The 10 languages that take the longest time to learn

difficult languages to learn
Learning Hindi, one of the world's most difficult languages, can give you deep insights into a great civilisation. Source: AFP

Mastering the most difficult languages to learn can feel like it takes a lifetime.

One of the challenges when learning a foreign language is the complexity of the grammar rules. This can be seen when English speakers try to learn Spanish and struggle with the extensive conjugation of verbs.

In English, we have a few variations of verb endings (e.g., “walk,” “walks,” “walked”), but in Spanish, there are numerous verb forms that depend on tense, mood and subject pronoun (e.g., “hablo,” “hablas,” “hablamos,” “hablaron”).

Aside from that, you may also struggle with idiomatic expressions. These are a group of words whose meaning is not deducible from those of the individual words — for example “over the moon.”

This is because the meaning of idioms is usually deeply rooted in the culture of a language.

For example, the German phrase “Du hast Tomaten auf den Augen,” literally translates to “You have tomatoes on your eyes.”

To native German speakers, this idiom means that someone is oblivious or not paying attention. Non-Germans will not get this.

Learning a language is not just about words and grammar but also about understanding cultural contexts. In Japanese, addressing someone by their first name without an appropriate honorific can be considered rude.

Unfortunately, the challenge doesn’t end with just spoken language. Many languages have difficult and complicated writing systems that can be very different to English.

Mandarin, for example, has over 100,000 characters, each with its own meaning and pronunciation. Learning these characters can feel like deciphering a top secret code.

To know which among these are the most difficult languages to learn, we can turn to the US State Department’s four categories of languages it teaches diplomats and how long it takes to master any of them.

difficult languages to learn

French is known as the language of love, but trying to make its many nasal sounds can be far from lovely. Source: AFP

10 most difficult languages to learn that take the longest time

Difficult languages to learn that take between 24 to 30 weeks

1. French 

With over 300 million speakers, French is the second most spoken language in Europe and the official language in 29 countries. 

Learning French does not take as much time as many other foreign languages. According to The Economist, you only need between 24 to 30 weeks to become fluent in French. 

These weeks aren’t easy, however.  Due to intricate pronunciation, you’ll have to discover and reproduce many nasal sounds, silent letters, liaisons, and subtle intonations that don’t come naturally to those who weren’t born into the language. 

In comparison, languages like Spanish or Italian, which share a Latin origin with French, are often classified as Category I and generally demand fewer hours for proficiency.

difficult languages to learn

Spanish takes a couple of months to grasp but it’ll all be worth it when you get to make friends with some of the warmest people in the world. Source: AFP

2. Spanish 

More than 450 million people around the globe speak Spanish, and it is the official language in 20 countries, such as Puerto Rico, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and many more.

In the US, Spanish ranks as the second most spoken language. With over 40 million Spanish speakers in the country, its presence is significant.

One interesting fact about Spanish is its influence on the English language. Spanish has contributed numerous words to English vocabulary.

Words like “siesta,” “fiesta,” “cafeteria,” “adobe,” “admiral,” “banana,” and “chocolate” are just a few examples of Spanish words that have been adopted into English.

Spanish is often praised for its relative ease of learning compared to some other languages, but it is still one of the most difficult languages to learn and it can take up to 30 weeks to become fluent.  

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Learn German and you can connect with the people dancing with the Victory Column in the background as they take part in the 44th Christopher Street Day (CSD) demonstration during Pride month in Berlin on July 23, 2022. Source: AFP

Difficult languages to learn that take 36 weeks

3. German 

German is one of the most popular languages in the world, as it is spoken not only in Germany but also in Austria and Switzerland. It is one of the three official languages of the European Union as well.

It also boasts a rich history in scientific and academic literature, making it an excellent language to learn for those interested in these subjects.

What’s good for us often doesn’t come easy — and learning German is one example of this.

German is often considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers to learn due to its intricate grammar and complex sentence structure. 

It also has an extensive vocabulary and is known for its ability to create long compound words by combining smaller words into one. For example, the German word “Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft” translates to the “Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services.” 

While such long compound words may not be encountered frequently, they exemplify the language’s complex vocabulary, which can be time-consuming for learners to grasp fully.

People watch the sunset at Kuta beach near Denpasar on Indonesia’s Bali island on October 7, 2021. Source: AFP

4. Indonesian

Indonesia is the fourth most populated country in the world, so it is no surprise that Indonesian is one of the most spoken languages in the world. 

Indonesian, also known as Bahasa Indonesia, is the official language of Indonesia and serves as a unifying language among the diverse population of the country.

In contrast to other languages, Indonesian is often considered relatively easy for English speakers due to its simple grammar and lack of complex verb conjugations. 

However, the challenge in learning Indonesian lies in its extensive vocabulary and the significant diversity of its regional dialects. Indonesia is a vast archipelago with over 700 languages spoken across its islands. While Bahasa Indonesia is the official language, each region may have unique dialects and slang. 

Difficult languages to learn that take 44 weeks 

5. Hindi 

Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with over 500 million speakers. It is the official language of India and is also spoken in various other countries, including Nepal, Fiji, Mauritius, and Suriname.

What makes it challenging to master is its complex script and intricate grammar. 

The Devanagari script used for Hindi has 46 basic letters and numerous diacritic marks, making it more intricate than the Roman alphabet.

For instance, verbs in Hindi can change forms based on tense, aspect, mood, and gender, resulting in a complex system.

Hindi’s vocabulary can also be tough. The language draws from various sources, including Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and English, resulting in a rich lexicon.

The need to memorise and use these words effectively can significantly extend the time it takes to become proficient in Hindi. It has been said that it could take up to 44 weeks to be able to speak the language. 

difficult languages to learn

The ancient Greek word for “beautiful” is “Kallos” (κάλλος). Source: AFP

6. Greek 

Ancient Greek was developed in the classical era and was the choice of language for mathematicians, philosophers, and playwrights.

Then, Modern Greek became the official language of the Kingdom of Greece in the 19th century.

Today, Greek is spoken by the majority of its population and is used in business, education and government policies.

What you may not know is that you are probably already using words that originated from Greek. English words like telephone, museum, photograph, cinema and many more are all borrowed from Greek.

That’s the extent of what most of us know, unfortunately.

Learning Greek requires one to not only make sense of complex grammar and its writing system but also understand its rich history.

7. Tagalog 

Tagalog is the mother tongue of most Filipinos, and it is definitely one of the most difficult languages to learn. In Tagalog, you can switch the meaning of a word depending on which syllable you stress. For example, “suka” can mean “vomit” or “vinegar.”

No wonder it takes up to 44 weeks to master the language. 

Tagalog uses verb affixes to convey different aspects of an action, such as tense, mood, and focus. For example, the verb “luto” (to cook) can become “niluluto” (is being cooked), “lulutuin” (will cook), or “pinaluto” (had cooked for someone). 

Tagalog is just one of the official languages of the Philippines. The country is incredibly linguistically diverse, with over 170 languages spoken across its islands.

This diversity means that you must be familiar with the different regional variations and dialects to be fluent in Tagalog.  

Difficult languages to learn that take 88 weeks

8. Mandarin 

Mandarin is often considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for non-native speakers due to its unique writing system, tonal nature and vast vocabulary. 

Yet, if the 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers can do it, so can you — in 20 months’ time.

Much of this time will be spent memorising thousands of special characters, unlike anything seen in Latin-based languages.

But writing isn’t the only difficult part of learning Mandarin. The tonal nature of the language makes speaking it very hard as well. 

There are several Chinese dialects, including Cantonese — spoken primarily in southeastern China, as well as in Hong Kong and other parts of Southeast Asia — which have different written characters and pronunciations and are also very difficult to learn. 

The meaning of a word can change entirely based on its tone. For example, the word “mā” with a high tone means “mother,” while “má” with a rising tone means “hemp,” and “mǎ” with a flat tone means “horse.” The need to master these tonal distinctions adds a layer of complexity for learners. 

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Understand Korean and you’ll unlock the true meaning of BLACKPINK’s lyrics. Source: AFP

9. Korean 

Despite its difficulty, Korean is still widely spoken by many. It has over 79 million speakers worldwide – this large number is thanks to the rise of K-pop bands, BLACKPINK, BTS, NewJeans and many more. 

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is made up of just 24 letters, each made to match the sounds they represent. 

Learning even the basics of the Korean language can boost your value at work and open doors to job opportunities in other countries. Korean is unique and belongs to its own family of languages called Koreanic, with no close relatives. It’s not directly connected to languages like Chinese or Japanese. 

However, it is a tonal language, meaning that changing the pitch of your voice can change what words mean.

difficult languages to learn

Sudanese camel herders train animals at dawn, on August 24 2023 in Dubai. (Photo by Karim SAHIB / AFP)

10. Arabic 

Next on the list of the most difficult languages to learn that take the longest time is Arabic. The language consists of 28 basic letters with multiple forms, making it challenging for learners to read and write. 

Then, there’s grammar and dialects to decipher — adding to the challenge.

While Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) serves as the formal written and spoken language across the Arab world, each region has its distinct colloquial dialects that vary considerably from MSA.

For instance, Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic, and Gulf Arabic differ in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar.