What Are the Hardest Languages for English Speakers? 5 to Learn Despite Themselves
Learning any language to fluency is a major undertaking, but you’ll find that some languages take more time than others.
If you’re asking yourself “what language should I learn?“, choosing a hard language may just be your answer.
Here are the five hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
- Are Some Languages Really Harder to Learn?
- Why You Should Learn One of the Hardest Languages for English Speakers
- The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s Language Categories
- The 5 Hardest Languages for English Speakers and Why You Want to Learn Them
Are Some Languages Really Harder to Learn?
But are some languages actually that much harder to learn?
Technically, the answer is no. All languages are evolved to be as easy to learn as possible, and there’s nothing that makes any one language inherently more difficult to learn than another.
However, learning a second language is a little different than learning your first language because your habits and the way you think about language have already been shaped by your past experience. So when it comes to learning a foreign language, how hard a language is to learn depends mostly on how different it is from the language or languages you’re already fluent in.
Even though no given language is more difficult to learn in a vacuum, some languages will differ more from your native language in terms of syntax, word order, writing system, vocabulary and so on.
Still, when we say these languages are “harder” to learn, all we really mean is that they take longer to learn. You have to figure out how to memorize more stuff, and you might have to spend more time listening to internalize the flow of the language.
But words are still words and grammar is still grammar. Nothing makes these languages inherently harder to learn. They’re just less familiar and thus take more time. With a good plan and a good language learning method, you’ll still prevail.
Why You Should Learn One of the Hardest Languages for English Speakers
Okay, so the downside to learning one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn is obvious: You need to set aside more time than if you were learning an “easy” language.
The upsides, though, are a lot more compelling.
You’ll learn an entirely new way of thinking
The whole thing that makes these languages hard to learn is how different they are from English. But look at what that means: If you’re learning one of these languages, you’re learning a new, unfamiliar way of thinking. An entirely new writing system, a word order you aren’t used to—whatever.
If you aren’t convinced, consider that research has shown that speaking a language that has little in common with English literally means using your brain in a different way. The very thing that makes some languages especially hard to learn for English speakers also makes these languages especially useful for expanding your perspective and learning a new way of thinking.
You’ll gain access to a very different culture
The less a language has in common with English, the more likely the culture associated with that language is to be very different from the cultures of English-speaking countries. Since learning a language also gives you access to the culture associated with that language, learning an especially unfamiliar language is a nice two-for-the-price-of-one deal where you also get to know an especially unfamiliar culture.
You’ll take your language learning skills to the next level
The harder the language you choose to learn, the more it’ll stretch your language learning skills. Learning one of the hardest languages for native English speakers will give your language learning muscles a complete workout, so any languages you choose to learn in the future will seem easier and take you less time to become fluent in.
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s Language Categories
Of course, before you can get started learning one of them, you have to actually know what the hardest languages are!
Fortunately, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), a language learning institute run by the United States Department of Defense, makes this easy. They divide languages into four categories based on difficulty, then make the lengths of the courses they offer in each language proportional to how difficult that language is.
The easiest languages, Category I and II languages, include Romance languages like Spanish and French and take 36 weeks to learn. Category III languages, which are harder still, include Russian and Hebrew and the course length goes up to 48 weeks. The hardest languages of all are Category IV languages, which take 64 weeks to learn at the DLIFLC.
The 5 Hardest Languages for English Speakers and Why You Want to Learn Them
There are five languages taught at DLIFLC that get classified as Category IV languages. Let’s take a look at them and why they might interest you.
The most obvious way Arabic differs from English is the alphabet. Arabic uses a right-to-left cursive script that draws on 28 letters. Additionally, vowels in written Arabic are often notated with small marks above and below words or even omitted entirely, so readers have to rely on their knowledge of the language to fill in the gaps between consonants.
However, because of the limited number of letters used in the Arabic alphabet, English speakers tend to develop an intuitive sense of Arabic writing fairly quickly once they’ve made the necessary mental adjustments.
Arabic grammar is an involved process. Arabic is a highly inflected language with many rules that may surprise English speakers. For example:
- Arabic has a singular, plural and dual form, so having two of something is different than having three of something as far as the grammar’s concerned.
- The verb generally comes before the subject in Arabic sentences.
- The basic meaning of a word is given by the consonants that form the root of that word, and the precise sense of the word is determined by which vowels are added between the consonants.
- Nouns can be masculine or feminine, and both adjectives and verbs have to match the nouns they’re associated with in terms of gender—unless the noun is an inanimate plural, in which case the corresponding adjectives and verb must be in feminine singular form.
Thanks to these kinds of grammatical quirks in combination with the writing system, learning Arabic can be a mind-bending experience for English speakers. For another perspective on what makes Arabic interesting for English speakers to learn, check out this article from Slate.
And to start learning Arabic yourself, check out these great online resources.
2. Mandarin Chinese
Like Arabic, Chinese uses a writing system unfamiliar for English speakers. Unlike Arabic, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Instead, written Chinese is comprised of one-syllable characters, and every Chinese word is either its own character or a composite of characters. As a result, learning Chinese means internalizing the thousands of different characters that make up the language.
Tones also play a crucial role in Chinese, and words that differ only in terms of intonation can have radically different meanings. Mandarin Chinese has four tones (some varieties of Chinese use more).
That said, Chinese grammar is actually fairly simple for English speakers to pick up. For starters, Chinese’s subject-verb-object word order will feel familiar to English speakers. More importantly, Chinese is pretty much the polar opposite of Arabic as far as inflection goes: Whereas Arabic is highly inflected, Chinese is minimally inflected.
So no need to worry about gender or verb conjugation when learning Chinese. For that matter, no need to worry even about singular vs. plural or tense. These aspects of the language are communicated using word order and context rather than inflection in Chinese.
The writing system used in Japanese is based on kanji, which are characters adopted from Chinese. Therefore, individual characters tend to be similar in both appearance and meaning from Japanese to Chinese, although some differences have arisen over time.
Beyond kanji, Japanese also uses sets of characters called kana that are used to write grammatical markers, foreign words and other words that have no kanji representation. Kana itself breaks down into different classes of characters—so at the end of the day, Japanese writing is an amalgamation of several different scripts.
Japanese writing isn’t the only brain-stretching aspect of the language for native English speakers. Japanese grammar generally takes more time for English speakers to get down because it has less in common with English. For example, the verb goes after the object in Japanese sentences, and Japanese uses postpositions instead of prepositions, so learning Japanese is probably the quickest way to get rid of any habits English might have given you as far as expecting words to appear in a certain order.
According to some, these features may actually make Japanese the hardest language for native English speakers to learn, although you’ll also find plenty of English speakers out there who have learned Japanese and now wonder what the big fuss is.
For the last hundred years or so, written Korean has primarily used Hangul, an alphabet consisting of 24 letters. By itself, Hangul is probably the easiest writing system for English speakers to learn out of the five languages on this list (probably a little easier than Pashto/Arabic, definitely much easier than Japanese/Chinese).
However, lurking in the background in written Korean is Hanja, the Korean equivalent of Japanese kanji. Hanja, which isn’t based on an alphabet but on borrowed Chinese characters, was the main form of written Korean until the 20th century, and it’s still used in some situations today—for example, to disambiguate words that have the same hangul spelling.
Korean grammar is similar to Japanese grammar (verb goes after the object, for instance) but a little more intricate. For example, Korean has more particles. Korean also uses more sounds than Japanese, many of them sounds that English speakers aren’t accustomed to.
Both Korean and Japanese are also steeped in complex social etiquette that requires English speakers to adjust their mindset a little. In both languages, there are several different degrees of politeness you can use, ranging from the formal to the familiar. Of course, it can be a little tricky learning to navigate this aspect of the language with ease, but it’s a great example of how learning a new language also means learning a new culture.
Take a look at this post for an idea of how to get started with Hangul, pronunciation and other Korean basics.
The final Category IV language listed by DLIFLC is Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
English speakers find Pashto hard for reasons similar to why they find Arabic hard. First, the Pashto alphabet is related to the Arabic alphabet, so there’s that.
Maybe more significantly, Pashto is a highly inflected language, so learning Pashto means becoming immersed in a world of complex and novel grammatical peculiarities. For instance, which nouns agree with which verbs in Pashto depends on tense.
You might recall that some languages like Japanese tend to use postpositions rather than prepositions. Well, Pashto uses postpositions, prepositions and something called ambipositions—words that fit around nouns like sandwiches.
For a taste of Pashto, check out this page.
The one thing shared by these five languages that makes them all a handful for native English speakers is that there’s little overlap with English in terms of vocabulary.
Beyond that, though, these languages are all hard for slightly different reasons—writing system, grammar, tones, etc.
Whichever one you choose to learn, you’re bound to discover a linguistic world that is exciting, new and strange in the best possible way.
Not sure where to start? FluentU has programs available for Chinese, Japanese and Korean at the moment—we know they’re tricky languages, so our team of language experts works hard to make them feel more accessible by combining authentic videos with interactive subtitles, a multimedia dictionary, flashcard decks, quizzes and more helpful tools.
And yes, even with the support of FluentU or another language learning program, you’ll still have to put in more time with these languages than with languages more closely related to English.
But it’ll be time well spent!