If you dream of becoming a polyglot, someone who has mastered several languages, we’ve got some news for you.
While learning a language is extremely rewarding and creates an irreplaceable sense of fulfillment, especially when traveling abroad, it may take longer than you think.
Some languages are easy for native English speakers, while some are more challenging. Spanish, French, Italian, and Swedish are among the easiest languages to learn.
However, many other languages can be much more challenging for native English speakers to grasp. Let’s explore the top 10 hardest languages for English speakers to learn.
Determining Language Difficulty
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) classifies some languages into different categories based on how similar they are to English.
Category I Languages
Category I languages are closely related to English regarding their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. You only need to log in 750 hours on average to become proficient.
This requirement means if you were to study four hours a day, seven days a week, it would take you under twenty-nine weeks to achieve proficiency.
Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Dutch are typically the languages that belong in Category I, among others.
Category IV and Category V Languages
Category IV and V languages are the most difficult for English speakers. It will take between 1,100 and 2,200 class hours to reach any level of proficiency.
Examples of Category IV languages include Icelandic, Polish, Greek, Turkish and Russian. Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Chinese are classified as Category V languages.
These have significant linguistic and cultural differences from English, but learning these can be helpful for business, travel, and research in these regions.
Here are some of the hardest languages to master.
1. Basque (1,100 Class Hours)
The Basque language, also known as Euskara, is a mysterious language spoken primarily in the Basque Country, a region spanning parts of northern Spain and southwestern France.
Today, the younger generations in Spain are striving together to maintain Basque language schools to keep the language alive.
Facts About the Basque Language
- Basque, spoken between France and Spain, is considered a language unrelated to any other language in the world.
- While it has a role in the Basque identity, its isolative factor makes it hard for anyone to pick it up immediately.
- Professional institutes cite that this language currently has 900,000 speakers.
2. Finnish (1,100 Class Hours)
Finnish, the official language of Finland, is a fascinating and unique member of the Finno-Ugric language family.
Approximately 5.5 million people in Finland and minority communities in neighboring countries like Sweden and Russia speak Finnish.
Finnish culture strongly emphasizes language, with a rich literary tradition, poetry, and folk music flourishing in this expressive tongue. It is classified as a category IV language.
Facts About the Finnish Language
- Unlike Basque, Finnish, mostly spoken in Finland, has a few similarities to English.
- The difference is that there is no concept of gender, and it has fifteen cases of different grammar functions.
- Often described as a musical language, Finnish people usually stress the first syllable of a word.
3. Thai (1,100 Class Hours)
Thai, the official language of Thailand, is a melodic and tonal language with a complex writing system. It is estimated that 61 million people speak the language.
The language belongs to the Tai-Kadai language family and has several regional dialects. Minority communities in neighboring countries, including parts of Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, and Malaysia, also speak Thai.
Thailand attracts millions of tourists worldwide each year, making Thai a valuable language for travelers and those interested in experiencing the country’s unique culture and traditions.
Facts About the Thai Language
- It has five tones, and the same word can have different meanings based on the tone. These tones are mid, low, falling, high, and rising.
- The writing system uses a non-alphabetic script with a mix of 44 consonants and 16 vowels.
- It has a formal and informal register, affecting how speakers address others.
4. Icelandic (1,100 Class Hours)
Icelandic is a language that has remained unchanged for centuries. As a Germanic language, it stands out because it has maintained its original linguistic features similar to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
The Icelandic language is spoken by 314,000 speakers in Iceland, with about 8,000 speakers in Denmark. There are also a minority of speakers elsewhere, including the United States and Canada.
One of the remarkable aspects of Icelandic is how it’s closely connected with Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. This characteristic captivates modern speakers because they are also intrigued by medieval Icelandic sagas and poetry. It’s a taste of time travel!
Facts About the Icelandic Language
- It contains long, hard, difficult-to-pronounce words and extremely challenging grammar.
- Icelandic possess a middle voice in addition to the more commonly known active and passive voices.
- One of the remarkable characteristics of Icelandic is its intricate grammar, often referring to its extensive morphology with numerous word endings.
- Nouns and adjectives can be quite challenging. They can change based on number, definiteness, gender, and case.
5. Hungarian (1,100 Class Hours)
Hungarian is a flexible language with challenging word construction. Being an agglutinative language, it forms words by adding affixes to a base form.
Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric language grouping in the Uralic language family and is the official language of Hungary. This language boasts a speaker count of 10.3 million, with the additional speakers residing in Romania, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, and Serbia.
Despite its intricacies, Hungarian is a source of immense national pride. People see the language as an emblem of Hungarian identity and cultural heritage.
Facts About the Hungarian Language
- The language traces its origins back to the vast steppe of Central Asia, spoken by the ancestors of the Magyar tribes who ultimately established the nation of Hungary.
- The word order of the language can be flexible, depending on how you want to emphasize the sentence.
- They introduce themselves by their surname first and their name second, which can confuse tourists.
6. Georgian (2,200 Class Hours)
Georgian, the official language of Georgia in the Kartvelian language family, is yet another challenging language for native English speakers.
There are approximately 4 million first and second-language speakers. Outside of Georgia, it is spoken in the bordering countries such as Russia, Azerbaijan, and Türkiye.
According to the renowned Georgian historian Ivane Javakhishvili, the use of the Georgian writing system dates back to the 7th century BC. Over time, the written language of Georgia has evolved, giving rise to three distinct scripts: Asomtavruli (5th-9th centuries), Nuskhuri (9th-11th centuries), and Mkhedruli (11th century onwards).
Facts About the Georgian Language
- The script lacks capital letters and often features words with three, four, or even up to eight consonants.
- Georgian usually omits subject pronouns. Pronouns are primarily used for emphasis or in cases of ambiguity.
- In the Georgian language, definite or indefinite articles (such as “the” or “a” in English) are not used. Instead, the information typically conveyed by articles can be expressed through word order. Georgian exhibits a flexible word order, including subject-object-verb, subject-verb-object, and occasionally object-subject-verb order.
7. Korean (2,200 Class Hours)
With its status as an official language in both North and South Korea, Korean can present a formidable challenge to those who are new to it. Given South Korea’s prominence in the global economy, learning Korean could prove to be a valuable pursuit.
Korean is spoken by 75 million people. It shares similarities to Japanese and Chinese.
The Korean language was once written using Chinese characters, which was one of several systems used to represent Korean sounds. However, these characters couldn’t accurately depict the unique sounds of Korean.
During the reign of King Sejong, the Korean writing system known as Hangul, originally called 훈민정음 (hunminjeongeum), was developed. Hangul is the writing system that best captures the essence of the Korean language’s sound.
Facts About the Korean Language
- Proficiency in Korean is highly valued by esteemed agencies such as the CIA, the Department of State, the U.S. Military, and the NSA.
- A phonetic language, which means you can sound out the words if you know the alphabet.
- Verbs always come last in Korean, as sentences are structured in subject, object and verb (SOV) order.
8. Japanese (2,200 Class Hours)
Japanese popular culture, including anime, manga, and J-pop, has gained international appeal, making the language even more desirable to learn for enthusiasts around the world.
It is mainly spoken in Japan and boasts 128 million speakers. Japan, located on the eastern edge of Asia, is a captivating archipelago of picturesque islands.
Unlike most languages with either an alphabet or a syllabary, Japanese has three writing systems – hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries, with each character representing a syllable. On the other hand, kanji are Chinese characters that have been adopted into Japanese writing.
Facts About the Japanese Language
- There are different levels of politeness in Japanese, and the use of honorifics and humble language is a way to show respect and maintain harmony in social relationships.
- Japanese usually does not distinguish between male and female nouns or pronouns. This makes it easier for non-native speakers to learn without worrying about gender agreement.
- In Japanese writing, there is no space between words or sentences, and it is read from left to right.
9. Arabic (2,200 Class Hours)
Arabic is the official language of more than 26 countries. Arabic is spoken by approximately 107 million people across the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.
Another language that is read from right to left, Arabic, is related to Aramaic, Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Phoenician.
It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations and holds great religious importance as the language of the Quran, the holy book of Islam.
Arabic influenced fields such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and literature during the Islamic Golden Age.
Facts About the Arabic Language
- It has roots in the Semitic language family, a branch that includes related languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic.
- Arabic has two forms – Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and classical (or Quranic) Arabic. MSA is used in formal settings and written communication. Quranic Arabic, the standardized literary form of Arabic, has been in use since the 7th century.
10. Mandarin Chinese (2,200 Class Hours)
If you thought Arabic would be hard to learn as an English speaker, wait till you start taking Mandarin Chinese classes. This language takes home the number one spot on our 10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers list.
Mandarin Chinese’s writing system is significantly harder than other languages due to its multitude of characters. In fact, there are over 50,000 characters, though an educated Chinese person will only know about 8,000 of these.
As Mandarin is a tonal language, the meaning of your words can undergo significant changes depending on the tone used for pronunciation. Mastering these tones is crucial to effectively communicate in Mandarin.
Mandarin has a whopping 955 million speakers worldwide. Outside of China, there are speakers of the language in Taiwan and Singapore.
Facts About the Mandarin Language
- For English speakers learning Mandarin, the five tones (four standard tones and a fifth ‘neutral tone’) can be the most challenging aspect.
- Mandarin has no alphabet. You need to focus instead on the Chinese characters to uncover the meaning of words.
- The Chinese names of other countries were primarily created by phonetically translating Western names into Chinese characters that sound similar, resulting in some intriguing outcomes. Noteworthy examples include America (美国 Mei Guo, meaning “Beautiful Country”) and England (英国 Ying Guo, meaning “Hero Country”).
Languages are a beautiful way to connect and transcend cultural barriers worldwide. If you’re a predominantly English speaker, learning a new language will help you feel more comfortable in different countries.
While this list of 10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers may appear daunting now that less than 25 percent of Americans are bilingual or know another language, you can become one of them with ample practice!
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.