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The Hardest Languages to Learn as a Native English Speaker

By Edited Aug 14, 2015 4 3

Learning a new language as a native English speaker is a great way to enhance your education. Many companies prefer a bilingual or multilingual potential employee over those with no secondary language skills. It is also a fantastic idea to learn a new language if you are considering travelling to the region that speaks it. Not only will this enhance your trip abroad by connecting you to the culture on a deeper level, but you will not look like that tourist jerk who neglected to learn anything about the language.

Learning a new language and travelling to the region is also really helpful in furthering your education on it. You cannot teach dialects from a book and you may even pick up some handy new words from talking to people. Those who natively speak a language are more than happy to help a student of it learn a thing or two.

However, not every language is a piece of cake for native English speakers. Nor is every language frustratingly hard either. In fact, between the many different languages, there is a wide variety that are easy and a variety that are hard.

If you are looking for a challenging language look to the East. Many Eastern countries have languages that are very different from English. That is not to say that all the difficult languages are in the East though.  Most people do not look for an difficult language. They look for a language because they:

  • Want to visit the county
  • A lot of people speak it and it would be useful to know
  • It does not take a lot of 'in class time' or 'hours' to become proficient in it
  •  Have a passion for a TV show / Book / Movie from that country and hate subtitles / translations.

If you are looking for a challenging language to learn or are just plain curious, here is a helpful break down of the most difficult languages to a native English speaker.

Note: No language is so hard that it is impossible to learn. The languages found on the following list are ranked hard because of all the extra bits you have to learn and because of that takes longer to master. None of them are impossible, it just takes a lot of hard work and practice.

china flag

Chinese

Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese, is considered to be the most difficult language to learn for English speakers. Like a lot of difficult languages, it is difficult for English speakers because it is a tonal language and does not use phonetics. Whereas many languages you can learn to speak it by learning the phonics, Chinese is a language you must learn both reading and speaking completely from scratch.

What really makes Chinese hard for English speakers is that it is like learning a very long and similar looking alphabet. Each symbol is a different word. What makes this worse is Mandarin has four different tones that determine the meaning of a word. So when learning to read it you have to memorizes thousands of different symbols.

It is a shame that Chinese is so difficult to learn as it the second most spoken language and it will be a very valuable skill to those interested in a business career.

saudi arabia flag

Arabic

Like with Chinese, the biggest hurdle of Arabic is the script. When you look at Arabic script it is like trying to read a doctor's handwriting. Most of the letters have several different forms depending on where they are found in the word and it makes reading Arabic extremely confusing. What makes speaking Arabic difficult is that there are very few vowels so it takes a lot of time and effort to learn the proper pronunciation. This also means that there will be very few if any familiar words to the native English speaker, which is what makes learning European languages much simpler.

To add another level of difficulty onto an already difficult language, there is the grammar. Unlike English, the verb usually comes before the subject and object. Arabic has three noun cases, two genders, present tense verbs have thirteen forms, and verbs and nouns must be learned in singular, dual and plural forms.

Oh, yeah and the dialects are different as well. Arabic spoken in Egypt is different from Arabic spoken in Morocco, for example. So if you do want to tackle this monster for a particular place be sure to get an instructor on the proper dialect.

japan flag

Japanese

The good news about Japanese is that if you have learned Chinese, Japanese will be much easier. As their language is an adaptation of Chinese. Like Chinese, they use a symbol system in their writing. There are, however, three different writing systems. Four if you count Romanji which sorts their language out into a phonetic system. Kanji uses symbols for words like Chinese. Hiragana and Katakana use a series of strokes within the character to make up words. For example "watashi" would be made from three strokes "wa", "ta", "shi".

korean flag

Korean

Korean is yet another symbol language. However, whereas Chinese and Japanese are like estranged brothers, Korean is like a second cousin. A lot of the words are similar to Chinese in a way, but the writing system looks completely different. Like Chinese and Japanese you have yet more symbols to memorize. Like Hiragana and Katakana in Japanese Hangul (the writing in Korean) is composed of different strokes to comprise a word. Fun fact, a lot of Hangul is based on the shape that the mouth makes when saying it.

Korean is often proved difficult for English speakers because of the grammar. Korean has different sentence structure, syntax, and verb conjugations.

finland flag

Finnish

Usually Scandinavian languages are not that difficult to pick up. However Finland's language was not born from Germanic or Latin influences like most European languages, it's Finno-Ugric like Hungarian and Estonian (also difficult languages). So when a native English speaker sees the Finnish language, it is fairly alien to them. It also has two forms, standard and spoken, which are very different.

The only bit of good news about Finnish is that it is written as it sounds in the Roman alphabet. Which after this list, is something I have missed. Even if it written as it sounds, Finnish words have a tendency to be very long and complex and people often forget that there are many single and double vowel sounds when speaking it.

Finnish may sound pretty easy but where it becomes notoriously hard is within its grammar. You think English grammar is complex? Whoa boy, look out. There are fifteen noun cases, six verb types with altered stems based on how they are conjugated, and oh so many suffixes. All of these house various little almost unnoticeable subtly tricky differences. I really, REALLY like Finland, but man is their language difficult.

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Comments

Apr 14, 2013 12:42pm
Jami_McCormick
Very interesting article! I haven't attempted any of these five languages, but another language that I found very tough is Russian, because the Cyrillic alphabet is just so confusing for native English speakers. Trying to navigate the metro in Europe's largest city (Moscow) while being essentially functionally illiterate was quite an adventure!
May 25, 2013 6:21am
adragast
I have learned Japanese and a bit of Arabic but to me Czech or Hungarian also seem really difficult.
Jun 5, 2013 10:15am
NU_Law_Student
Good read! Am I the only one who thinks that all languages are hard to learn if not submersed in the culture? My friend took Spanish classes all her life and when she speaks she sounds like an over-pronouncing bozette.
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