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The Most Difficult Languages to Learn

jason-oxenham-ceo March 29, 2016, 9:45 pm

The Three Most Difficult Languages for English Speakers to Learn

Learning a language isn't easy, and some languages are naturally more difficult than others, especially for us native English speakers.

There are over 6,500 languages spoken throughout the world today, and every one of these languages has a unique story. Geography, history and culture have played a big role in forming and developing these languages and making each and every one unique. Many of these languages share common traits with English, while many have hardly anything in common with English.

As a general rule of thumb, a language is easier to learn when it's more linguistically similar to your native language, and more difficult when it's very different. So what does this mean for native English speakers?

A study by the U.S. Foreign Institute (FSI) sought to answer just that. The FSI performed a study of students learning the many languages offered at their institute. The students who participated were native English speakers typically between the ages of 30 and 40 and with an aptitude for formal language study, in addition to knowledge of one or more other foreign languages. Their schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students. In other words: almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind when we look at the results. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.

The results were quite interesting, especially for those of us who want to learn a new, widely-spoken language.

Language Difficulty and Time Needed to Learn

According to the FSI, there are four basic language categories based on the language's degree of similarity to English. Their characteristics--whether or not they are very similar or very different to English--determined the minimum length of training it took to reach general professional proficiency. Here were the results:

Language Group I (Languages closely related to English)

  • Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
  • Minimum length of training for proficiency = 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)

Language Group II (Languages similar to English)

  • German
  • Minimum length of training for proficiency = 30 weeks (750 hours)

Language Group III (Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English)

  • Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili    
  • Minimum length of training for proficiency = 36 Weeks (900 Hours)

Language Group IV (Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English)

  • Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croation, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Pilipino, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
  • Minimum length of training for proficiency = 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)

Language Group V (Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers)

  • Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean    
  • Minimum length of training for proficiency = 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)
Click here for the full list
    
AN IMPORTANT REMINDER: Before I go into more detail regarding the most difficult languages, what makes them so difficult and why you should give them a try, it's extremely important to mention that every language learner is different.

The FSI study, although very interesting, took place in ideal language learning conditions with participants who dedicated an impressive amount of time to learning a foreign language. Most of us don't have that kind of time on our hands to dedicate to language learning, and can maybe set aside two or three hours per week at best. While this does mean that we'll inevitably take more time to learn the language, other factors such as how we practice, our language learning history, and our attitude and motivation play a huge role in determining whether or not a language is difficult for us.

It's very important to always remember that language difficulty is relative, and what may take one learner three weeks to learn could be learned in several days by another learner.

Now let's zoom in on the three most difficult Category V languages, what makes them so exceptionally difficult for English speakers, and why we should give them a try.

The Three Most Difficult Languages for English Speakers to Learn

1. Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the standard literary form and official Chinese language based on the Beijing dialect.

Why should I learn it?

Mandarin is spoken by nearly a billion people, which means that it has more native speakers than any other language in the world. If the sheer number of native speakers doesn't convince you to start learning Mandarin, then its expected future significance will: according to a recent British Council report, Mandarin is predicted to be one of the top 10 most important languages of the future.

In addition, it's a very practical language in the business and IT world since China is currently competing with the United States for the world's largest GDP and Mandarin is the second most popular online language. Add Mandarin to your resume, and you'll wow potential employers and open up a whole new world of career opportunities.

What makes Mandarin so difficult?

Written Mandarin is a character-based language that contains over 20,000 characters. While some main characters appear in other symbols (almost like root words in many Western languages), reading and writing Mandarin implies a lot of study and memorization of very complex characters.

To make matters more difficult, the written form of the language has no phonic connection to the spoken form, unlike many other languages. There are also many words that have no direct English translation.

Much like Cantonese, Mandarin is also a tonal language, which means that a change in the tone or inflection of your voice can change the meaning of a sentence entirely. The syllable "ma," for example, can mean either "mother" or "horse" depending on the inflection, which might make for an award dinner conversation with your Chinese mother-in-law.

Learning Mandarin does have a pro, however: grammar. Grammatically, Mandarin is much simpler than Indo-European languages since words generally have only one grammatical form. Instead of needing to conjugate each verb to indicate the tense or time, a preposition or particle is added or changed or the word order is switched. This structure, however, takes time to understand and build.

How much time is needed for proficiency?

On average, a native English speaker needs over 88 weeks (one year and about 8 months) of intensive study to learn Mandarin and over 2,200 hours of study, according to the FSI.

2. Arabic    

There are two varieties of Arabic: the Modern Standard Arabic found in print, the media, and online content, and spoken Arabic, which includes many colloquial dialects that vary by region. While primarily spoken in the Middle East, Arabic is also spoken in a large area of Africa.

Why should I learn it?

Arabic is the spoken by almost 300 million native speakers in over 20 countries, making it the 5th most spoken language in the world. If the sheer number of native Arabic speakers in the world isn't enough to convince you, then the increasing call for this language in the U.S. will.

Since so few Americans choose to study Arabic, the very decision to start learning this language sets you apart from the crowd, no matter what your field is. U.S. government agencies have also expressed an increasing need from Arabic speakers in order to help address the complex political, economic and military issues surround the U.S.,  Europe, and the Middle East, and learning this language could help you to land yourself a very good government job. An increasing number of businesses and organizations seek the same thing in order to understand the developing market, and there's a much bigger supply than demand at this time.

Finally, learning Arabic can also give you a fascinating and valuable insight into a commonly misunderstood culture and religion, and help you to become a more informed world citizen.

What makes Arabic so difficult?

First of all, the many colloquial dialects of spoken Arabic make speaking the language a little bit complicated. If you pick up conversational Arabic in Egypt, for example, you may have problems understanding (and being understood by) your coworker from Saudi Arabia.

Next, get ready to read and write backwards: one of the most-cited difficult aspects of Arabic is the fast that it is written from right to left, the exact opposite of what we English speakers are used to. In addition, most letters take on four different forms depending on where they're placed in a word, and to complicate things, vowels aren't included when writing. That's why written Arabic is often so tough to translate.

As far as grammar is concerned, there are very few similarities between Arabic and English. There are a whopping twelve pronouns and therefore twelve verb forms to use, and a feminine and masculine form for each noun (including objects). Verbs also take on a gender based on their subjects (nouns).

Since many Arabic consonants are formed in the back of the mouth (like those tricky French "r's"), learning correct Arabic pronunciation can be very difficult for many native English speakers.

How much time is needed for proficiency?

According to the FSI, a native English speaker needs over 88 weeks (one year and about 8 months) and over 2,200 hours of study to learn Arabic.

3. Japanese

The national language of Japan is spoken primarily in Japan but also throughout the world and in some Pacific islands.

Why should I learn it?

With roughly 130 million speakers, Japanese is estimated to be the 9th most spoken language in the world, which is a respectable ranking. Since Japan has one of the largest economies in the world, speaking Japanese is very practical for business opportunities in many fields. Learning the language can also provide your gateway into the fascinating Japanese culture and ensure your success when communicating with native speakers.

It's also important to mention that Japanese can be found in the group of languages that are ranked third for their use on the internet, meaning that the presence of Japanese speakers online is only surpassed by the presence of English and Mandarin speakers.

What makes Japanese so difficult?

The concept of a language that pays close attention to honors, titles and politeness can be very difficult for English speakers to understand. The language changes based on the level of politeness, and each level has set forms and rules. Besides learning the cultural rules for when to use each level of polite language, it also adds a whole new level of complexity to learning and memorizing the grammar. Fortunately, though, there are very few irregular verbs in Japanese and the word order required is very consistent, but the numberless nouns that can function as adjectives or adverbs are quite tricky for English speakers to understand.

The Japanese writing system is also complex to grasp for many English speakers. The Japanese writing system contains three different character sets: Kanji (thousands of Chinese characters), Hiragana, and Katakana (two "alphabets" of syllables made up of 46 characters each and referred to as Kana). Japanese texts can either be written in Western style (horizontal rows from the top to bottom of the page) or in traditional Japanese style (vertical columns from the right to the left side of the page). Both styles are used today.

There is some good news for English speakers learning Japanese, however: pronunciation. Fortunately, there are very few sounds in Japanese and almost all of these sounds can already be found in English. This makes the language very easy for English speakers to mimic, pronounce and understand when listening.

How much time is needed for proficiency?

Much like with Mandarin, a native English speaker needs over 88 weeks (one year and over 8 months) of intensive study to learn Japanese on average, according to the FSI study. That means over 2,200 hours of study.

You Can Do It!

By now, all of you native English speaking language learners and aspiring language learners have got to be wondering: Why should I even try learning a difficult language if it's been proven to take so long to learn?

Once again, it's very important to note that these findings are just based on one study with language learners studying very intensively. In addition, every learner is very different. What's difficult for one learner might be very easy for another, no matter how similar or different the language is to English. With some time, adequate resources, and--most importantly--motivation, any language is within your reach, and the more difficult a language seems to be, the more rewarding it will to be have learned it.

If you want to started and see how rewarding language learning really is for you, a great place to start is the award-winning language software offered by Rocket Languages.

Enjoy a free trial of the Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, or one of a dozen other languages at http://www.rocketlanguages.com/#try-it, and learn how fun and easy it can be to learn a difficult language.

This is a guest post from Andrea Reisenauer. Please share if you liked it!
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Alexander Petsch March 29, 2016, 10:42 pm
Just adding my two cents here.  Another factor in the difficulty of language learning is how exposed to native speakers you are.  While this doesn't completely define how difficult the language will be, it is an indicator of how fast you will pick up everyday speech.  If you live near a city district that mainly speaks your target language, or you interact with speakers on a near to everyday basis, you will obviously learn the language far quicker.  This is why things like chat forums and Skype are valuable assets to language learning.
 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Steven-W15 March 30, 2016, 7:44 am
What is particularly nasty about Arabic - unlike Mandarin - is that the "standard" Arabic (MSA) is only written, not spoken (outside of political circles). The (colloquial) Arabic that people speak everyday is treated as slang (at least by people here in Morocco). The differences between the various dialects are like that between Spanish and Italian: don't expect to be understood if you change regions. And, btw, good luck trying to find an online course in colloquial Arabic (RL does have Egyptian - widely understood because of their movie industry).
 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Robert-C7 April 1, 2016, 3:26 am
Well, I am learning Mandarin but my wife is Cantonese so even though they use the same characters, the language (some say dialogs) are completely different. It is like comparing English to German. When my mother-in-law talks to her doctor in Mandarin, I understand most of what she is saying. When she talks to my wife in Cantonese, I do not understand very little if anything. Good luck trying to find an online course for Cantonese. I did find something from the University of Arizona, in their "Critical Language Series".
 http://cls.arizona.edu/can.htm
 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Brittany--107 April 11, 2016, 1:04 am
This info. is very instresting to me. I never knew that there could some very difficult languages.
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Alexander Petsch April 12, 2016, 7:00 pm
Oh yeah.  Compared to languages like Arabic and even Spanish, English is quite centralized.  Aside from small things like the pronunciation of "controversy" or the spelling of colour/color the main difference between English variations is accent.  With Spanish, even the difference between Latin American dialects is pretty jarring, especially in rural areas.  As for Arabic, comparisons of the difference between dialects to the difference between closely related languages seem to be in conjunction with what little knowledge I have of Arabic.
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Alex-G44 April 15, 2016, 12:44 am
Is Indonesian/Malaysian really that difficult to learn? I spent a month studying a few hours a day and it just seemed so easy to me. No verb conjugations, easy pronunciation, a lot of English loan words. Does anyone have more experience with these languages? 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
caderatt April 20, 2016, 7:19 am
Very interesting reading! I wonder if this study has been replicated taking the point of view of a non-native english speaker. As you can read, I'm not a native english speaker and I would be curious to see how the web between languages changes from, for example, the perspective of a french native speaker. 

Also, if for an english native speaker it takes 88 weeks of intense study to learn mandarin, is the opposite also true, i.e. for a mandarin native speaker 88 weeks are required to learn english?

Does anybody have some answer to these questions? Many thanks!
 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Steven-W15 April 20, 2016, 8:24 am
Wow, from your post, I would never guess you were not a native English speaker.
Pas mal du tout.
 
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
caderatt April 20, 2016, 10:36 pm
Thank you Steven-W15. It's very nice to read that after years of study and practice!
Many thanks (or "Molte grazie" in my native language)!
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn
Kyra-916 April 26, 2016, 12:35 am
Wow, I did not think that when I wanted to learn Japanese that it wouldn't really be a huge part of my life in the future but now I have more reasons on why to continue studying Japanese. This was really fun to read, thank you!
The Most Difficult Languages to Learn

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