Discover the 6 Hardest Languages to Learn in the World
What is the hardest language to learn? And what makes it so hard? Is it hard because of irregular verbs, or because its spelling has nothing to do with pronunciation? Is it hard because of throaty consonants or twenty-letter vocabulary words? For many languages on this list, the answer is “Yes.”
But don’t let difficulty discourage you. What makes a language tricky for some makes it fun for others, and it's easier than ever to learn a language online.
So if you love a good challenge, then try your hand at one (or more!) of the languages on this list.
If you’ve ever eaten sushi or tried to grow a Bonsai tree, then you already know some Japanese. So you may be surprised to learn that the CIA ranked Japanese the most time-consuming for English-speakers to learn. Why?
Japanese is literally one-of-a-kind: It’s a language isolate. That means it’s not directly related to any other language, so you won’t be able to rely on cognates as easily as you could with, say, Spanish.
3 Writing Systems.
Whereas English only has one writing system, Japanese has three: katakana, hiragana and kanji. Kanji, which are based on Chinese characters, are notoriously difficult. You have to learn the 2,000 most common kanji (jouyou kanji) as the absolute bare minimum.
To be polite in English, you might say “Sir” or “Madam.” In Romance languages, you might use a slightly more elevated form of the word “you”--swapping out “tu” for “vous” in French, for example.
But Japanese? It’s a bit more complicated.
Based on the politeness system (keigo), you could have ten different forms of the word “you”! It ranges from everything from the standard “anata” to the gruff “omae” (which would be the equivalent of someone shouting, “Oy! You!”).
While you’re at it, pay attention to honorifics, which indicate status. While you might use “san” among your peers, for example, you’ll have to upgrade to “sama” for people of higher status--and for deities. Using the wrong honorific is extremely rude.
Chinese grammar is refreshingly simple. If you’ve ever had to spend hours memorizing the gender of Russian words or drilling yourself on German plurals, then Mandarin will be a breath of fresh air--it has none of those. But two factors land it on this list:
Thousands of Characters
Like Japanese, Mandarin has thousands of characters, and they aren’t phonetic: The characters have no connection to how the word is actually pronounced. This means that you’ll need to memorize the pronunciation, the characters and the definition separately for each word. Oh, and don’t forget the tone.
Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that a vowel’s pronunciation determines the meaning of a word, based on four tones. Take “ma” for example. The tone changes the definition from “mother” to “rough” to “horse” to “scold.” So be careful which tone you use. You could accidentally end up referring to your mother as a farm animal!
Finally! After memorizing so many Mandarin and Japanese characters, you’ll be pleased to know that Arabic has an alphabet. Well, almost.
When looking at Arabic calligraphy for the first time, you might be overwhelmed by not only its beauty, but also its complexity.
Luckily, even though it’s written from right to left, learning to write the alphabet is pretty simple; that’s part of what makes it one of the most popular languages to learn. The tricky part comes in when it’s time to read it.
That’s because the Arabic alphabet is actually an abjad, meaning that only the consonants are written. You just have to know what the vowels are.
Like many of the languages on this list, Arabic’s pronunciation makes it a challenge for native English speakers. While there aren’t any tones, there are a lot of back-of-the-throat sounds, or phonemes.
The sounds vary based on which dialect you learn. The widely spoken Arabic that you hear in Morocco (Darija) isn’t mutually intelligible with the Arabic you hear in Egypt (Masri). In other words, if Modern Standard Arabic is like Latin, then each country’s dialect would be like a different Romance language. There are a lot of similarities, but even more differences. That means that learning Arabic isn’t a one-time process. You’ll have to start at the beginning every time you want to learn a new dialect. Don’t worry, it gets easier every time!
When you listen to a native speaker, Russian’s harsh phonemes can make the language sound intimidating. But when you sit down to learn it, does it actually live up to its reputation?
What makes it so hard?
There’s good news after looking at the Arabic abjad--Russian has an actual alphabet. With 33 letters, the Cyrillic alphabet has just a handful more than English’s 26.
But don't be fooled. While many Russian letters look like their Latin alphabet equivalents, some are pronounced completely differently. For starters, “Р” is pronounced like a rolled “r” and “В” sounds like “v.” Buckle up.
A Handful of Cases
English has mostly shed its cases, but Russian still has six. This means that the noun itself, not just the verb, changes its ending based on the role it plays in the sentence.
Hard and Soft Consonants
Russian is written in a phonetic way, which means that once you get the hang of the alphabet, you’ll pronounce it exactly as you see it.
However, in much the same way as Mandarin words change depending on the tone, Russian words can change based on whether you pronounce a consonant “hard” or “soft.” There is a difference!
Modern forms of Turkish and its alphabet have only existed since 1929, but the language dates back centuries. It’s as fascinating as it is complex.
Don’t be scared by the long words. Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means that prefixes and suffixes are tacked directly onto verbs. For example, “I go” is “giderim,” but “I can go” is “gidebilirim.” Once you start reaching 5- and 6-syllable words, pronunciation can become a mouthful!
How can you make sure that the word is still pronounceable after you add so many prefixes and suffixes? Vowel harmony. Turkish changes the vowels in certain words so that the language flows more smoothly. You may find this unintuitive, but once you commit the vowel changes to memory, it will make pronunciation a breeze.
Lack of Cognates
Turkish’s closest linguistic relatives are Turkmen, Azerbaijani and Kazakh. If you happen to speak any of those languages, you’re in luck. If not, then you’ll have a slightly harder time with vocabulary.
In World War II, Japanese soldiers easily cracked every code that the Allies threw their way--but one continually baffled them. That’s because it wasn’t a code at all. It was Navajo, a notoriously complex language currently spoken by 170.000 people in the United States.
Unlike in English, the prefixes in Navajo can link one after the other, forming incredibly long phrases. Take “military tank,” for example. In Navajo, that is “chidí naaʼnaʼí beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh bikááʼ dah naaznilígíí.”
How often do you think about how “alive” something is before you conjugate a verb? If a man wakes up, a child wakes up, or a dog wakes up--it’s all the same verb in English.
Not so in Navajo. Words are divided into a hierarchy based on how “animated” they are. At the bottom are abstract ideas. In the middle are children and animals. At the top of the list are human beings and lightning.
So, which language is the hardest to learn?
This list might be a little intimidating. But with determination, practice, and creative language learning techniques, you can master them in no time. It will turn out to be easier than you think.
Still debating which language to pick? Or not sure where to start with a language? Use one of our free trials to give a few a spin.
If you’re ready for a challenge, then let’s get learning!