Published 25th January 2019


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.)

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. These languages 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 which are considered the most difficult to learn include five languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. 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!