As a language enthusiast and a wannabe polyglot, learning languages has converted from merely a hobby into a habit. I have managed a few languages throughout all these years, but also “failed” to learn some undoubtedly. Along my “lifelong” language learning journey, I’m often asked, “what are the hardest languages to learn or you’ve learnt?” To be frank, it’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer. In fact, I’m not even sure how I usually answer this “favourite” question of all time.
In my opinion, there isn’t a clear-cut answer and there is no such thing as “the hardest languages to learn”. Every language in the world is unique. Some languages can be harder or easier to learn than other languages. Certain languages are easier to speak than to learn the writing system; some, on the contrary, are not the case.
There isn’t a fixed standard to determine if a language itself is difficult or easy; it all depends on a lot of fundamental aspects of the learner.
Native language: The native language of the learner will impact the pace of learning the target language. It’s the matter of how close or similar the target language is to the native language. For example, if they are in the same language family, or have the same sentence structure.
Language learning experience: Learners who have learnt other languages will find it easier to learn some particular new languages, especially if the target language is similar to the languages they have mastered. People who have learnt other languages tend to be able to get their head around the differences in languages faster.
Resources and environment: Resources and the environment have a huge impact on language learning too. If excessive resources are available for the language, and the environment gives you the opportunity to practice your target language; mastering the language will seem to be more achievable.
Learning purpose and motivation: Learners may learn faster or slower depends on the purpose of learning. The purpose of learning the target language can transform into motivation that helps push the learner to make an extra effort in mastering the language, usually within an expected timeframe. As a result, the particular language may be perceived as “not so difficult”. Take myself as an example, I’ve tried to learn Afrikaans (closely related to English) out of curiosity but the learning mission was aborted after a short while and I didn’t learn much, which was pretty disappointing. However, I was determined to learn Spanish as it was one of the requirements as I was applying for a visa. Somehow it motivated me enough that I passed Level A2 including a speaking test in less than a month.
Here are the 4 hardest languages for English speakers to learn backed by the Foreign Service Institute of The U.S. Department of State research and my own experience learning three out of the four. I would like to proclaim it here before getting into the list that if you are learning or mastering any of these “hardest languages”, praise yourself and be proud!
The Japanese language is a context-based language. The pronunciation in Japanese is easier for English speakers to cope.
Why is Japanese the hardest language for English speakers to learn then? First of all, it would take time for learners to learn the writing system that comprises 2 different syllabaries (Hiraganaひらがな and Katakana カタカナ) and Chinese characters (Kanji 漢字). Learners still need to remember thousands of characters in order to form conversations even though tonnes of words are borrowed from other languages. Its SOV (subject+object+verb) syntax/ sentence structure also sizes up the difficulty of the language; English speakers will need to adapt their mindset to different grammar rules.
2. Mandarin Chinese
English speakers often consider Mandarin Chinese as a hard language to pick up due to the logographic writing system and the 5 tones (4 tones and a neutral). There are thousands of words (Chinese characters) in Chinese, and mispronouncing a tone may usually mean a totally different thing. Speaking of tones, it’s worth to mention that Cantonese Chinese is usually a formidable one for English speakers to learn, as it has 9 tones.
However, learners can also learn the language without having to start from learning all the strokes, as Chinese is also a context-base language. As mentioned in my other article- Why learning Chinese is a good idea?, Chinese has the same sentence structure as English, which makes it easier for English speaker to handle. The fact that there is no conjugation nor tenses makes Chinese grammar a little less tricky for English speakers to learn.
Thanks to King Sejong, Hangul (한글) is not a strenuous writing system to learn. Some learners managed to master Hangul in a day or two (according to user feedback of Eggbun Korean app). Pronunciation is also not the hardest compared to other languages in the category.
Similar to Japanese, English speakers are not commonly familiar with Korean grammar rules, like the SOV syntax. Plus, Korean has a few different levels of honorifics; which makes the language seem complicated.
I haven’t personally learned Arabic in depth, but I have attempted to learn the Arabic alphabet or Arabic abjad. The writing system is supposed to be the easiest part of Arabic, but I still couldn’t go on. I couldn’t get my brain to cope with the pattern of sounds and the words. According to Foreign service institute, written Arabic uses fewer vowels; words are formed by adding a series of sound to a base root. Spoken Arabic is also different from written Arabic, with many regional dialects.
Foreign Service Institute ranked the difficulty level of languages based on the time English speaker learners need in order to achieve speaking and reading proficiency. As mentioned before, these languages might be the hardest languages to learn for English-speakers, but it may not be the case for people who know some other languages. It all depends on separate reasons and fundamentals.
My advice is to just go ahead and learn whatever languages you want to learn. Don’t let anything or anyone take away your courage to learn a new language! No matter how hard it may seem, if you have the will to do it, you can and you will one day master the language. Plus, you may find the hardest language in the world a piece of cake for you, you never know!
Here’s one of my favourite inspirational quotes: “A different language is a different vision of life.” — Federico Fellini
The chatbot tutor- Lanny promises to make your learning journey fun; you won’t even notice the difficulty of the language.
-by Jo-Shan Lee