Learning a difficult language increases 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!

Happy learning!

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



Subscribe to receive all the latest updates from Tomedes.

Post your Comment

I want to receive a notification of new postings under this topic


Need expert language assistance? Inquire now

Do It Yourself

I want a free quote now and I'm ready to order my translations.

Do It For Me

I'd like Tomedes to provide a customized quote based on my specific needs.

Want to be part of our team?