The Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers: What Makes Them So Challenging?

Have you ever wondered which are the hardest languages to learn for English speakers? The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the United States not only wondered but conducted extensive research to determine the average length of time it takes a student to achieve proficiency in dozens of languages.

Although the actual time and energy devoted to learning a language ultimately depend on a lot of subjective factors, including each learner’s natural ability, background knowledge, and motivation, the information gathered by the FSI is so consistent that it allows us to divide languages into four categories, according to their level of difficulty.

So, what are the hardest languages to learn for English speakers in particular? Let’s see them below!

 

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Category I: Easy Languages

The first category features those languages that are most similar to English, either because they come from the same language family or because they have influenced each other through close contact over the years. To learn the languages in this group, an average student will need 24-30 weeks of training (600-750 class hours).

24 weeks: Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish

30 weeks: French

As said above, these are languages that share many characteristics with English. Take the case of Spanish, for example. Of the thousands of words that make up the English language, almost 40% have a one-to-one equivalent in Spanish, i.e., a “sister” word that has similar meaning and spelling.

In both languages, for instance, words ending in –al come from Latin. Words like habitual, general, ideal, festival, or individual are the same in both English and Spanish, the only difference being that the Spanish versions tend to be stressed on the last syllable.

Similarly, English words that end in -ant or -ent are almost identical to their Spanish counterparts, whose only distinguishing element is an “e” at the end: agente, accidente, decente, conveniente, elegante, etc.

Another salient example from this group is Dutch, which many consider as a simplified version of German. With a simplified gender and case system, Dutch differs from German in that it has been more heavily influenced by English. If you overhear an everyday conversation in Dutch, it’s highly likely that you will notice words like sorry, chat, Internet or barbecue. All these loanwords, together with grammar rules that are much easier to remember than those from German, make Dutch a fairly easy language to learn for English-speaking learners.

So, what are the hardest languages to learn for English speakers?

Category II: Not-So-Easy Languages

Although not particularly difficult, the languages in category II pose more challenges for English learners than languages like Dutch or Spanish. To gain proficiency in any of the languages below, the average student would spend 36 to 40 weeks (or 900 hours!) studying their words and sounds.

36 weeks: German
40 weeks: Creole, Malay, Haitian, Indonesian, Swahili.

So, why is German harder than, say, Dutch? Also, why is German harder to learn than Spanish considering both English and German are Germanic languages, while Spanish belongs to a different family?

To begin with, German grammar is more complex than Dutch grammar. While German distinguishes three grammatical genders, the masculine and feminine categories from German have all but coalesced into a single group in Dutch. In the phrases below, you can see how the definite article changes to mark gender in German but remains the same in Dutch and in English.

English Dutch German
The moon De zon Die Sonne
The sun De maan Der Mond


 

In addition, German has four grammatical cases that determine the forms of grammatical words, like articles and possessive adjectives. These are nominative (for sentence subjects), accusative (for direct objects), dative (for indirect objectives), and genitive (for possessive phrases).

In Spanish, however, case doesn’t affect the form of words. They are always the same, no matter what function they perform in a sentence. As our Dutch teacher Anki reminds us, this means that, once you learn the spelling and pronunciation of a word, you can rest assured knowing it will always be the same, no matter what function it has in any given sentence.

Can you see why German is closer to being among the hardest languages to learn for English speakers?

Category III: Hard Languages

In this category, we find culturally distant languages that pose significant linguistic and non-linguistic challenges for English-speaking learners. Mastering any of the languages in this list would take a student approximately 44 weeks, or 1100 classroom hours. These are:

  • Albanian
  • Amharic
  • Armenian
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bengali
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Czech
  • Dari
  • Estonian
  • Farsi
  • Finnish
  • Georgian
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Kazakh
  • Khmer
  • Kurdish
  • Kyrgyz
  • Lao
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Macedonian
  • Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Sinhala
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Somali
  • Tagalog
  • Tajiki
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Thai
  • Tibetan
  • Turkish
  • Turkmen
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
  • Uzbek
  • Vietnamese

So, what makes these languages so hard? On the one hand, they have no connection to the Germanic language group whatsoever. Remember how we said German grammar rules were terribly difficult to memorise? Well, they are! But at least there are lots of individual words that look very familiar to us, like Haus (house), Universität (university), and Kamera (camera) just to name a few. In the languages above, these similarities are non-existent. Not only do they belong to different language families —after all, English and Spanish belong to different families as well!—, but they haven’t been influenced by Latin like both English and Spanish have.

And then, there’s the fact that they are truly complex languages. Finnish, for example, has 15 grammatical cases, which means the smallest change at the end of the word can significantly change its meaning.

You think that’s a lot? What if we told you that Hungarian has 35 cases? Or that word order is so flexible that one sentence can be said in three different ways? Or that Hungarian words can be created freely by adding prefixes and suffixes to existing words?

One thing is for sure. While all these challenges can be off-putting, you can certainly expect that learning such difficult languages would make you very special indeed!

Category IV Languages: Super-hard languages

Now, really, how much harder can a language get?

Believe it or not, there are harder languages than Finnish or Hungarian. But don’t worry. We promise this is the last category. Without further ado, here are (finally) the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

  • Arabic
  • Chinese – Cantonese
  • Chinese – Mandarin
  • Japanese
  • Korean

According to the FSI, mastering any of these beasts will take the average student 88 weeks or 2200 class hours. But what makes them so fiendishly hard?

To attempt an answer to this question, let’s take a look at what might be the single most difficult language on Earth: Mandarin. With more than 1 billion speakers, Mandarin Chinese is both the most spoken language in the world and the hardest.

To begin with, before you attempt to write “hello” in Mandarin you will need to learn a completely different writing system, a highly complex one at that. But that’s not even the worst part. According to our teacher Cho, a native of Beijing, the hardest aspect of this language for English speakers is that it uses intonation to convey attitude and meaning. Take the word 妈 (mā) (mom). Just by altering the pitch of your voice, it becomes 麻 (má) (hemp or flax). But it doesn’t stop there. You also have 马 (mǎ) (horse),  骂 (mà) (to nag), and 吗 (ma), which is a question marker.

As you can see, we were not lying when we said there were harder languages than Hungarian!

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But while these categories are very interesting, we firmly believe that when it comes to language learning, every experience is unique and unpredictable. While those in Category I might seem easier at first sight, in the end, you never know what kind of connection you will feel towards a language until you start studying it! So what about giving one of the languages in the last categories a try? If you contact us now, we will pair you up with a native teacher of whatever language you choose so you can try a personalised lesson for free!

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