What are the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers?
Published on September 13, 2023
Learning any new language is a challenge. When it comes to the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers, there are some real contenders. Spanish is a Romance language, so it has a lot in common with other modern languages that evolved from Latin, such as Italian, Portuguese, French and Romanian. Given their shared origins with Spanish, these are among the easiest languages to learn for a native Spanish speaker.
To find the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers, we need to look further afield — to places like Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These regions have languages with completely different grammar, syntax, pronunciation and writing. They require more effort and hours of study to become fluent. Let’s take a closer look at their linguistic differences.
Chinese is quite possibly the hardest language to learn for Spanish speakers — and many others, for that matter! The various Chinese languages and dialects differ, though the most widely spoken language groups include Mandarin (spoken in mainland China, with over one billion speakers) and Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong and southern mainland China, with 85.5 million speakers).
These language groups are not mutually intelligible. So, what elements do they have in common that make them some of the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers?
Chinese languages feature tones. In other words, the meaning of a word or syllable often depends on the tone in which it’s said. In Chinese, there are four tones to watch out for — flat, rising, dip and falling — as well as no tone. The sound ma could mean “horse” or “mother,” depending on how you pronounce it.
Chinese writing is character-based. It does not use letters, like in the Spanish alphabet. You must learn a unique character for each word. WIth over 100,000 characters, it takes a lot of study time to learn them all!
Topping our list for hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers is another tonal language: Thai. There are 70 million speakers of the Thai language throughout the world, though most live in Thailand. There are regional variations in the south, north and northeast regions of Thailand, as well.
Like Chinese, Thai is tonal. There are five tones in Thai: low, mid, high, falling and rising. The word ba could mean “jungle” or “aunt,” depending on which tone you use. It can be difficult to hear and pronounce tones correctly if your native language does not use them.
Thai has an alphabet with individual letters. The shocking news for Spanish speakers is that there are 44 consonants and 28 vowels. The Thai alphabet includes five different “k” letters and six different “t” letters alone! The vowels can be written as letters or markings around consonants. For this reason, reading and spelling in Thai tends to be quite difficult for Spanish speakers.
No one who has learned Japanese as a second language would say, “Well, that was easy!”. Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers. There are 125 million speakers of Japanese in the world.
The Japanese language includes three different writing systems: katakana, hiragana and kanji. Katakana and hiragana are alphabet-based systems in which consonants and vowels are treated separately. Kanji is character-based, similar to Chinese.
The syntax in Japanese is not the same as in Spanish, and in many cases it may even seem completely reversed. For example:
|Fui a la tienda.
|I went to the store.
|私は店に行った。Watashi wa mise ni itta.(I store to went)
To be polite in spoken Japanese, one must be careful to modify certain words and phrases. In many cases, these modifications make the words double or triple in length!
K-pop and K-dramas have become wildly popular across Latin America. Picking up a few phrases here and there is good, but Korean is definitely one of the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers.
[H3] Korean alphabet
Hangul (한글) is the Korean alphabet system. It has 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Visually, it’s quite a bit different from Japanese and Chinese writing (note the use of circular and square shapes).
[H3] Sentence structure
Korean also has a syntax that is nearly reversed from Spanish.
|Yo como pastel.
|I eat cake.
|나는 케이크를 먹는다.naneun keikeuleul meogneunda.(I cake eat)
[H3] Honorifics and details
Korean can feel complicated for learners because there are changes based on politeness and honorifics. For example, to say goodbye to someone who is leaving, you say 안녕히 가세요 (annyeonghi gaseyo). But to say goodbye if you’re the one who is leaving, you say 안녕히 계세요 (annyeonghi gyeseyo). Details are important.
There are about 110 million people who speak Arabic. Most live in the Middle East and North Africa. Islamic culture influenced Spain because the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. Some Arabic words are quite easily understood by Spanish speakers, but fluency can be difficult to achieve.
Arabic is a gendered language, but not in the same way as Spanish. Arabic features multiple ways to form a sentence based on the gender of the listener and the speaker.
Arabic has a writing system that is cursive (joined letters). It consists of 28 consonants, three short vowels and three long vowels. The long vowels are written with three letters, whereas the short vowels are usually not written at all. Letters change their shape based on their location in the word (beginning, middle or end).
Another aspect of this intricate writing system is the fact that Arabic is written from left to right. That’s totally opposite from Spanish.
Despite sharing a common European birthplace with Spanish, Czech is quite different from Spanish. As a Slavic language, it features a number of qualities that Spanish speakers may find difficult to master.
Czech has complex grammatical rules that can be difficult for a Spanish speaker to learn. For example, Czech has seven different noun cases: normative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative and instrumental. Nouns change their endings based on these cases, so they can’t simply be brushed aside. Plus, there are 14 noun groupings based on gender, vowels and consonants. In total, there are 294 different noun endings to memorize.
Czech doesn’t have as many vowels as Spanish does. There are consonant combinations that are difficult for Spanish speakers to pronounce. The phrase strč prst skrz krk (“stick a finger in your throat”) doesn’t have any vowels. The letter ř is also famously difficult to pronounce for non-native Czech speakers.
All of the languages mentioned above can be difficult, though the hardest languages to learn for Spanish speakers tend to be those without any Latin roots. That includes pretty much anything from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Should that stop you from taking on the challenge? No way! I speak English, Spanish, Thai, Turkish, Czech and a few other languages. Of course, I will always be working on my pronunciation, but with dedicated study time and plenty of listening to native speakers, the ear gradually becomes attuned to all those new sounds.