What is the most difficult language to learn in the world? The answer to this question depends on many factors and one considers what languages you already speak. But if you are a native English speaker, some languages are harder to learn than others.
Many refer to the Defense Language Institute’s classifications. Depending on how difficult they might be for an English speaker to learn, languages are grouped into one of four categories with languages in Group I being the easiest and those in Group IV the toughest.
Arabic speakers around the world: 310 million native speakers (all varieties)
Writing system: Arabic alphabet
Why is Arabic hard to learn?
Arabic is a challenging language to learn for a variety of reasons. It has many different dialects with few learning resources--MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) tends to be the most commonly taught form of Arabic even if it’s not the most spoken. It’s writing system is also notoriously complex. Letters are written differently depending on where they appear in the word and vowels aren’t even written at all.
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Chinese speakers around the world: 1.2 billion native speakers (including all the “dialects” of Chinese)
Writing system: Chinese characters
Why is Chinese hard to learn?
Despite being one of the most spoken languages in the world, Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn ranked by the Defense Language Institute. It’s a tonal language, has tons of homonyms, makes frequent use of idiomatic expressions, and uses a completely different writing system.
Interested in learning Chinese? Even though Chinese is considered hard to learn, you can still easily practice your vocabulary here.
Japanese speakers around the world: 125 million native speakers
Writing system: Kanji and Kana
Why is Japanese hard to learn?
Japanese is a tough language for English speakers to learn because it’s lack of cognates, totally different grammar and the fact that it has not one, not two, but three different writing systems learners need to understand in order to read and write in the language. Thankfully, it’s pronunciation is pretty clear and straightforward.
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Korean speakers around the world: 77.2 million native speakers
Writing system: Hangul
Why is Korean hard to learn?
Korean, like Hungarian later on this list, is a language isolate. This means it’s harder to find common ground in Korean in regards to grammar or vocabulary than other languages. Its pronunciation and grammar can be daunting for new learners. It’s writing system, however, is logical and is arguably one of the easiest to learn.
Learning Korean? Korean may be considered a tough language, but learning new words in the language doesn’t have to be--start here.
Pashto speakers around the world: 40 million native speakers
Writing system: Perso-Arabic script
Why is Pashto hard to learn?
Pashto is a language spoken in both Afganistan and Pakistan. It’s written in Perso-Arabic, a writing system similar to and derived from the Arabic alphabet. Pashto grammar is difficult--which nouns go with which verbs depends on tense. And it uses both prepositions (at home) and postpositions (homeward) as well as something called ambipositions--words that surround nouns.
Finnish speakers around the world: 5.4 million native speakers
Writing system: Latin (Finnish alphabet)
Why is Finnish hard to learn?
Finnish pronunciation isn’t far from English, but this language’s grammar certainly makes it one of the hardest languages.
Up to the challenge of learning Finnish? Learn new words and practice your vocabulary here.
Navajo speakers around the world: 169,359 native speakers
Writing system: Latin (Navajo alphabet)
Why is Navajo hard to learn?
What if there were a language where most of the words you use in English aren’t directly translatable? There is and it’s Navajo. The language is very verb-intensive. This means a lot of the descriptive language used in Navajo uses verbs. It also has several sounds that don’t have English equivalents, making its pronunciation equally challenging for English speakers.
Hungarian speakers around the world: 13 million native speakers
Writing system: Latin (Hungarian alphabet)
Why is Hungarian hard to learn?
Case systems are one of the more difficult grammar points for English learners to take on and Hungarian makes the list because it’s notorious for having 26 different cases (compare that to German’s four cases or Croatian’s seven). The language is also a “language isolate” which means it shares few similarities with other languages.
But...Hungarian doesn’t have to be hard--our Resident Polyglot Shannon Kennedy learned that when she took on learning Hungarian in two months. Want to get started learning Hungarian? Pick up new vocabulary here.
Basque speakers around the world: 750,000 native speakers
Writing system: Latin (Basque alphabet)
Why is Basque hard to learn?
Basque is the third language isolate on this list. It’s spoken in part of Spain and while it has borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Spanish, it still proves a challenge to learn. Even with only about 750,000 native speakers, there are about five distinct dialects of Basque, making this already tough to learn language even tougher.
Icelandic speakers around the world: 314,000 native speakers
Writing system: Latin (Icelandic alphabet)
Why is Icelandic hard to learn?
Since Iceland was settled centuries ago, the language has remained close to its roots and hasn’t much changed. And when it needs to add a new word, new Icelandic words are coined or old Icelandic words are repurposed so that Icelandic speakers don’t need to borrow words from other languages.
Do you want to learn Icelandic? It may be one of the toughest languages for English speakers to learn, but you can get started by easily learning new words in Icelandic here.
It might seem like determining what the hardest language is might have a straightforward answer--and might even be one of the languages on this list! The truth is, the hardest language to learn isn’t what you might think.
The easiest language to learn is going to be the language you most want to learn--the one you’ll be most motivated to learn and stick with. The hardest would be the opposite--a language that you’re not feeling particularly inspired to learn.
English is said to be one of the most challenging languages to learn for speakers of other languages. It has loads of rules and exceptions. Word order doesn’t always make sense to speakers of other languages. Pronunciation is all over the map because it has borrowed vocabulary from so many different languages. Plus, when a speaker puts emphasis on different words in a phrase, it can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
For English speakers, Russian is arguably more difficult than German. For one, Russian has six grammatical cases whereas German only has four. It also has a different writing system--both German and English use the Latin script whereas Russian uses Cyrillic. German pronunciation is also much simpler than Russian for English speakers.
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