While it may be hard to learn a new language as an adult, there are some that test our faculties more than others. Though it’s slightly subjective which language is the hardest to learn, there are some that are definitely harder than others. And rather than listing very obscure languages that are undoubtedly hard (Tamil, Icelandic, Estonian, Polish, Hungarian), here are some of the most spoken and most challenging. If you ever travel to places where these languages are spoken, it might just be easier to get a personal translator.
Since you’re reading this in English you are obviously an English-speaker. You might be wondering whether English is hard to learn for non-native speakers. If you’re fluent, you may gloss over the oddities which make it a hard language to learn: however, there are inconsistencies in spelling (“i before e except after c”) and pronunciation (ration does not rhyme with nation – while rationally it should). English has also borrowed words and phrases from a number of languages (especially French), occasionally making it a mish-mash which doesn’t always make sense.
The trickiest of the rest – Japanese
Compared with Japanese, English is a walk in the park. For a start, Japanese has three ‘alphabets’ or writing characters: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. In other words, to be truly fluent, you have to learn three alphabets, all of which other native speakers understand. Some people consider it to have four alphabets, as there is one called ‘romaji’ which is generally used to help foreigners – it’s a phonetic rendering in roman characters.
There are roughly 6000 kanji characters, and the only way to know what they mean is by memorising them (as guessing meanings is almost impossible). Hiragana and katakana have around 50 characters each that are used to form various words, which means you can make mistakes if the correct elements of words are used in the wrong order.
There are a few other difficulties. If your native language is English and you’re learning Japanese, then it might be hard because Japanese grammar is almost opposite or the other way around to the English grammar structure. Another difference from English is that the Japanese tend to have an indirect way of talking about things; rather than saying yes or no directly they might say “I am thinking that” or “maybe yes”. Then there are different forms of Japanese that are used depending on the situation you’re in: formal, everyday – and even different ways of speaking to males or females. If that isn’t confusing enough, Japan has different dialects that are spoken in different cities.
One of the world’s most spoken languages is not the easiest to learn. One issue with Chinese is an alphabet that is unique and quite difficult to master. If you generally read in English, this is an immediate test, especially as there are around 20,000 characters which are hard to draw, let alone to memorise.
Once you get past the problems reading Chinese, there are many more differences: in Chinese there are no cases, no genders, no tenses, and no verb changes. While grammar may not be too difficult, it’s very different to English, and tonal pronunciation (where different tones of the same words mean completely different things) is hard to master.
Arabic is a language where the spoken and printed language (in the media, books and online) is quite different. There are many dialects, so an Arabic speaker from one region might struggle to understand someone from elsewhere.
Reading and writing is difficult as letters can change shape depending on where they are written in a word, plurals usually change the word a lot more than in other languages (unlike easy changes in English – which often just add an ‘s’). Then there’s the fact that it’s read from left to right.
An honourable mention: Finnish
Finnish is only really spoken in Finland (with a few Finnish people in Sweden and Norway). It is a complex language, which requires great patience to learn.
A lot of Finnish seems to include multiple vowels all strung together over and over – making words exceedingly long and difficult to read, let alone pronounce.
Finnish doesn’t have Germanic or Latin roots, so a lot of the vocabulary is completely alien to English speakers. There are also 15 noun cases – compared with English, which only has five – as well as six verb types.