- Lani Seelinger
There’s nothing like the first day of a new language class — the discouragement you might feel when you open the textbook and see pages of incomprehensible words or symbols. But there’s also hope on that first day, and optimism that this unbreakable code in front of you might eventually become another tool in your repertoire. For the truly adventurous language learners, here are 10 of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.
According to the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is the most difficult language for a native English speaker to learn. This ranking takes into account not only the language itself but also the cultural aspect that comes with learning any language, so it is perhaps no surprise the most difficult language would come from a culture that is also notoriously difficult for Westerners to adjust to. Grammatically speaking, Japanese couldn’t be more different from English; it belongs to its own language family, Japonic or Japanese-Ryukyuan, so the vocabulary wouldn’t be familiar except for the occasional loan-word here and there; and instead of an alphabet, the Japanese writing system consists of characters adopted from Chinese plus two different syllabaries. If you meet a native English speaker who learned Japanese to any degree of proficiency, give him or her a pat on the back.
Spoken by 80 million people around the world, Korean is what historical linguists call a language isolate, meaning they have not been able to place it in any existing language family. That already tells you the vocabulary will be unfamiliar, but it doesn’t stop there. The writing system, Hangul, which was created on commission, combines the principles of alphabets and syllabaries to form something totally unique. Korean has seven speech levels, manifesting as verbal endings, which speakers switch between depending on the formality of the situation.
The easiest part about learning Arabic is the alphabet. Arabic words themselves are like nothing you’ve ever seen or heard before, and I’m not just talking about the script. Arabic forms words by adding a series of sounds to a base root, usually three consonants; the pattern of sounds around the root determines the part of speech, grammatical case, number, gender, all of this leading to the actual meaning. Once you’ve got that down, you’ve actually only learned the literary, written version of the language. As it’s spoken across a broad swath of the globe by millions of people, perhaps it comes as no surprise the spoken version of Arabic in each country varies so much that speakers of different Arabic dialects often can’t understand each other.
Polish is spoken by 40 million people worldwide, but compared to many other languages on this list, very few learn it as a second language. The difficulty of Polish lies in a couple of important factors: the first is basic pronunciation. A simple hello, ‘cześć’, is a nightmare for most foreigners, combining the heavy, strung-together ‘cz’ and the high, sibilant ‘ś’, followed immediately by a similarly sibilant yet dropping ‘ć’ (by the way, none of these sound anything like an English ‘s’ or ‘c’). This is where Polish gets its reputation for being very ‘hissy’. The second, perhaps more grave difficulty, lies in the many grammatical layers of the language. Cases alone are impossible to grasp perfectly, especially for English speakers used to a single case. Poles have seven cases, and each is in turn affected by gender; and Poles have seven grammatical genders, not just two. You can decline any noun in seven different ways, while numericals can have up to 17 forms – yes, that’s 17 ways of saying ‘six’. For good measure’s sake, try this Polish tongue-twister: ‘W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie i Szczebrzeszyn z tego słynie’.
There certainly aren’t many English speakers who will set out to learn this small language spoken by 4.3 million people in the South Caucasian country of Georgia. To begin with, you have to learn the Elvish-looking alphabet (the word for Georgia, Sakartvelo, is საქართელო), and then the real fun begins. In addition to a very unfamiliar, agglutinative grammatical structure, the very sounds in Georgian will throw English speakers for a loop, as they use glottal stops to make sounds that look like the same sound, for example p and p’ (written as ფ and პ, respectively), but which they hear entirely differently. Georgians, not terribly used to having foreigners speak their language, have a hard time understanding you before you master this difference.
Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, the official language of the most populous country in the world, presents a significant challenge to English speakers in many areas. Like Vietnamese, verbs lack all tense — the different tenses which fill English are all conveyed by time markers like ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. It also uses tones, which means saying the same sound with two different intonations often creates two different words. The writing system is widely known for its difficulty. Instead of an alphabet, which allows you to learn a fixed number of symbols that represents sounds, Mandarin uses characters, with each representing a word. Essentially, you could keep learning Chinese characters your whole life and still not know the complete set. The other major Chinese language, Cantonese, is related to Mandarin, and is also exceedingly difficult to learn. The two languages are not, however, mutually intelligible.
The majority of European languages all come from one language family, Indo-European. Not so for Hungarian, which baffles even the most dedicated language learner. Hungarian, a Finno-Ugric language spoken by 12 million people, is agglutinative — which means English speakers just have to drop their conception of how words and sentences should work. Entire phrases, for example ‘with my [female] friend’, meld together into a single word, ‘barátnőmmel’. The very ending of that word is the case that generally translates to ‘with’ and is one of Hungarian’s 18 cases — a figure that intimidates even the most dedicated learner of another fairly difficult language like Russian, which has six cases.
Thai, which has 20 million native speakers, is part of the Tai-Kadai family, encompassing 95 languages in southeast Asia and southern China. The extensive word borrowings from Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, won’t help the average English-speaking student of Thai very much, given all the other difficulties he or she will face. Even the alphabet is more difficult than average, containing 44 consonants, 15 vowel symbols and four diacritics marking tone. The spoken and written varieties of Thai belong to two different registers that are used depending on the social context, which means more to memorize. The good news is once you’ve mastered Thai, you’ll also be able to understand Lao.
Spoken by fewer than 6 million ethnic Mongols in Mongolia and China, this is a language you’re unlikely to come across unless you go looking for it. The alphabet, which is written up and down, is a fascinating beginning, although it has also been written in Cyrillic since 1941, a choice that greatly contributed to raising the literacy rate in the country. One quirk of Mongolian (which is also incidentally shared by Hungarian and Finnish) is vowel harmony, which means vowels are classified in groups depending on where in your mouth you make the sound, and vowels from different groups cannot generally be used together in the same word.
Finnish, Hungarian’s Finno-Ugric cousin to the north, shares many of Hungarian’s quirks, although with three fewer cases – giving it a mere 15. Like Hungarian, single and double letters make different sounds in Finnish, which will give English speakers fits when trying to understand or transcribe Finnish. This is a bigger problem than it might seem, given that these minute differences in sound create entirely words in Finnish – take tuuli (wind) and tuli (fire). Due to its agglutinative language, words in Finnish can also become absurdly long and can take on far more meaning than English speakers will find natural. Estonian is a close relative to Finnish, but the two are not mutually intelligible. If you manage to learn Finnish, you can brag that you’re learning one of the languages J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language is based on.
If you’re finding these a struggle, check out the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.