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Top 12 Hardest Languages to Learn


With over 7,000 languages in the world, it’s hard to say what is the hardest language to learn. After all, what you find most difficult might not align with what someone else considers a challenge. 

That said, we’ve consulted data from the US Department of State and looked at the cold hard facts and determined that these 12 widely spoken languages will pose significant difficulty for English speakers. The difficulty of languages to learn is affected by factors like tricky grammar and pronunciation, unique writing systems, tonality, and dissimilarity from English.

While many learners might set out looking for the easiest languages to learn, these languages are best for language learners who like a challenge. 

To give you a better understanding of these languages and the easiest languages to learn, here are some quick facts about the languages on both lists.

Language learning difficulty chart

Language

Difficulty

Hours to Learn

Writing System

Tones

Spanish

Easiest

600-750

Latin

No

Italian

Easy

600-750

Latin

No

French

Easy

600-750

Latin

No

Dutch

Easy

600-750

Latin

No

Portuguese

Easy

600-750

Latin

No

German

Moderate

900

Latin

No

Indonesian

Moderate

900

Latin

No

Polish

Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

No

Turkish

Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

No

Somali

Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

No

Russian

Difficult

1100 

Russian alphabet

No

Hindi

Difficult

1100 

Devanagari

No

Hungarian

Very Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

No

Navajo

Very Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

Yes

Vietnamese

Very Difficult

1100 

Latin with modifications

Yes

Korean

Most Difficult

2200

Hangul

No

Arabic

Most Difficult

2200

Arabic

No

Japanese

Most Difficult

2200

Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

No

Chinese (All)

Most Difficult

2200

Written Chinese (logo syllabic)

Yes

 

While people often wonder, “Is German a hard language to learn? as you can see, it doesn’t even come close to breaking the top 12. 

In fact, many other languages fall into the 1100 hour category, like Thai, Greek, and Icelandic. And other more obscure difficult languages like Basque, Igbo, and Irish (Gaelic) simply haven’t been as studied, but would definitely be considered more difficult than languages like French, German, or Dutch.

Discover the world’s 12 hardest languages to learn

Now, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. These tongue-twisting, um, tongues, are sorted from easiest to hardest — relatively speaking, of course. They’re all hard.

Worth noting: When we say “where it’s spoken,” we’re typically listing countries where the language in question is an official language. Many of these languages are spoken in countries all over the world among immigrant communities large and small!

1. Polish

Script: Latin alphabet with added accents

Where it’s spoken: Poland

Is it tonal? No.

Pro tip: A tonal language is one where your vocal pitch is a factor in the meaning of the word.

Tonal languages tend to be harder for English speakers because we use tone to convey emotion, but not meaning. So, if you say ‘car’ at a higher pitch or like it’s a question, it still means the same thing in English.

That’s not always the case in tonal languages. Chinese, for example, is tonal. Polish, thankfully, is not.

What makes it so hard?

Polish is a challenging language for English speakers for a few different reasons, but one of the primary ones is that simply pronouncing Polish words is particularly tricky for those without a background in Eastern European languages because of the heavier use of consonants. For example, there’s a town in Poland named Szczebrzeszyn (pronounced, roughly, “sh-chebr-jeh-shun,” with a soft j like the q in ‘beige’), and the word for frog is żaba – “zshyah-ba.”

Then, even if you can wrap your head around saying and understanding Polish words, Polish grammar can be quite challenging. That’s because it has three grammatical genders and seven grammatical cases.

That means every noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter, and that nouns, pronouns, and adjectives can be conjugated in a whopping seven different ways. In English, for perspective, we have three cases, and they’re really only applied to pronouns – think the difference between I, me, and mine, and he, him, and his. Those are cases. Polish just has a lot more of them, and applied more broadly.

The good news is that Polish genders are pretty clear from the spelling of the words, Polish verbs have fewer conjugations than English, and once you understand Polish pronunciation, it’s phonetic.

2. Turkish

Script: Latin with modifications

Where it’s spoken: Turkey, Cyprus

Is it tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

Turkish, like Polish, can be hard for English speakers to wrap their tongues around thanks to unfamiliar sounds and consonant combinations. And, while Turkish uses a modified Latin alphabet, the sounds don’t always translate directly to how we’d pronounce the same letters in English. Vowels in particular can be a little counterintuitive at first glance.

But that’s not all! Turkish shares very little vocabulary with English (but quite a bit with Arabic, so if you speak Arabic, you’ll have a leg up!). The system used to write Turkish with Latin characters was only implemented in 1928, before which the language was typically written using either Arabic or Cyrillic scripts. That means historical documents in Turkish will be tricky to understand, even once you learn the language.

Turkish is also what’s called an agglutinative language. That means that prefixes and suffixes are added onto words to create sentences and ideas. For example, the phrase “from our house” becomes just one word: evimizden.

  • Ev = house
  • Evim = my house
  • Evimiz = our house
  • Evimizden = from our house

And, word order-wise, while English goes subject-verb-object (“I bought an apple”), Turkish puts the verb last (Bir elma aldım – “I an apple bought”). All of these things out together make Turkish a challenging language for English speakers.

The good news is that Turkish grammar has few exceptions and Turkish, like Polish, is phonetic once you understand the Turkish alphabet.

3. Somali

Script: Latin alphabet with added accents (historically and casually Arabic and Osmanya)

Where it’s spoken: Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia

Is it tonal? Not exactly – while not truly tonal like Vietnamese or Thai, Somali has two pitch accents (rising and falling).

What makes it so hard?

Like Turkish, Somali has almost nothing in common with English, vocabulary-wise, and uses the subject-object-verb word order. Grammatically, Somali has two genders but also has something called gender polarity, which means words switch gender when made plural, along with other complex rules around irregular plurals. Not to mention the vowel changes involved in verb roots and conjugation!

Frustratingly for new learners, speaking Somali also means mastering tons of colloquialisms – common phrases and sayings used frequently in day-to-day conversation that seem nonsensical on first hearing them. 

For example, there’s the common phrase “they were sneezed out of the same place,” which means two people look alike. And thanks to the language’s nomadic cultural roots, there are quite a few idioms based around camel-herding and rearing that simply don’t translate into English.

Plus, while Somali today is written in a modified Latin alphabet, like Turkish, it was historically written using either Arabic or a writing system called Osmanya, and today both writing systems are still sometimes casually used among Somali speakers. In fact, Osmanya is commonly seen on signage in expat Somali-speaking communities around the world.

4. Russian

Script: Russian alphabet (Cyrillic script)

Where it’s spoken: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan

Is it tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

Russian is the first entry on this list that requires learning a new writing system – but certainly not the last. One of the things that makes Russian tough is, of course, tackling the Russian alphabet, a Cyrillic script you’ll need to take time to master before you can begin learning in earnest. But that’s not all.

Like Polish and Turkish, Russian uses very different sounds from English, which can be tricky to decipher and pronounce. And, in Russian, inflection matters significantly to make your meaning understood.

Russian grammar can be a challenge, with three genders and six cases, and words that work something like Japanese particles. These are words that, rather than having their own meaning, are placed in a sentence for emphasis or to help the speaker get their point across.

 


 

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5. Hindi

Script: Devanagari 

Where it’s spoken: India

Is It tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

First off, the script used to write Hindi, Devanagari, is considered particularly hard to get a hang of. 

The script is also what’s called an abugida or syllabary, meaning that the individual characters represent a consonant and vowel combination, rather than a single vowel or consonant. 

So ‘to’ and ‘ta’ might each get their own letters, for example, in an abugida script. This is a new concept for many English speakers. 

Plus, the written version of Hindi lacks certain phonetic markings to tell a non-native speaker how to pronounce words – and Hindi is a particularly subtle language, where slight changes in sound and context can change the meaning of a word entirely. 

And, to make matters more complicated, Hindi is what’s called a “split ergative” language, which means – without going too far down the grammar rabbit hole – that sometimes it acts like English (an accusative language) and sometimes it acts like Finnish (an ergative language which is also famously difficult for English speakers).

The good news? Though it is one of the toughest languages in the world for English speakers, Hindi shares words with Arabic, so those who already speak Arabic will have a leg up in terms of vocabulary!

6. Hungarian 

Script: Latin alphabet with added accents

Where it’s spoken: Hungary, Serbia, Austria, Slovenia

Is it tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

Hungarian has lots of fun complications, if that’s up your alley. First, like Turkish, it’s agglutinative, meaning that instead of having individual prepositions, prefixes and suffixes are added on to words. Which means that much of a sentence can be expressed in a single, very long verb. 

A popular example of this is the Hungarian, “megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért,” which I’m going to go ahead and let you Google. (Just kidding, it means, approximately, “for your [plural] continued behavior as if you could not be desecrated”, and is mostly used by Hungarian speakers as an example of how agglutination can make words unreasonably long!)

The language also has a delightful 26 cases, making it more than a tad grammatically challenging. It’s also a vowel-harmony language, which essentially means that sometimes an extra vowel is added at the end to make a word sound right. 

Oh, and it has less in common with English than Hindi.

7. Navajo

Script: Latin alphabet, plus added letters and accents to represent unique sounds. Latin alphabet with a twist!

Where it’s spoken: United States

Is it tonal? Yes – four tones. 

What makes it so hard?

Navajo has several unique features that make it challenging for English speakers, or anyone who doesn’t speak a language in the North American Na-Dené family of languages. 

It has a number of consonants we don’t use in English. 

Plus, it has elements of agglutination, where prefixes and suffixes replace prepositions (the same thing as that long Hungarian word), but Navajo does it in such an unpredictable way that it’s considered by some to be… not agglutinative. 

The opposite of agglutinative is fusional. 

And Navajo is sort of both. We did say this was a challenging one! 

In fact, its significant lack of loanwords from other languages and its grammatical structure make it so tough to crack that the allies had Navajo speakers speak their language to send coded communications during World War II.

At the time, there was no published Navajo dictionary, making the language even tougher to decode. Today, however, there are plenty of online resources for those who are willing to take on the challenge.

8. Vietnamese

Script: Latin alphabet with a twist

Where it’s spoken: Vietnam

Is It tonal? Yes – six tones.

What makes it so hard?

For English speakers, tonal languages are a challenge. 

We simply aren’t as attuned to tone as we need to be to effectively communicate, and six tones are a whole lot for us to grasp. 

That’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just a steep, uphill battle. 

Vietnamese also uses more vowels than English, and has several different dialects that, while mutually intelligible, are dissimilar enough to cause trouble for someone traveling in both the north and south parts of Vietnam.

That said, those who speak both Chinese and English may find Vietnamese to be a relative breeze, given that it uses the Latin alphabet (with added accent marks), and they’re already used to tones.

9. Korean

Script: Hangul, Hanja (rare)

Where it’s spoken: South Korea, North Korea

Is it tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

Well, the good news is that Korean isn’t tonal, so that’s a help, and Hangul – the primary alphabet – is fairly easy to pick up. But, is Korean a hard language to learn? Yes.

The bad news is that Korean is agglutinative (prefixes and suffixes replace prepositions, making some words unreasonably long). It also has a whopping seven speech levels, based on the formality of the situation, and has an unfamiliar grammatical structure for us Anglophones.

According to The Defense Language Institute’s (where CIA spies go to learn languages!) catalogs, while it takes an English learner on average about 26 weeks to gain proficiency in Spanish or French, it takes about 65 weeks to develop a working proficiency of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. 

Speaking of which…

10. Arabic 

Script: Arabic

Where it’s spoken: Arabic is an official or recognized minority language in 31 countries, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the UAE.

Is it tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

Arabic uses its own script, which, in itself, adds a layer of difficulty for English speakers. 

Fortunately, in the case of Arabic, the characters actually work fairly similarly to our Latin alphabet. Except, of course, the Arabic script is read right to left, instead of left to right, which can be a challenge. 

Plus, words as written often don’t include their vowels, so vowels are simply known by Arabic speakers based on context. Not the easiest language to learn. 

Arabic also includes a number of unique sounds that can be hard for English speakers to pronounce, and challenging grammar rules, with situation- and dialect-dependent word order in sentences. It also has a wide variety of different dialects, depending on the region. 

That said, those familiar with Hebrew or Hindi will have a bit of an easier time with Arabic, since Hebrew’s written language has similar quirks and Hindi shares some vocabulary with Arabic.

11. Japanese 

Scripts: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

Where it’s spoken: Japan, Palau

Is It tonal? No.

What makes it so hard?

What is the second hardest language to learn? We’d say Japanese. Here’s why.

In many ways, rudimentary Japanese actually isn’t as hard for English speakers as it might appear at first glance, but it’s still pretty difficult. There are three writing systems and the word order in Japanese sentence structure is nothing like English. 

That said, if you can teach yourself Katakana and Hiragana, the two Japanese alphabets (well, abugidas, if you’re feeling fancy!), you can start to decipher menus and street signs. 

And what you’ll find when you do is that Japanese uses a large number of loanwords from English and the Romance languages. 

It’s not tonal, and many of the basics of Japanese grammar are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively simple to pick up (looking at you, Hungarian!) – though it is certainly different from English grammar.

However, studies have shown that Japanese is the single language that takes English people the longest to learn. 

Why?

First, because of the Japanese system of polite speech, called keigo, which is basically an entirely different set of vocabulary and verbs (and is very important for doing business in Japan).

And, perhaps more dauntingly, because of the immense number of Kanji – a system of individual logographic characters symbolizing words and syllables – that a learner has to memorize to become even reasonably literate in Japanese. 

Many of these characters were borrowed from Chinese over the past few thousand years. Which means, to make matters more complicated, even Chinese speakers may not recognize all of the characters in Japanese. They may be sourced from loanwords from fifteenth-century China!

Which leads us to our final entry…

12. Mandarin Chinese 

Script: Simplified & traditional Chinese characters

Where it’s spoken: Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore

Is it tonal? Yes – four tones and a neutral tone.

What makes it so hard?

Mandarin tops the list as the perfect storm of challenges for English speakers. 

It’s worth noting that while any of the other Chinese dialects could easily also fall here at the top of the list, Mandarin is simply a stand-in as the most widely used and taught. 

As you’d expect from one of the hardest languages in the world, Mandarin Chinese is tonal, uses many unique idioms (popular phrases that don’t necessarily have a direct translation), and subtle homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things). It also requires the learning of thousands of characters to achieve literacy. 

That said, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing – as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, learning Mandarin is a challenge worth accepting. It gives you access to millions of people you might not otherwise be able to get to know. It’s a lingua franca of business in much of Asia. 


So, what is the hardest language to learn?

Now you know all about the hardest languages for English speakers to learn and why they’re considered so tricky. Which one sounds hardest to you? Are you feeling inspired and up for the challenge?

We’re Busuu, an app that makes learning a language easier for everyone. 

If you’re ready to take on Mandarin – or Japanese, Arabic, or any one of the other 14 languages we offer (tough or otherwise), start learning with us for free today.


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