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What is the hardest language to learn?

As an English speaker and – maybe – an avid language learner, you probably had the curiosity of finding out what is the hardest language to learn many times before going to the world wide web for help. You also probably had your guesses. Is it Arabic? Chinese? Japanese? Well, it’s high time you found out! Let’s just dive in and discover which one is the hardest to learn for a native English speaker such as yourself!

After doing some research we came to the conclusion that the most trustworthy source we could use in building our top is the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the US Government. As we mentioned in before on our blog, the FSI has some 800 language learning courses in 70 languages with over 70 years of experience in instructing US diplomats and foreign affairs employees to learn languages.

And the award for the most difficult languages to learn by the native English speakers goes to… Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean! So yeah, not just one, but four languages! As the FSI confirms, the native English speaker would need about 2200 hours or 88 weeks of study to achieve fluency in one of these languages.

1. Arabic

best languages to learn
“Holy book” by T Foz©

Arabic is a Semitic language, the lingua franca of the Arab world and a part of the same language family as Hebrew and Aramaic. It is written with the Arabic alphabet (which is written from right to left) and it is one of the six official languages of the UN together with English, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and French.

Talking about its difference to English, Encyclopedia Britannica explains that the sound system of Arabic is very different from English. It comprises of distinctive guttural sounds and a series of velarized consonants (that are pronounced with accompanying constriction of the pharynx and raising of the back of the tongue). That sounds fairly difficult to pronounce, but not impossible since this is also the 4th most spoken language in the world.

2. Chinese – most spoken language in the world and the hardest language to learn for English speakers

One of the best languages to learn if you want to travel to Asia, Chinese is a part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Occupying the 1st place in the “most spoken languages in the world” top, Chinese is a macrolanguage consisting of other thirteen languages – Mandarin being the most widely spoken. All these languages are considered “Chinese” due to a shared writing system and literature. Other well-known examples include Wu and Cantonese.

The same sources explain that the sound system of Chinese is distinctive by the use of tones to indicate different meaning between words that are otherwise identical in sound (i.e., have the same consonants and vowels). Modern Standard Chinese has four tones, while the more archaic Cantonese language uses six tones. What’s fascinating about Chinese is that its words often have only one syllable! Awesome, isn’t it?

3. Japanese

Just as hard to learn for an English native is Japanese, an isolated language that uses three separate writing systems: katakana, hiragana, and kanji (although if you are an anime fan, you might already know some words and phrases in Japanese).

“Streets of Japan” by Darren Chan©

In most Romance and Germanic languages, the order of the words in a sentence is very important. For example, the sentences “is it” (as a question) and “it is” (as an affirmation) mean different things. In Japanese, these differences are created by adding or altering the endings of words and that’s exactly why we find it so difficult to learn and understand to a point where we are fluent. Japanese words have a stem called a “body”, and additional parts (called suffixes) and by changing the suffixes you can change the whole meaning of the word.

4. Korean

Korean, the 13th most spoken language in the world is also in our top. Benefitting from two different writing systems (Hangul and Hanja), Korean is spoken by more than 75 million people of whom 72 million live in South Korea and North Korea. What’s interesting about Korean, is the fact that there is no general consensus on the relationship of the Korean language to other languages. The most likely relationships suggested are to Japanese and to the languages of the Altaic group (Mongolian, Turkic, and Tungus).

5. Polish

You’ve been curious about this one. No, German is not that hard to learn for an English speaker, but Polish together with Icelandic, Finnish, Greek, Croatian, Turkish and Hungarian are. All these languages would require some 1100 hours (44 weeks) of practice for a professional working proficiency level.

Polish is the most spoken Western Slavic language and the second largest Slavic language after Russian. It has 9 letters which English does not have (ą ć ę ł ń ś ó ź ż) and it contains a great number of words borrowed from Latin, Czech, German, Belarusian, and Ukrainian. Along with the other West Slavic languages, it has a fixed stress accent. In contrast to the others, however, Polish has nasalized vowels (spelled ę and ą), indirectly continuing the nasalized vowels of early Slavic.

While we are at it, it could be interesting to also talk about the easiest language to learn for English speakers.

Afrikaans – the easiest language to learn for English speakers?

Yes. Together with Danish, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish! These 5 languages are the easiest languages to learn for native English speakers. The FSI claims you would need about 575 hours or 23 weeks to reach a fluent level in one of these languages. So if you want to move to Northern Europe, you are in great luck!

easiest language to learn
“Danish flag at sea” by LEMUR©

 

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What is the hardest language to learn?
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