Mastering the Unmasterable: Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

Elly Kimreviewed byIryna Andrus / more about Editorial Process11 min
Created: Apr 11, 2023Last updated: Jan 23, 2024
Learning

Have you ever struggled with a foreign language, experiencing linguistic obstacles that seemed impossible to overcome? Some tongues are significantly easier to acquire than others due to shared roots or similarities in grammar structures. However, several difficult-to-learn languages require years of study and dedication before achieving fluency. In this article, we will explore what the hardest language to learn is and discuss unique writing systems, complex grammatical rules, and other linguistic features.

Why Some Languages Are Easier or More Complex Than Others

Of course, several linguistic elements can influence how simple or complex a language is for various speakers. Some of these factors include:

  • Grammar complexity. If the grammar structure closely resembles your native tongue, it will be easier to learn and understand. On the other hand, you may find it more challenging if the new language has unfamiliar grammatical concepts, such as gender or varied word order.
  • Language family. Tongues that belong to similar families share many commonalities in vocabulary words, pronunciation patterns, syntax rules, etc., making learning them more manageable.
  • Sounds and tones used. A language may have sounds and tones unfamiliar to you, containing different inflections of the same sound to convey different meanings. This can complicate things for speakers not used to hearing such distinctions.
  • Writing system. It may differ significantly from what you are used to. For example, some languages may be written from right to left instead of the usual left-to-right order. Also, an extensive memorization component creates additional challenges. Therefore, most people believe that Chinese is the hardest language.
  • Cultural distance. Languages that are culturally distant from your native tongue can be more challenging to acquire since you don't have a reference point for historical practice and norms.
  • Availability of resources for learning. Access to language-learning materials and quality study aids may impact the ease or difficulty of mastering a new tongue.

These are the primary factors determining whether a language may be easy or hard to acquire. However, remember that these categories vary depending on an individual's linguistic background, and what is complicated for one person might not pose much of a challenge for someone else.

What is the Most Difficult Language to Learn

Mandarin Chinese often tops the list as the hardest language to learn for English speakers. One primary reason is its unique writing system, which involves memorizing over 1,500 characters to reach basic reading competence. Unlike Latin-based alphabets that use a set number of letters and symbols, each character in Mandarin represents an idea or concept independently.

But it isn't just about memorization – even correctly pronouncing words requires skillful execution due to tonal inflections built into everyday speaking patterns. In addition, sounds may be nuanced differently just by altering the inflection or pitch of a syllable, further complicating one's ability to comprehend and communicate effectively.

The four tones present another significant obstacle and make Mandarin the most difficult language to learn. These include a rising pitch (upward), a falling rise (rising then dropping off again quickly), steady pronounced flatness throughout, and a falling tone (downward). Each can produce ambiguity in sentence meaning, as variations may arise for even essential words. For instance, the term "ma," when spoken with a different tone, can mean "mother," "horse," or even act as a question particle.

Further complicating matter is China's various dialects, like Cantonese, spoken mostly across southeastern regions. As a result, it differs significantly not only with written scripts but also with pronunciation nuances within spoken conversations themselves.

So, learning Mandarin Chinese presents significant obstacles, primarily due to its unique writing system, with thousands of characters decipherable only through repetition-based reading sessions. Also, mastering the language requires diligent memorization and an ear attuned to recognizing subtle vocal cues. This ability generally takes years of consistent practice and immersion within China's culture.

Difficult Languages to Learn

Now that you know which language is the hardest to learn, let's explore other challenging tongues that English speakers may find complicated to master. These include the following:

  • Japanese

The language's writing system involves learning thousands of Kanji characters and two other alphabets – Hiragana and Katakana, which sound the same but have different meanings when used interchangeably. Also, polite language patterns in Japanese can be pretty complex, and there are many different levels of formality to learn depending on the situation.

Japanese has several grammatical structures unique from those encountered in European lingos. For instance, word order follows a subject-object-verb pattern rather than the typical subject-verb-object format found commonly across Germanic tongues.

  • Hungarian

Known as a Uralic language, Hungarian differs vastly from Indo-European tongues in Western Europe. For example, it has complex grammar rules involving cases and suffixes that can significantly alter the meaning of words based on context or usage. 

The word order is flexible, and negation is expressed in a grammatically intricate manner. Also, the language has as many as 44 letters in its alphabet rather than the standard 26 used by English speakers, making it one of the most difficult languages to learn.

  • Turkish

Its complex grammar system includes extensive suffixes and agglutination, which can create lengthy words with multiple meanings. For example, the term "ev" means house in Turkish; adding different suffixes changes its meaning to things like "my house," "to my house," or even more complicated constructions. 

The language also has vowel harmony, which means that the vowels used in a word must follow specific rules based on other vowels present. To complicate matters, Turkish has eight noun cases that must be used correctly when speaking or writing.

  • Thai

Its unique writing system has its own characters and symbols not used in any other language. The tone system consists of five tones: high, low, falling, rising, and mid-tone. These tones can change the meaning entirely, even if the words are spelled or pronounced similarly.

The grammar structure differs significantly from English; Thai sentences often omit subjects, and the verb is conjugated based on tense rather than subject-verb agreement. As a result, constructing proper sentences and understanding the context can be challenging for English speakers.

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The Hardest Languages to Write

In addition to Mandarin Chinese, which has already been discussed as the one with a challenging writing system, several other languages may prove difficult for English speakers. Here are some of the hardest languages to write.

  • Arabic

Arabic is a complex language with an intricate writing system that reads from right to left. It has 28 letters in its alphabet, some of which can have up to four different forms. There are also diacritical marks above and below the letters that indicate vowel sounds.

Furthermore, written Arabic often lacks vowels altogether (except when necessary), meaning readers must be able to recognize context cues rather than rely solely on spelling patterns as they would in many European languages. The grammar structure can also prove challenging since verbs come at the beginning of sentences. At the same time, subjects usually appear after them – constructing proper phrases requires keeping track of both tense and person.

  • Hebrew

Like Arabic, Hebrew is also a right-to-left language with an abjad writing system. However, it has 22 letters and no vowels; the latter is indicated by diacritical markings called nikudot. In addition to this unique feature of the alphabet, there are many rules surrounding how words can be transformed into different forms based on grammatical context.

As a Semitic language, Hebrew also has grammatical features that may be unfamiliar to English speakers. For example, verbs have multiple forms based on the tense and gender of the subject, as well as whether the action is ongoing or completed.

  • Ukrainian

As a Cyrillic language, Ukrainian can be challenging for English speakers to read and write. In addition, it has 33 letters in its alphabet, including sounds that do not exist in English.

In addition, Ukrainian nouns have gender and cases, which means they change depending on their role in the sentence. Verbs also have different forms based on tense, aspect, mood, and voice. Writing in Ukrainian can be particularly challenging due to the many rules governing spelling and punctuation.

The Hardest Languages to Speak

Whether it's due to unique phonetic features or complex grammar structures, some tongues are notoriously challenging when it comes to speaking. Here are some of them.

  • Korean

Korean is probably the hardest language to speak. One of the most challenging aspects is its complex honorific system, which requires speakers to use different words and forms depending on their respect for the person they're addressing. This can easily lead to confusion and embarrassment if not done correctly.

It also has a range of unique sounds that don't exist in English or other Western languages, such as aspirated consonants (produced with an extra puff of air) and double consonants (similar but distinct from regular ones).

The language also features a range of grammatical particles and suffixes that change the meaning of words. Unfortunately, it can take years of practice and immersion to master these nuances, making Korean one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

  • Navajo

As a Native American language, Navajo has unique phonetics and grammar structures that can be challenging for English speakers. For example, it features several tones, vowel lengths, and consonant clusters not found in Western languages.

Navajo also uses complex verbs with multiple forms based on tense and aspect, and incorporates subject-object-verb word order. Furthermore, it heavily relies on context-specific nouns to convey meaning – every noun must include a prefix or suffix depending upon its use within the sentence.

Tips on How to Learn the Hardest Languages

With so many factors involved in language acquisition, approaching the task with the right mindset and strategies is essential. Here are some tips on how you can tackle even the most difficult language to learn:

  • Get familiarized with the sounds. Listen to native speakers or watch videos online to become more accustomed to hearing different sound systems. The more you expose yourself to the sounds, the easier it becomes for your brain to distinguish and remember them.
  • Be patient with the grammar. The rules may differ entirely from what you're used to, so put extra effort into understanding the nuances and conventions of grammar. Don't expect quick results; learning a new grammatical system can take time.
  • Find a native speaker to practice with. Communicating with someone who grew up speaking the language will help familiarize you further and give valuable feedback on pronunciation, vocabulary usage, etc.
  • Immerse yourself in culture. Learning about cultural practices and norms associated with a particular tongue helps put everything into context; it assists massively in retaining vocabulary words or other linguistic elements via real-world examples.
  • Sign up for a language course. Classes provide structure and help with practicing speaking, reading, and writing in the target dialect. For instance, Promova delivers both individual and group lessons for English language learners, allowing you to get personalized attention and guidance.

These tips can prove invaluable for those wishing to tackle even the hardest language to learn for English speakers. Whether you're interested in mastering Mandarin, Arabic, or  
Turkish perseverance and dedication can go a long way.

Make Your Language Learning Experience Easier with Promova

Learning English as a second language can also be challenging, especially for people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Promova is here to make your experience easier with our comprehensive English training programs for beginner, elementary, pre-intermediate, intermediate, upper-intermediate, advanced, and proficient levels.

Our experienced teachers are qualified to identify students' difficulties in understanding and speaking the language, tailoring lessons that fit their needs. We offer a range of courses, including grammar, vocabulary building, pronunciation practice, and conversation skills to improve proficiency in English.

We have developed a perfect application to make learning more accessible and engaging. The application allows you to master the most challenging languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Turkish through interactive courses, pronunciation practice exercises, and vocabulary-building activities. With such features, learning becomes more fun, motivating you to continue your language acquisition journey.

Conclusion

Though some tongues might be more challenging for English speakers, you should never let language-learning difficulties restrain you from trying something new. While Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, and other hard languages to learn can pose plenty of challenges along the way, you may eventually reach fluency with sustained effort and dedication.

As we've seen, many factors determine how complex or straightforward a language is to learn. Grammar complexity and writing systems can either facilitate or impede the acquisition of any particular tongue. However, almost anything seems possible with the right resources and online tutoring. So embrace the challenge, and have fun with your linguistic journey!

FAQ

What are some features of languages that make them difficult to learn?

For many people, the most challenging features are complex grammar structures and unfamiliar sounds or tones. Extensive memorization requirements for writing systems can also create obstacles in learning, so it's essential to have proper resources and guidance while studying.

Can age affect the ability to learn different languages?

Research suggests that our brains become less adaptable to learning new languages as we age. For example, children tend to have an easier time acquiring a second lingo since their brain is still developing and more receptive to further information. However, this doesn't mean adults can't learn a new tongue; it may take more effort and dedication than for children.

Are there any languages that are considered universally easy to learn for English speakers?

While there may not be any languages that are universally easy to learn for English speakers, several tongues share some similarities with English. These include German, French, Dutch, and Norwegian – all belonging to the same linguistic family, making them more accessible options.

What resources can help make learning a hard language easier?

Many resources are available to help make learning the world's most difficult language easier. For instance, BBC Languages will teach a lingo step-by-step using videos, audio clips, and exercises. And platforms like Quizlet provide flashcard decks related to various topics that help with memorization.

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