What are the Most Difficult Languages to Learn?
Learning any foreign language is challenging for many but the most difficult languages to learn partly depend on where you’re starting from.
For instance, many native English speakers find Chinese (Mandarin) very tough to learn; but native Japanese speakers may pick up Chinese much easier because they’re familiar with the common writing system used in both.
There’s no doubt that all things being equal (which they rarely are), some languages are inherently more difficult to learn than others, especially if they have significantly different structures to your native language.
So, let’s consider this from a native English-speaking perspective. Here, we delve into some of the toughest languages widely spoken and learned around the world (i.e., not including languages spoken only by remote Brazilian tribes!)
Here are 10 of the toughest languages in our opinion (in no particular order)…
Russian is the most popular Slavic language — and one that is bathed in culture as well as literary, philosophical, musical and visual arts value.
What’s so difficult about it? Pronunciation is extremely difficult for most native English speakers, with several consonants grouped together. The alphabet contains 33 characters, some of which look identical to Latin characters but are pronounced differently
Who might find it easier? People who speak Ukrainian, Polish, Serbian or another Slavic language. Popularity: HIGH: An estimated 260 million native speakers and 120 million non-native speakers speak Russian.
Arabic is a Semitic language widely spoken in 26 countries in the Middle East and North Africa — and generally recognized as one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn.
For those who take on the challenge, Arabic opens the door to a rich history and culture in a large part of the world.
What’s so difficult about it? The entire language is “foreign” to native English speakers, with a challenging script that reads from right to left, complex grammar and difficult pronunciation. Many sounds are not present in English.
Who might find it easier? People who already speak Hebrew or Aramaic (other Semitic languages).
Popularity: HIGH: there are around 310 million native speakers and around 110 million non-native speakers of Arabic.
Despite what many people think, Turkish is not related to Arabic. Instead, it is a Turkic language, which is closer to Afro-Asiatic languages or Hebrew.
Turkish is a widely spoken language — not only in Turkey but also in Iraq, Syria and many parts of Europe.
What’s so difficult about it? Turkish uses a Latin-script alphabet with modifications but also “borrows” words from Persian and Arabic It also has many grammar rules — with suffixes and word order more complex than in English.
Who might find it easier? Speakers of other Middle Eastern languages.
Popularity: MODERATE: 75 million native speakers of Turkish.
Greek, the oldest of all Indo-European languages still spoken (in Greece and Cyprus), retains many of its connections with Ancient Greek.
Native English learners will find Greek difficult but rewarding because of the arts, philosophy, culture and history associated with the language.
What’s so difficult about it? The language is challenging mainly because of an entirely different alphabet, as well as new vocabulary, three different genders for nouns and complex grammar rules.
Who might find it easier? Some native Spanish and Romanian speakers (for example) may already be familiar with the main language challenges that native English speakers struggle with.Popularity: LOW: Turkish is spoken by around 13 million people.
Hindi, one of the official languages of India, is among the most widely spoken languages in the world, with well over 500 million native speakers. Learning it can open up many opportunities for travel, work and study.
The language originates from Sanskrit, the ancient South Asian language with similarities to ancient Greek and Latin.
What’s so difficult about it? The Hindi script (called Devanagari) is challenging for native English speakers to master. Despite being a phonetic language, there are many unfamiliar sounds and subtle variations for English speakers.
Who might find it easier? Native speakers of Urdu, Nepalese or other related languages.
Popularity: HIGH – around 585 million people worldwide speak Hindi as their mother tongue.
Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese)
The main Chinese languages are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is more popular and generally considered the easiest of the two because there are fewer tones to learn.
It’s no secret that learning Mandarin, in particular, can open doors for education and business — and many people have done that with almost 200 million non-native speakers of the language.
What’s so difficult about it? Both of the major Chinese languages are tonal but Mandarin uses only four tones and Cantonese nine (the same word changes meaning depending on the tone used). These languages also use a complex script with tens of thousands of characters that take a lot of getting used to for native English speakers.
Who might find it easier? Speakers of other tonal languages like Thai or Vietnamese and also Japanese speakers, who are more familiar with the script used.
Popularity: VERY HIGH: around one billion native speakers, with 933 million Mandarin speakers and around 63 million speaking Cantonese.
Japanese is another of the world’s most popular and most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers.
That doesn’t prevent many foreign language learners from trying, often drawn to Japanese pop culture which is in plentiful supply online.
What’s so difficult about it? Although Japanese is not a tonal language, the main challenge comes from its writing system, which consists of tens of thousands of characters (2,000 Is generally considered enough for a working knowledge of Japanese). Japanese is also a highly formal and respectful language and it can get confusing when learning multiple terms to address people.
Who might find it easier? Chinese speakers, who are more familiar with the type of writing system used.
Popularity: HIGH: there are around 125 million native speakers of Japanese.
Thai, the national language of Thailand, is attempted by many native English speakers but mastered by few.
Being a tonal language, one word pronounced in five different ways can have five completely unconnected meanings. Thai grammar is not overly complicated but there are plenty of other challenges making it one of the toughest foreign languages in the world to learn.
What’s so difficult about it? Not only is the language tonal but the Thai alphabet consists of 76 characters that need to be memorized — and written Thai has no gaps between words!
Who might find it easier? Speakers of other tonal languages like Mandarin, Cantonese or Vietnamese.
Popularity: MODERATE: Thai is spoken by just under 70 million people (mainly in Thailand).
Most European languages are Indo-European in origin but Hungarian is one of 38 Uralic languages spoken mainly in its native land of Hungary.
Those who make the effort to learn this notoriously difficult language are rewarded with a window into a rich cultural heritage and words for expressing things that simply don’t exist in English.
What’s so difficult about it? Highly complex grammar and pronunciation, e.g., 14 vowels have slight pronunciation differences and some consonant clusters have unexpected pronunciations.
Who might find it easier? Finnish and Estonian language learners may find Hungarian easier as they are also Uralic languages.
Popularity: LOW: there are approximately 13 million native speakers of Hungarian.
Serbian is a Slavic language that is spoken not only in its native Serbia but also widely in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as other countries in the region.
Learning Serbian can, therefore, open doors to a large swathe of southeastern Europe and, while very challenging to do so, it is at least a phonetic language (words are pronounced how they are written).
What’s so difficult about it? Not only are there two scripts (Cyrillic and Latin) but also seven tenses and a consonant (R) that can sometimes be a vowel. It’s also a gendered language, unlike English.
Who might find it easier? Speakers of other Slavic languages, such as Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Croatian, Czech, etc.
Popularity: LOW: around 10 million people speak Serbian around the world.
How to make foreign language learning easier…
Just because a language is tough to learn doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a crack. All language learning is worthwhile if it exercises your brain.
It’s generally easier to learn a more manageable language first rather than diving into an exceptionally difficult one.
But if you’re committed to it, plenty of tools exist to help you learn almost any language to a high level. If you can’t surround yourself with native speakers, video learning is the next best thing.
There’s never been so much subtitled video out there on YouTube, Netflix, HBO and so on from which to learn a foreign language. Combined with AI tools like Chat GPT, almost anyone can learn even the toughest languages if they put their mind to it.
Start by downloading our free and simple Chrome extension, which can help you build a library of new phrases as you learn from native speakers in context with explanations and prompts.