The 8 hardest languages to learn for English speakers

1

While many people set out looking for the easiest languages for you to learn, we know that some language learners like a challenge. That’s why we set out to answer another one of the biggest questions we get asked: “What are the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn?”

Whether you’re a polyglot looking for a challenge (we salute you!), a first-time learner looking to steer clear of troubled waters (it’ll be ok), or simply curious (hi), we’ve compiled a list of what the languages experts agree are the toughest to learn, coming from an English-speaking background.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at these tongue-twisting, um, tongues, going from easiest to hardest – relatively speaking, of course. They’re all hard.

Discover the 8 most difficult languages to learn

1. Hindi

Script: Devanagari 

Where it’s spoken: India

Is It tonal? Blessedly, no. 

A quick note on this ‘tonal’ business: a tonal language is one where your vocal pitch is a factor in the meaning of the word.

Tonal languages tend to be harder for English speakers because we use tone to convey emotion, but not meaning. So, if you say “car” at a higher pitch, it still means “car” in English.

That’s not always the case in tonal languages. Chinese, for example, is tonal.

What makes it so hard?

First off, the script used to write Hindi, Devanagari, is considered particularly hard to get a hang of. 

The script is also what’s called an abugida, meaning that the individual characters represent a consonant and vowel combination, rather than a single vowel or consonant. 

So ‘to’ and ‘ta’ might each get their own letters, for example, in an abugida script. This is a new concept for many English speakers. 

To make matters more complicated, the written version of Hindi lacks certain phonetic markings to tell a non-native speaker how to pronounce words – and Hindi is a particularly subtle language, where slight changes in sound and context can change the meaning of a word entirely. 

Though it is one of the toughest languages in the world for English speakers, Hindi shares words with Arabic, so those who already speak Arabic will have a leg up in terms of vocabulary!

2. Hungarian 

Script: Latin alphabet with added accents

Where it’s spoken: Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine

Is it tonal? Blessedly, no.

What makes it so hard?

Hungarian has lots of fun complications, if that’s up your alley. First, it’s agglutinative, meaning that instead of having individual prepositions, prefixes and suffixes are added on to words. Which means that much of a sentence can be expressed in a single, very long verb. 

A popular example of this is the Hungarian, megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, which I’m going to go ahead and let you Google. (Just kidding, it means, approximately, “for your [plural] continued behaviour as if you could not be desecrated”, and is mostly used by Hungarian speakers as an example of how agglutination can make words unreasonably long!)

The language also has a delightful 26 cases, making it a tad grammatically challenging. It’s also a vowel-harmony language, which essentially means that, in this case, sometimes an extra vowel is added at the end to make a word sound right. 

Oh, and it has less in common with English than Hindi.

3. Navajo

Script: Latin alphabet, plus added letters and accents to represent unique sounds. Latin alphabet with a twist!

Where it’s spoken: United States

Is it tonal? Yes – four tones. (Could be worse!)

What makes it so hard?

Navajo has several unique features that make it challenging for English speakers, or anyone who doesn’t speak a language in the North American Na-Dené family of languages. 

It has a number of consonants we don’t use in English. 

Plus, it has elements of agglutination, where prefixes and suffixes replace prepositions (the same thing as that long Hungarian word), but Navajo does it in such an unpredictable way that it’s considered by some to be… not agglutinative. 

The opposite of agglutinative is fusional. 

And Navajo is sort of both. We did say this was a challenging one! 

In fact, its significant lack of loanwords from other languages and its grammatical structure make it so tough to crack that the allies had Navajo speakers speak their language to send coded communications during World War II.

At the time, there was no published Navajo dictionary, making the language even tougher to decode. Today, however, there are plenty of online resources for those who are willing to take on the challenge.

4. Vietnamese

Script: Latin alphabet with a twist

Where it’s spoken: Vietnam and Southern China

Is It tonal? Yes – six tones. (Hard!)

What makes it so hard?

For English speakers, tonal languages are a challenge. 

We simply aren’t as attuned to tone, as we need to be to effectively communicate, and six tones are a whole lot for us to grasp. 

That’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just a steep, uphill battle. 

Vietnamese also uses more vowels than English, and has several different dialects that, while mutually intelligible, are dissimilar enough to cause trouble for someone travelling in both the north and south parts of Vietnam.

That said, those who speak both Chinese and English may find Vietnamese to be a relative breeze, given that it uses the Latin alphabet (with added accent marks), and they’re already used to tones.

5. Korean

Script: Hangul, Hanja (rare)

Where it’s spoken: Korea

Is it tonal? Blessedly, no

What makes it so hard?

Well, the good news is that Korean isn’t tonal, so that’s a help, and Hangul – the primary alphabet – is fairly easy to pick up. 

The bad news is that Korean is agglutinative (prefixes and suffixes replace prepositions, making some words unreasonably long). It also has a whopping seven speech levels, based on the formality of the situation, and has an unfamiliar grammatical structure for us Anglophones.

According to The Defense Language Institute’s (where CIA spies go to learn languages!) catalogs, while it takes an English learner on average about 26 weeks to gain proficiency in Spanish or French, it takes about 65 weeks to develop a working proficiency of Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. 

Speaking of which…

6. Arabic 

Script: Arabic

Where it’s spoken: Arabic is an official or recognised minority language in 31 countries, primarily in the Middle East and Africa.

Is it tonal? Blessedly, no.

What makes it so hard?

Arabic uses its own script, which, in itself, adds a layer of difficulty for English speakers. 

Though in the case of Arabic, the characters actually work fairly similarly to our Latin alphabet. 

However, the Arabic script is read right to left, instead of left to right, which can be a challenge for English speakers. 

It includes a number of unique sounds and a challenging grammatical structure. It also has a wide variety of different dialects, depending on the region. 

Plus, words as written often don’t include their vowels, so vowels are simply known by Arabic speakers based on context. Not the easiest language to learn. 

That said, those familiar with Hebrew or Hindi will have a bit of an easier time with Arabic, since Hebrew’s written language has similar quirks and Hindi shares some vocabulary with Arabic.

7. Japanese 

Scripts: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji

Where it’s spoken: Japan, Palau

Is It tonal? Blessedly, no.

What makes it so hard?

In many ways, Japanese actually isn’t as hard as for English speakers to learn in comparison to many other languages. 

If you can teach yourself Katakana and Hiragana, the two essential Japanese alphabets (well, abugidas, if you’re feeling fancy!), you can start to decipher menus and street signs. 

And what you’ll find when you do is that Japanese uses a large number of loanwords from English and the Romance languages. 

It’s not tonal, and much of the grammar is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively simple to pick up (looking at you, Hungarian!). 

However, studies have shown that Japanese is the single language that takes English people the longest to learn. 

Why?

Because of the immense number of Kanji, or individual characters, a learner has to memorise to become even reasonably literate in Japanese. 

Many of these are characters that were borrowed from Chinese over the past few thousand years. Which means, to make matters more complicated, even Chinese speakers may not recognise all of the characters in Japanese. They may be sourced from loanwords from fifteenth-century China. 

Which leads us to our final entry…

8. Mandarin Chinese 

Script: Simplified & traditional Chinese characters

Where it’s spoken: Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore

Is it tonal? Yes – four tones and a neutral tone. (Could be worse!)

What makes it so hard?

Mandarin tops the list as the perfect storm of challenges for English speakers. As you’d expect from one of the hardest languages in the world, it’s tonal, uses many unique idioms (popular phrases that don’t necessarily have a direct translation), and subtle homophones (words that sound the same but mean different things). It also requires the learning of thousands of characters to achieve literacy. 

And it’s worth noting that while any of the other Chinese dialects could easily also fall here at the top of the list, Mandarin is simply a stand-in as the most widely used and taught. 

That said, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing – as one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, learning Mandarin is a challenge worth accepting. It gives you access to millions of people you might not otherwise be able to get to know. It’s a lingua franca of business in much of Asia. 


And there you have it. Those are, as far as we’re concerned, the eight most difficult languages to learn as an English speaker. 

While learning a language always has its ups and downs, these ones can be a little tricky – but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible to learn, for those who are willing to put the work in.


So what do you say, are you feeling up for the challenge?

We’re Busuu, an app that makes learning a language easier for everyone. 

If you’re ready to take on Mandarin – or Japanese, Arabic, or any one of the other nine languages we offer (tough or otherwise), start learning with us for free today.