hardest languages to learn
Contrary to popular belief, there isn't a definitive list of the "hardest languages to learn." Source: Christof Stache/AFP

Anyone who has tried to read Chinese and pronounce French words are likely convinced they are the hardest languages to learn.

They’re not quite right. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a definitive list of “hardest languages to learn.”

This is because there are many ways to learn a new language —  each of which has its own unique ways that affect the pace you pick up a new language. 

“There is research backing up that deductive methods are faster with college level students and above,” says Dan Berges, Managing Director of Berges Institute — one of the fastest-growing Spanish language schools for adults in the US and Europe. 

“Other research concludes that with kids, inductive [methods] are more effective and faster.” 

A deductive approach in language learning exposes learners to a set of grammatical rules and they will practise based on that, according to Berges.

He adds: “A lot of inductive methods, they just naturally take longer because the whole idea of induction is that you have to see a lot of examples in order for the student to infer the rule.”

There are many other reasons that make us feel like we’re dealing with the hardest languages to learn.

For English speakers, things get tough when the language has the following features:

  • They have different alphabets
  • They lack cognates (words from other languages that have similar spellings, pronunciations, and meanings)
  • They have grammatical concepts unfamiliar to English speakers
  • They have different writing systems 

All of this explains what makes a language challenging to learn, so why in the world should we invest time and effort to do so?

hardest languages to learn

A woman walks past posters pasted on a roadside wall saying “good news” in Sinhala language in Colombo. (Photo by Ishara S.Kodikara / AFP)

Why mastering the hardest languages to learn is good for you

Mastering the hardest languages to learn is worth the time, effort and dedication.

Having a foreign language in your CV can increase your salary by 11% to 35%, one study found.

Some studies indicate a link between multilingual skills and preventing dementia. Others show that speaking a foreign language can help with your multitasking abilities.  

Perhaps the biggest perk is that you’re opening the door to a new world beyond the one you know and also the one within yourself.

Imagine fully understanding how savagely Shakira is mocking her ex Gerard Piqué in the song “TDG” or the true dialogue of the hit Netflix series “Squid Game.”

Picture being able to order a coffee in a new country or striking up convos with someone you fancy but who comes from a different culture.

You’re setting yourself up to be better, smarter and even for the greatest prize of all: love.

An added bonus is the satisfaction and adrenaline you feel when you’ve accomplished something tough.

There are all things that you can’t put a price on — and are worth a few hours of effort per day to master the hardest languages to learn.

hardest languages to learn

A study showed that having a foreign language in your CV can increase your salary by 11% to 35%Source: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

What are the hardest languages to learn? 

1. Arabic

Arabic is ranked as the hardest language to learn, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the US federal government’s primary training institution — for good reasons. 

It uses an entirely different script; letter forms change depending on which position the letter takes in the word. 

There are also roughly over 25 different dialects of Arabic spoken by more than 422 million people around the world. That means the Arabic you master in Morocco may have an entirely different pronunciation than the Arabic spoken in Bahrain.

Yet, Arabic is the fifth most-spoken language in the world. Modern standard Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. 

2. Basque

Basque, or Euskara in Basque, is the oldest living language in Europe. Only a little over a million people speak it, and most live in the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France.

As a language isolate, there are no proven relatives of Basque. What’s more, there are many noun cases and an unfamiliar ergative-absolutive grammar system.

Here’s a demonstration of how some words in Basque compare to words in other languages:

3. Finnish

Finnish is often considered one of the hardest languages to learn for many reasons. 

Finnish grammar is notoriously complex. Many words in the language have no English equivalent. Here are a few examples: 

  • “Löyly” is the steam generated by throwing water on hot stones in the sauna.
  • A “mökki” is a Finnish summer cabin, usually in a forest or by a lake.
  • “Sisu” is a Finnish mindset referring to determination, tenacity, and grit. 

Finnish is also a highly synthetic language. This means that a word can be made by juxtaposing inflected verbs, nouns, and adjectives, depending on each word’s role in the sentence. 

Prepositions often appear as suffixes attached to nouns and other particles can be added to express nuance. That means there are over 200 possible verb endings for each verb. 

hardest languages to learn

Those interested in learning Hungarian have to commit to around 44 weeks or 1,100 class hours. Source: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

4. Hungarian

Hungarian is ranked as Category Three, according to data from FSI. 

Languages in this category require learners to commit around 44 weeks or 1,100 class hours

For starters, Hungarian has 35 distinct cases — many of which are remnants of the Latin language. You must have a complete understanding of Hungarian grammar to nail the precision and subtle inflexion required to convey your meaning accurately.

In some cases, you won’t find a word in English — an indication that the language has rules that can feel baffling.

But beyond that, this Reddit user shares that the meta reason that Hungarian is difficult to pick up is since the language isn’t as widely spoken, and the Hungarian-speaking diaspora is small and geographically concentrated around Hungary. Hungarian media has also not propagated worldwide compared to, say, Japanese or Korean media.

5. Japanese 

Japanese is ranked as a Category Four language, the hardest category to learn, requiring 2,200 class hours. 

It has three writing systems: katakana, hiragana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic alphabets. 

Unlike English, which treats vowels and consonants separately (and has multiple pronunciations for many of the letters), phonetic alphabets are always written and pronounced in one specific way.

In Japanese, the verb goes at the end of the sentence — something that feels instinctually wrong for English speakers. For example, “I went to the store” would be “I store (to) went” in Japanese.  

hardest languages to learn

If a Japanese seal can learn to write a Chinese character, so can you. Source: AFP

6. Mandarin Chinese 

Millions of expats speak, read, and write Chinese, though it has a reputation for being one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. Yet it remains the second most widely spoken language in the world, according to Berlitz.

Chinese has earned that reputation for being difficult primarily due to its tones and writing system.

Mandarin is a tonal language with four tones. What adds an extra challenge is there are many words that sound exactly the same except for an added tonal change which alters the meaning entirely. This means that the same syllables with different tones can have two completely different things.

The written form is equally harsh. You would first have to recognise the characters. The Chinese written script, called 汉字 (hànzì) in Chinese, is based on the use of “logograms” – single characters that can represent an entire word.

This Reddit user shares, “On top of the pronunciation being unusual to me, remembering every hanzì character and stroke order is challenging. I also have attention-deficit disorder, and reading anything can be a challenge. Not because I can’t read but because the lines and shapes clustered together can really mess with my eyes and comprehension.”

@linguisticliana im gonna start making language profiles on here for my english final #navajo #dinebizaad #linguistics #language #languagelearning ♬ sonido original – Liana

7. Navajo

Navajo is part of the Na-Dene language family, which also includes the Apache languages and some other Native American languages spoken in the US.

From tones to grammar and verbs, Navajo is completely different from the English language, making it difficult for many to grasp. It’s so obscure that it was even used as a code to convey information during World War II. 

While practising the language is the best way to learn, that’s not the case for the Navajo language, as there are only approximately 170,000 speakers of Navajo in the US.

8. Russian

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which differs from the Latin alphabet used in English.

Similar to other European languages such as Spanish, French, and German, all Russian nouns are one of three genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter. Sometimes, the gender of a noun is directly related to the gender of the thing it’s referring to.

Unlike most other languages with gendered nouns, Russian doesn’t have a reliable way of guessing the gender. That means it’s mostly a guessing game or a memory game. One Reddit user says, “When it comes to Russian verbs, you just have to knuckle down and really study hard, but at the same time accept that you might never get the hang of it fully.”

@levion.learnvietnamese Vietnamese alphabet #levion #vietnamese #rap ♬ original sound – Learn Vietnamese Online

9. Vietnamese

Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different tones that dictate the meaning of a word. The high number of vowel sounds also makes it hard for English speakers to nail.

These tones differ in duration, pitch melody, pitch height, and phonation. Tone is indicated by diacritics written above or below the vowel.

The six tones include mid-level (‘ngang’), low falling (‘huyền’), high rising (‘sắc’), mid-rising (‘hỏi’), creaky high breaking-rising (‘ngã’), and creaky low falling constricted (short length) (‘nặng’).

As for grammar, Vietnamese has more pronouns than English and uses a system of “classifiers” — special words that modify nouns in certain contexts — that English speakers would not have exposure to.

As the saying goes, “The hardships of struggling with a violent storm don’t compare to the hardships of mastering Vietnamese grammar.”

Disclaimer: This article was last updated on July 10, 2024.