What are the Hardest Languages to Learn?

27 April 2020

Learning any language isn’t an easy task. Unless you’re lucky enough to have grown up bilingual, most people have to start with excitedly yelling random words in class (“Buenos dias! Cochon d’Inde! Kino!”) and travel through a lot of complex grammar before they can feel fully fluent.

But what are the hardest languages for English speakers to learn? Well, as a nation, we’re not the most linguistically adept in the first place. Around 62% of UK citizens cannot speak any foreign languages. Meanwhile, English is the most studied language in the world, which means that when travelling, many Brits don’t worry about learning the local lingo.

However, for those of us who are interested in languages, here are some of the most difficult languages to learn.

1. Mandarin

When you ask, ‘what is the hardest language to learn?’ most people will say Mandarin. So if your school teaches Mandarin classes, 做得好!

While it might be natural to think that reading and writing thousands of new characters might be the biggest barrier to learning this Chinese language, many find that tone is the biggest hurdle to overcome. This is because unlike English, Mandarin is a tonal language.

For example, while in English we have “their, they’re and there” Mandarin has more than 40 different characters that are pronounced “yi”. Depending on how high or low your voice is when you say you want shuìjiào, you could easily mean that you want to sleep, or you want boiled dumplings! Which could get confusing in a restaurant…

On the plus side, Mandarin is the world’s most commonly spoken language. So if you do learn it, you’ll have over 1.2 billion people to chat to!

2. Arabic

Learning a hard language doesn’t come much harder than Arabic. For a start, you read Arabic from right to left, not left to right. Written Arabic also has fewer vowels, and a complex system of grammar rules, which can leave non-native speakers in a tangle.

Arabic is also difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. Many consonants are formed at the back of the mouth. So if you struggle to say your ‘r’s in French, Arabic will be extra hard for you.

However, there are only 28 symbols in the Arabic alphabet – and it’s phonetic too. As Arabic is an official language in 25 different countries, learning it can open the door to some incredibly rich and fascinating cultures. 

3. Korean

With different characters, different sentence structures, different verb AND adjective conjugations and different syntax, learning Korean is a formidable task for English-speakers.

In fact, the American Foreign Service Institute estimates that the language demands around 88 weeks of full-time study, compared to 23-24 weeks for learning French or Spanish. That’s more than two school years of back-to-back Korean lessons – making it nearly four times harder to learn than Romance languages.

Another barrier is travel. At WST, we believe the best way to learn a language is practising in its country of origin. However, Korean is the official language of only two countries: North and South Korea. The former is pretty tricky to visit at the moment, but South Korea is at the cutting edge of technology, music, food and beauty science, and an enchanting place to practise your skills.

4. Japanese

Add the major difficulties of all three of the above languages together, and you get Japanese. With its thousands of different characters, its three different writing systems (kanji, hiragana, and katakana), and the fact it’s only officially spoken in one country, Japanese is an extremely tricky tongue to master. Plus the grammar will be completely different, depending on who you’re talking to – so mind your Ps and Qs. 

Nevertheless, many Japanese words have already made their way into the English lexicon, proving that it’s a language full of unique cultural value. Just look at karaoke, tycoon, satsuma, zen, and futon for a few examples. Meanwhile, the country itself is a real ‘bucket list’ destination, that nobody who visits ever forgets.

5. Polish

If spelling isn’t your strong suit, look away now.

While Polish uses the same Latin alphabet as English, it has nine extra characters (ą, ć, ę, ł, ń, ó, ś, ź, ż) and really likes to pack consonants into its words. For instance, the Polish word for ‘bee’ is ‘Pszczola.’ With its back-to-back digraphs (‘sz’ and ‘cz’ sounds) many Brits would struggle with spelling and pronunciation here.

Additionally, Polish is only an official language in Poland, making it tricky to learn pronunciation from native speakers. However, flights from the UK are still relatively cheap, and with so much history to explore, this European powerhouse is well worth a visit.  

6. Icelandic

For speakers of other Germanic and Scandinavian languages, Icelandic is comparatively easy. But for native English-speakers, it can be intimidating.

As in German, nouns have three genders. Meanwhile, verbs are conjugated for tense, person, number, voice, and mood. And once you’ve got your head around all the grammar rules, there are many, many exceptions too. Just to keep you on your toes.

However, Iceland’s native language also has some utterly charming words. ‘Raðljóst’ means enough light to find your way. ‘Ísbíltúr’ is a car drive that ends with an ice cream. And ‘Gluggaveður’ is weather that is best seen through a window – a word we definitely need in English too.

7. Welsh

Yep, we’re finishing up with good old Welsh!

Why? Well, because learning a language like Welsh takes real dedication. Everywhere you see the Welsh language, there’s an English translation right next it. So many take the easy option and don’t bother learning it. Next time you go to Wales, why not see which words you can pick up from road signs, advertisements and tourist leaflets?

After all, the key to learning any hard language is attitude. Once you’ve got that sorted, the rest will come naturally. Albeit with a lot of study involved!