The 7 hardest languages to learn (especially if you’re an English speaker!)

by Jakob Straub
January 25, 2021

If you’re having a hard time learning a new language, it might not be entirely your fault. Every student is a different learning type, of course, but likewise not all languages are created equal. Some are notoriously difficult to learn for English speakers. Whether you like a good challenge, are linguistically curious, or just want to avoid the most tricky languages, these are the seven hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

Which are the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers?

What is the hardest language to learn? Language learning depends on many factors, but your native tongue is an important one. Proximity to English makes certain languages such as Spanish or Italian fairly easy to learn compared to other languages that are more distant. With two languages from different roots, you cannot rely on cognates, that is words of the same linguistic derivation, for example stemming from Latin. Phonetics, specifically sound and intonation, differing alphabets, characters, and writing styles make a language hard to acquire for English speakers. Throw in a more complex grammar with many cases and a deviating construction of sentences and words and the challenge might seem impossible.

The hardest language for English speakers to learn are:

  1. Chinese
  2. Arabic
  3. Japanese
  4. Hungarian
  5. Korean
  6. Finnish
  7. Polish

Read on to find out why these are the hardest and what you could do to make the process a little easier.

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1. Learning Chinese as an English speaker

Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, is the official language of China and synonymous with “Chinese” for many Westerners and English speakers. Although a fifth of the world’s population speaks Mandarin, English natives tend to struggle with it. The difficulty is owed to thousands of complex and intricate characters of the writing system. Even simplified Chinese is a lot to remember. Four main tones and a neutral tone make speaking hard as your pronunciation determines meaning. Mandarin is the most common Chinese dialect. Cantonese features a different set of characters and pronunciation, and has eight tones in total, making it even harder than Mandarin.

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2. Learning Arabic as an English speaker

Same as Chinese, Arabic is among the top five most spoken languages in the world. It’s also difficult to acquire when your base language is English. Not only are there many dialects spread over various regions and countries, but the alphabet is non-Latin and notation excludes most of the vowels. Arabic is also written from right to left, in case you didn’t know already. Add some sounds that no other language shares and a challenging grammar with verbs before the subject and you’ll find Arabic very hard to learn!

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3. Learning Japanese as an English speaker

Japanese has three different writing systems, each with their own alphabet. Hiragana is used for Japanese words, whereas katakana is for foreign words. Kanji is adopted from Chinese characters, so basically you’re learning Chinese on top. The grammar appears a little more straightforward, until you arrive at the particles. These mark parts of the speech and have no equivalent in English. English speakers also struggle with the vocabulary, where the speaker’s social status or even gender might influence word choice, depending on dialect, region, or circumstance.

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4. Learning Hungarian as an English speaker

Remember that English has (only) three cases. Hungarian has 18 suffixes for cases. That number alone conveys the extent of learning difficulty, but it gets harder: the language’s 14 vowels will make speaking a nightmare for English speakers. The combination of phrases to single words will make your head spin. This complex grammar is complemented by a wide range of idioms and subtle cultural references which will make beginners feel left out for a long time.

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5. Learning Korean as an English speaker

Linguists consider Korean as a language isolate, a language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship to other languages. This uniqueness alone results in a hindrance when trying to acquire Korean as an English speaker. The word order is different, and Korean is also an agglutinative language: by tacking on more and more, complex words are formed. This concept doesn’t exist in English. The alphabet is easier to learn than in Chinese or Japanese. However, mispronunciation will lead to misunderstandings quickly as there are many difficult rules.

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6. Learning Finnish as an English speaker

Finnish will trick you with its alphabet and pronunciation so seemingly close to English, only to then hit you over the head with a complex grammar. Finns laugh at the fact that English has only three cases-in their language, nouns can take 15 different cases. Long vowels and consonants complicate speaking when you come from English. To form a simple sentence, you must know conjugation, consonant gradation, the case system and pronoun declination. After that, chances are what you’re trying to say has a much more colloquial form of expression. So while you might be correct, Finns themselves would still say it differently. If you think Finnish sounds not so tough, try Icelandic as an English speaker!

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7. Learning Polish as an English speaker

Polish uses a Latin alphabet, but then diacritic signs seem to be distributed seemingly at random. There are “only” seven cases, but they can be manipulated by seven grammatical genders. It’s like learning a language and maths! Pronunciation is definitely an issue for English speakers as there are many sounds you will not have heard before and will have to practise a lot. Polish is in love with its consonants, but just in case you want even more of those, try learning Czech!

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