Published 25th January 2019

languages

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Even though English may seem easy to us, often our English as a Foreign Language students will complain that English is a very difficult language to learn. We can’t really blame them, with phrasal verbs, conditional sentences and idiomatic language making things very complicated for them. But they’re often not the only ones learning a language. As English as a Foreign Language teachers, we can find ourselves in an environment where we need to learn the local language in order to communicate. If this might be you in the near future, you may be interested to find out what the most difficult languages to learn are.

Bear in mind, these are languages which are difficult for English-speakers to learn. Part of a language’s level of difficulty results from its relationship to the learner’s first language. So Italian will be more difficult for an Arabic speaker to learn than a Spanish speaker, since it is closer to Spanish than Italian. (If you are not an English native speaker, this list may not be true for you.)

Difficult Languages to Learn

On the one end of the spectrum are North Germanic languages and Romance languages. These include Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, as well as French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. They are members of the Indo-European language family, as is English, which is probably why they are considered the easiest to learn. They should take about 600 hours of classroom instruction to learn.

Then there are a few languages which are considered slightly more difficult. Indonesian, Malaysian and Swahili should take about 900 hours of classroom instruction to learn.

The next category of languages includes the majority of languages. They should take about 1100 classroom hours to learn. This category of languages includes Albanian, Turkish, Zulu and Slavic languages like Russian, Serbian, Slovakian and Slovenian.

A few languages which are slightly more difficult than these include Hungarian, Finnish, Georgian, Vietnamese and Estonian.

Finally, the category of languages that are considered the most difficult to learn include five languages: Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean. 

difficult languages to learn

Arabic

Arabic is one of the topmost spoken languages in the world with over 300 million native speakers. Arabic is spoken throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Its alphabet typically excludes vowels and has very few words in common with English which makes it one of the most difficult languages to learn. The Arabic alphabet contains 28 letters and is written right to left.  There are dozens of dialects that are very different from each other so even if you understand one dialect you can have issues understanding another. 

Mandarin 

There are over 900 million Mandarin speakers around the world. Mandarin is the official language in the Republic of China and is spoken in Malaysia, USA, Myanmar, and Singapore. Mandarin is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for a couple of reasons. First, there are thousands of special characters you must memorize, which are completely different than any writing system seen in Latin-based languages. Not only is the writing difficult, but as a tonal language speaking is very challenging as well. Mandarin is a tonal language and there are four different tones used. As a tonal language, each word differs in meaning depending on the pitch. 

Cantonese 

Cantonese is widely spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, and Southeastern China.  Cantonese and Mandarin share the same base alphabet, but the differences in pronunciation, grammar, and lexicon make it mutually unintelligible. But Cantonese is a tonal language with eight different tones so one word can be pronounced in eight pitches and hold eight different meanings. This makes it very difficult for English speakers that regularly speak with emphasis! 

Japanese   

Japanese has two sets of written characters that learners need to memorize which make it one of the difficult languages to learn. The two scripts are Hiragana and Katakana. There are literally thousands of characters you need to memorize in order to achieve fluency. What helps English speakers learn Japenese? The vowel and consonant sounds are similar to English which makes it easier to pronounce and understand.  As a contextual language pronouns require different forms depending on the formality of the social situation. The social context is influenced by the social hierarchy of the group dynamic and whether is it a casual or formal situation. 

Korean 

The primary alphabet in Korea is Hangul, which consists of 24 letters, 14 which are constants and 10 vowels. So why is Korean one of the most difficult languages for English speakers? Other than the characters differing from Latin-based languages, Korean is agglutinative language meaning that prefixes and suffixes are attached to words to decipher their meaning and direction rather than using separate prepositions. Korean has six different dialects that are similar enough to make dialects mutually understandable. Similar to Japanese, the social context influences the grammar. When speaking to someone with a superior status—an older distant relative or employer—the speaker has to use specific nouns or verb ending to identify their status. 

These languages will take a person approximately 2200 hours of classroom instruction to learn, which is about two years.

Don’t let this classification deter you from trying to learn a foreign language. No two learners are the same and just because English is your first language does not mean that you will necessarily need two years to learn Mandarin, for example. You may have a natural knack for languages which will help you learn any language relatively quickly. Also, if you are living in a country where they speak the language, the chances are high that you will pick up a language quicker because you will be immersed in the culture and constantly surrounded by the language. 
On the flip side, you may want to consider where your English as a Foreign Language students fit on the spectrum, because if you will find their language difficult they will find yours difficult! You can assess your student’s English level to find out.