The hardest languages to learn are those that are very different from your native language in terms of vocabulary, grammar features, pronunciation, and spelling. For an English speaker, the hardest languages generally belong to a different language family (i.e., non-Germanic or non-Indo-European). However, there are also languages in the same family as English that are difficult for other reasons (e.g., because they have different writing systems or complicated grammar).
Below, you can find a list of some of the languages that will be hard to learn for English speakers, along with information about each of them regarding the above features. They are split into three categories. First, there are languages that are in the same general family as English but are still difficult: Icelandic, the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Serbian), Greek, and Farsi. These share several similarities with English, for example some of the vocabulary. Second, there are languages that belong to a totally different language family but share some features with English (e.g., their writing systems): Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Basque, Navajo. Third, there are languages that belong to totally different language families and share few features with English: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic. Here’s a quick overview:
- Hard to learn, related languages: Icelandic, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Farsi
- Hard to learn, unrelated languages: Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Basque, Navajo
- Super hard to learn, unrelated languages: Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Arabic
This article will also provide you with an estimate of how much time it would take to reach working proficiency in these languages. For these numbers, we used the estimates created by the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) – a government organization that does language training for diplomats going overseas. The first two groups of languages above belong to Category III (hard languages) and the third one to Category IV (super-hard languages).
Why should you ever think of learning any of these languages? Well, together with the features that make them hard to learn, we will discuss features that make them interesting. Let’s explore!
Table of Contents
Which languages are hard to learn?
Some of the languages that are hard for English speakers to learn are Icelandic, Russian, Polish, Serbian, Greek, Farsi, Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish, Basque, and Navajo. According to the FSI, all of these languages take around 1100 class hours to learn.
Icelandic is considered one of the hardest languages to learn for speakers of English – even though it’s related to Norwegian, an easy language. So why is this language so difficult? Let’s take a look.
The first reason is spelling. Although Icelandic uses a script similar to the Latin script used to write English, there are 32 letters in the Icelandic alphabet and some letters that are entirely new, like ð or þ (which represent the sounds “th” as in “father” and “thin” respectively – way clearer than English, don’t you agree?). Icelandic also employs rules on how to pronounce letters differently in different contexts. For example, you may hear a slight “h” before a consonant but it depends on its position in the word. Or “p” may be pronounced as “p” or “f.” Icelandic has several such rules and although a word may look easy to pronounce at first, it might actually be surprisingly difficult.
Okay, pronunciation is hard, but what about vocabulary? Well, Icelandic and English have shared origins, so some Icelandic vocabulary is similar to English. However, Icelandic is an old language and Icelanders are very proud of it. (Fun fact: Icelandic Language Day is celebrated on the 16th of November every year.) Because of this, Icelanders avoid loanwords (words borrowed from other languages) and try to create their own words for new concepts. As an example, although several languages have adopted the word for “jeans,” in Icelandic, “jeans” is gallabuxur. Or, they create new words by putting words together. Such words may look daunting but if you break them down, they become easy to understand. Still, they need to be pronounced!
Icelandic grammar can also be a challenge. Many of the “difficult” features of Icelandic used to be found in English and in other languages from the Germanic group. English, for example, used to have cases (different forms of the words depending on their role in the sentence), but lost them as it became grammatically simpler over time and they only survive in forms like I/me, he/him etc. Icelandic, on the other hand, has preserved a lot of complex grammar. You will find cases that affect the form of nouns, pronouns and even numbers in Icelandic.
According to Ethnologue (https://www.ethnologue.com), which is the source of all speaker numbers in this article, it is spoken by around 330,000 people and if you’re interested in learning the language of the Icelanders, check out the Icelandic course offered by Mango!
Next we’ll explore the Slavic languages, which are still part of the broader Indo-European family of languages to which English belongs, but belong to a more distant branch. We will talk about three Slavic languages: Russian, which belongs to the East Slavic branch, Polish, which belongs to the West Slavic branch, and Serbian, which belongs to the South Slavic branch. Because they branched off from one another relatively recently, they are quite similar.
Russian is challenging because it has a different writing system, tough pronunciation, and complex grammar. However, because it is spoken by 260 million people in Russia (as well as in most ex-Soviet countries), it is an important language to learn. Let’s break down why Russian is so difficult.
Spelling: Russian uses the Cyrilic alphabet, which has few similarities with the Latin alphabet that is used to write English. To put this in perspective, out of the 33 letters of the Cyrilic alphabet there are only six letters in common, especially the capital ones (A, O, E, M, T, K). Besides that, some letters have tricky pronunciations. For example, B in Cyrilic is pronounced “v” and P is pronounced “r.” And some letters are totally new: П for “p,” Ж for “zh” (the sound in “mirage”), Ш for “sh,” and more. There is also cursive – but you can leave that for later on.
Vocabulary: There are lots of vocabulary differences between English and Russian which could cause learning difficulty. However, since both languages belong to the same language family, there are some “cognates” (words that have the same origin) that can make learning easier. You can perhaps guess that сестра (siSTRA) means “sister.” There are also loanwords that these languages share. For example, you can find similarities in vocab that has to do with medical terms, studies, jobs, housing, etc.
Pronunciation: Russian pronunciation may be challenging for English speakers. The rules for using spelling to guide pronunciation in Russian can be tricky, since there isn’t always a one-to-one correspondence between letters and the sounds they represent. However, the rules are at least regular. It may surprise you at first to learn that, in Russian, O is pronounced /a/ when not stressed, but at least this is true across the board. If you are ever discouraged, just compare it with the mess that is English spelling! Russian also has some unfamiliar sounds you’ll need to learn and unfortunately, there are no rules to tell you how to stress words. But not everyone finds learning Russian pronunciation difficult.
Grammar: Grammar might be the hardest part of Russian. But then again, there are predictable rules which should help you learn! Some challenges might be:
- Cases – These are the forms words take depending on their role in the sentence. For example, the word я (I) has four forms. While in English you use “me” and a preposition (of, to, with), in Russian you have to learn new words:
- я (I)
- меня (of me/me)
- мне (to me)
- мной (with me)
- Verbs of motion – If you want to go somewhere, you need to think: Am I going on foot or by car? Will I go once or go and come back? Only after making these decisions can you choose which verb to use!
- There are no articles, like “a” or “the” (which might be seen as a blessing, but might also trip you up when trying to understand the meaning of a sentence).
- Nouns are split into animate and inanimate, and you will need to learn some more endings because of that.
These are just a few examples of the complexity of Russian grammar. I leave it to you to find out the hard truth about Russian numbers!
Russian is offered by Mango, so this is a good starting point if you’re up for a challenge!
Polish, spoken by more than 40 million people across the world, is difficult for English speakers for a number of reasons (but above all its pronunciation). Let’s take a look.
Spelling: The spelling of Polish is comparatively simple compared to its other features. Its alphabet has 32 letters and uses the Latin script though some letters may not look familiar. These new letters are basically a Latin script letter with diacritics. Nothing too difficult here!
Pronunciation: Polish pronunciation is notoriously difficult. No kidding. To console themselves, Poles say that their language sounds like birds tweeting. Have a look:
Where are the vowels in this word?
True, many Polish words are just a series of consonants. But at least in most, if not all of them, the stressed syllable will be the second to last one – if you can find it.
Vocabulary: Polish is a Slavic language, so we shouldn’t expect many similarities with English words. However, there are obvious cognates and loanwords like kot (cat), dom (house; think of “domestic”), komputer (computer), wideo (video), budżet (budget), and less identifiable ones like dżinsy (jeans) or mecz (match, game).
Grammar: In general, the Polish and Russian grammars are quite similar, but Polish has more verb forms and more exceptions than Russian, making it more difficult. As in Russian, there are no articles. However, in Polish there are seven cases, compared to Russian’s six. This, in addition to its challenging pronunciation, makes Polish win hands down in terms of which is the harder language!
However, with Mango’s exceptional methodology, Polish will become yours in no time!
Serbian, spoken mainly in Serbia (with 10 million speakers worldwide), is also difficult for English speakers. Here’s why.
Spelling: Serbian is the only Slavic language that can be written in either the Latin or the Cyrillic scripts. There are some letters added in for the specific Serbian sounds. The spelling is consistent, and each letter corresponds to one sound. There are 5 vowels and 25 consonants and apart from the /ch/ sound which can be pronounced in two ways, one softer than the other, Serbian pronunciation is not too challenging.
Vocabulary: Serbian vocabulary consists mainly of Slavic words, so English speakers could have a tough time. However, it has some loanwords from Turkish, Greek, English, French, and German which could speed up the learning process.
Grammar: After reading about Russian and Polish, I assume you expect that Serbian has cases, no articles, tenses and everything else these two languages have. I won’t disappoint you!
Serbian is offered by Mango, so why don’t you give it a try?
Greek is a hard-to-learn language that is spoken mainly in Greece and Cyprus by around 13 million people. Let’s start with the “easy” part.
Greek is on its own and all by itself in the Indo-European language tree with no sisters, but it does still belong to the Indo-European family, like English, and so you will find several similarities between Greek and English. Greek has influenced English in terms of vocabulary: roughly 6% – 12% of English words are derived from Greek either directly or indirectly. For example, all the words that end in -phobia, meaning “fear,” are of Greek origin. And although these are words that are used in technology and science, there are commonly used words as well. So, that’s a good start. But…
Spelling: One of the challenging parts of Greek is its alphabet, a non-Latin script with 24 letters. Although the Greek alphabet has several letters that are the same as in English (the Latin script is derived from Greek after all!), spelling is not the most straightforward. Some sounds are represented by two letters, e.g. γκ for “g,” (called “digraphs”) and there are some sounds that can be represented by many different letters! Suffice it to say that the sound /i/ can be spelled in six different ways: as ι, η, οι, ει, υ, or υι.
Greek’s difficult spelling rules are due to the fact that spelling reflects how a word was spelled in ancient times. Although it was spelled this way because it reflected the pronunciation back then, the pronunciation has since changed while the spelling has stayed.
Pronunciation: Pronouncing Greek can be tricky because some letters change pronunciation depending on the letters that follow. However, most Greek consonants are similar to English and the vowels are very clearly pronounced. For example, there is no schwa in Greek (the sound in “about”)! Greek often creates words by putting shorter words together, so you may encounter really long and challenging words. But then again, if you know the smaller words these long words are formed from, pronouncing them should be straightforward.
Grammar: Greek has cases and tenses. There are a lot of conjugations that you need to learn, and many exceptions, but nothing too unfamiliar.
Although it may sound strange, Farsi (a variety of Persian spoken by 77 million people) is in the same major language family as English. However, Farsi is difficult to learn for English speakers because it has been heavily influenced by Arabic. Let’s take a closer look.
Spelling: One of the main reasons Farsi is difficult for English speakers is because it uses the Arabic script – but there are four extra letters for the Farsi sounds that do not exist in Arabic. Like Arabic (take a look below), short vowels are generally not indicated in writing. If they are, they are indicated with small accent symbols above or below the consonants. Not very familiar, is it?
Pronunciation: Unlike its spelling, Farsi pronunciation should be straightforward for English speakers. However, there are some consonants that may need some practice, such as various “h” sounds and a “k” sound that is produced deep in the throat. There are also long and short vowel contrasts that could be a challenge.
Vocabulary: Farsi vocabulary may be less of a challenge for English speakers than its other components. Although there are several Arabic words, because it is an Indo-European language, much of Farsi’s basic vocabulary resembles English. Let’s look at a few examples (written in transcription for convenience):
pedar means “father”
dandan is “tooth” (dental)
tondar is “thunder”
Even though these words have slightly different pronunciations, you should be able to pick up on their meaning!
Grammar: Farsi grammar shouldn’t be too challenging because it follows familiar Indo-European grammatical patterns. For example, to form the past tense, you simply take the base form and delete the ending. You add words before it to indicate if the action is continuous or not and suffixes (little word elements added at the end of the word) to indicate who performs the action. Plurals are formed regularly through the addition of -ha. What’s more, unlike Romance languages, there is no gender for nouns or pronouns. Farsi grammar may also be less of a challenge because there are no irregularities in verbal conjugation.
One aspect of Farsi grammar English speakers may find a bit difficult is case marking. In Farsi, you add a word before or after a noun to indicate its grammatical case. For example, you add -o or –rah after the object of a sentence, as “spring weather” in the sentence “I like spring weather.”
هوای بهار را دوست دارم
haVAHye baHAHR rah doost DAHRam
I like spring weather.
Moreover, notice that the verb comes at the end of the sentence.
Even though Farsi is written with an Arabic script and may look daunting, it may prove not to be too challenging. Give it a try with our Mango Farsi course!
Hungarian, spoken by 12.5 million people (mainly in Hungary and neighboring countries), is difficult for English speakers because it belongs to the Uralic language family. This means we are moving away from the Indo-European languages, for a while, and stepping onto new ground! Let’s take a closer look.
Spelling: Hungarian uses the Latin script, although some symbols have been added to cater for the Hungarian sounds that do not exist in other languages. There are 44 letters in the Hungarian alphabet, some of which have accents and there are digraphs, meaning two different letter symbols representing a single sound. For example, sz (a digraph) corresponds to the English ‘s’ sound (as in “sell”) while s is for the English ‘sh’ sound (as in “sure”). All this means that there are new letters to learn!
Pronunciation: Although you can easily predict the pronunciation of a Hungarian word by its spelling, Hungarian pronunciation can be tricky, since there are fourteen vowels. You’ll need to be very careful with how you pronounce a word so you do not convey the wrong message. A little accent on a letter can make a big difference, so make sure you practice!
Vocabulary: You can expect some loanwords from other languages, but since Hungarian comes from a different language family, the core vocabulary of Hungarian won’t be familiar. The good news is that you can form new words by adding prefixes and suffixes to a word, just as in English we add -ly to form adverbs (quick → quickly). For example, in Hungarian you add -ész or -ász to get the occupation: kert (garden) → kertész (gardener). So you can derive a great number of words if you just learn some basic vocabulary!
Grammar: You may have heard that Hungarian has 26 cases. Hungarian “cases” are actually more like prepositions added to the words. For example, to say “on” something, you add -n at the end of the word: autópálya → autópályán (highway). So instead of learning several endings for the various categories of nouns, you learn a group of endings (18) (still a lot though!) and apply them to any noun depending on the meaning you want to get.
Let’s discuss some not-so-hard features now.
Hungarian has no grammatical gender, so you do not have to worry to learn if a noun is masculine or feminine! To form the plural, you simply add a -k to the end of a word! Tenses in Hungarian are also easy: there are the present, past, and future tenses, but no distinction between simple and progressive.
And here is something that might intrigue you to learn this hard language: Hungarian has vowel harmony, which means that the vowels in a word have to belong to the same group. Did you wonder how to choose between -ész and -ász mentioned above? Are you desperate to know what it is? Vowels in Hungarian are grouped into back vowels (pronounced at the back of the mouth) and front vowels (pronounced at the front of the mouth), which are further split into long and short vowels. To illustrate, Anglia means England but when you speak about something that happened in England you say Angliában (in England). -ban is always attached to a word with back vowels (like “a”) but it can also take the form -ben if the vowels in a word are the vowels e, é, i, í, e.g. Berlinben (in Berlin).
Hungarian is offered by Mango, so start learning today!
Finnish, like Hungarian, is difficult for speakers of English because it is a Uralic language. It is spoken mainly in Finland and has 5.6 million speakers worldwide. Let’s have a look.
Spelling: Finnish spelling isn’t that difficult because the rules are simple. There are 29 letters in the Finnish alphabet, but B, C, F, G, Q, W, X, Z and Å are only used in names and loanwords. Vowels and consonants can be short or long, and are spelled with double letters. Consonants change pronunciation depending on the vowel that follows them; for example C is pronounced as “s” before i, e, y and as “k” everywhere else. Overall it shouldn’t be too challenging.
Pronunciation: Some Finnish vowels may be tough to master, like y and ö. The “r” will require some practice, too. Like Hungarian, Finnish has vowel harmony, which could or could not be seen as a challenge.
Vocabulary: Finnish vocabulary is a challenge because most words will be new. Like Hungarian, Finnish uses endings to form new words and Finnish often lets you join two words together: siskon is “sister” and tytär is “daughter” so what is siskontytär? Did you say “niece”? You got it!
Grammar: As with Hungarian, Finnish has a lot of suffixes that can make learning a challenge. Here are some examples:
auto [car] → autossa (in the car)
Yhdysvallat (USA) → Yhdysvalloista (from the USA)
on [is] → onko (is it)?
It may sound easy, but there are many endings to learn and there may be more than one version of each. Other parts of Finnish grammar are simpler. It has no articles and no future tense; the present tense is used instead. In all, it has four tenses. It has six verb types (let’s say categories) and once you identify the category, all you need to do is follow the set of rules for that category.
Turkish is hard for English speakers because it too belongs to a different language family (Altaic). It is spoken by about 88 million people (mostly in Turkey). Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about why it is difficult (or interesting!).
Spelling: Turkish spelling shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for English speakers because it contains only 29 letters, and is based on the Latin script. However, you need to pay attention to new letters that represent unfamiliar sounds, as well as to how letters can be pronounced differently depending on what letters come after.
Pronunciation: Turkish pronunciation is straightforward. There are some unfamiliar sounds, like ü that sounds like the German ü or the French u, or ö, but nothing too out of the ordinary.
Vocabulary: Turkish vocabulary could be a challenge since Turkish belongs to a different language family. This means that you’ll have to learn and remember lots of new words. However, there are some familiar loanwords, so you can start from there. Endings can also be added to words to form new words! For example, the ending -oğlu meaning “son of” is added at the end of names to create last names: Osmanoğlu. So, it isn’t all brand new!
Grammar: Turkish grammar has both easy and hard parts. Let’s start with the good news: there is no gender, so you won’t have to know if a “table” is masculine or feminine. Turkish is an agglutinative language, which means that it uses word endings to form possessives, questions, and more. For example, nasıl means “how.” By adding -sın to it you get nasılsın, the informal way to ask, “How are you?”. But if you want the formal form, add -sınız: nasılsınız. Notice how in English we use three words for this question and in Turkish it is just one long word. You will see – and be able to form – very long words in Turkish! This kind of agglutination may seem unfamiliar to an English speaker. Turkish also has vowel harmony, like we saw with Hungarian and Finnish above, which means that the ending you add depends on the vowels of the word you add it to.
Conjugation is one hard aspect of Turkish grammar. To conjugate a Turkish verb you will need to keep in mind the person (I, you etc.), the number of entities (I or we?), politeness, vowel harmony, hard and soft consonants, and tense.
Are you ready for a challenge? Turkish is offered by Mango!
Basque is a mystery language because linguists still do not know which family it belongs to. For this reason, Basque can be a challenge. Additionally, there are five dialects that are not mutually intelligible, and the standard version, called Batua. Basque is spoken in the Basque country (on the Spanish-French border) by around 560,000 people. Let’s dive in.
Spelling: Basque spelling shouldn’t be too difficult because it uses the Latin script and has 27 letters total, of which 5 (c, q, v, w, y) are used to spell loanwords. As with English, some sounds use two letters; for example, tx is used for /ch/ as in “church.”
Pronunciation: Basque pronunciation should not cause many difficulties, apart perhaps from the letter “s,” which is pronounced as something in between /s/ (saint) and /sh/ (sure).
Vocabulary: Basque vocabulary might be a challenge because it is definitely different from what we are familiar with. However, you may recognize some words, since around 50% of its vocabulary consists of words from Spanish, French, and Occitan (a language spoken in the south of France). Common verbs and adjectives, numbers, body parts, etc., all are native Basque words, and may pose more of a challenge.
Grammar: Basque grammar is tough. Nouns do not have genders but there are a dozen cases expressed with suffixes. For example:
gizon – man
gizoni – to a man
gizonen – of a man
What makes Basque really challenging is a feature that doesn’t exist in any Indo-European languages: ergativity. This means that the subject of a sentence has a different grammatical case depending on whether the verb has an object (John broke the glass) or not (The glass broke). If this was in Basque, “John” and “the glass,” although they are both subjects and would normally have nominative case, they do not and “glass” has the same case in both sentences.
As if this was not enough, Basque verb morphology is unbelievably rich: You add little words to the verb to indicate the person of the subject and the number of the subject, the person of the object and the number of the object, as well as tense etc., and there are several combinations of them. This makes Basque one of the toughest languages to learn of all!
Navajo, spoken by 170,000 people in Arizona and New Mexico, is so different from the languages of Europe that it was used to produce coded messages in WWII. It’s no surprise then that Navajo is a bit tough for English speakers to learn. Let’s have a look.
Spelling: Navajo spelling shouldn’t be too difficult for English speakers since it uses the Latin script. One unfamiliar symbol might be ’, which represents the glottal stop sound (think of the middle of the word “uh-oh!”). Each letter is also combined with a glottal stop symbol. There are also four vowels which have both long and nasal counterparts that could be tricky.
Pronunciation: Navajo pronunciation is difficult since letters have a different pronunciation when they are combined with a ’. In addition, it has whole sets of consonant sounds that will be unfamiliar to English speakers. These include “ejective” sounds (imagine combining a “t” with a glottal stop) and “lateral” sounds (imagine combining an “s” and an “l”). There are also tones (pitch changes in the voice) that are very important because they differentiate between words. Length of a vowel, nasality, and tone may make pronouncing a word hard.
Vocabulary: Navajo vocabulary is very challenging. Navajo speakers avoid loanwords and create new words for everything by putting words together that describe the notion. For example, for “clock,” they created a word that roughly means “going round in a circle.”
Grammar: Navajo grammar will most assuredly be difficult for English speakers. Here are some reasons why:
In all, Navajo is challenging, I hope you are convinced! New notions, new perceptions, new structures. Why not try to see it for yourself?
Which Languages are Super-Hard to Learn?
Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic are all languages that are very hard to learn. These super-hard languages take 2200 class hours to reach working proficiency; double the number of the hard languages discussed above! This amounts to approximately one and a half years if you study for 5 hours each day. Let’s have a closer look at each.
Mandarin, the most widely spoken form of Chinese (~1 billion native speakers), is a super-hard language because it is very different from English. How?
Well, for one, Mandarin spelling is a huge challenge because it uses a completely different writing system: Chinese characters. In Chinese writing, each notion is represented by its own character or combination of characters. For example, 懂 means “to understand.” In English we use letters that represent the sounds of a word, but in Chinese the symbol just directly depicts an idea. To give you an idea of how difficult Chinese is, picture this: You will need to learn about 2,000 to 3,000 characters to read a newspaper! To make things easier though, there is a romanized system called pinyin that uses the Latin script to transcribe Chinese characters. So the character above will be transcribed as “dǒng.” Although teachers of Mandarin do not encourage the use of pinyin, it is a good stepping stone before you plunge into the sea of characters.
Mandarin pronunciation is also very difficult for English speakers. Did you notice the little curve in “dǒng”? This is a tone and tells you how to pronounce the “o.” Tones are roughly the ups and downs of the voice while pronouncing the vowels and are very important because as we differentiate between “luck” and “lack” and consider them two different words so the tones differentiate words. You need to be careful how to use tones so as to convey what you really want to convey. As an example, you’ll need to say the right tone in order to properly say mother (mā) and not horse (mǎ)!
Next, Mandarin vocabulary will be almost entirely new to English speakers, apart from the occasional loanword. Nearly everything will need to be learned from scratch!
Finally, Mandarin grammar is completely different from English grammar. It lacks familiar features like tenses, singular/plural, cases etc., and introduces you to new notions like “measure words,” which are words that accompany most nouns depending on the category they belong to. For example, you cannot say “two pens” but you must know the measure word that goes with elongated objects, like pens, and add that word between “two” and “pen.” There are also “particles,” small words that convey meanings like agreement, the mood of the speaker, or grammatical relations between words etc. It’s a different world.
Although it is difficult to learn, Mandarin is a very useful language that will allow you to communicate with Chinese people all over the world. It also helps you with other languages that share features like tone (e.g., Vietnamese and Thai).
The best advice for learning Mandarin is to take it easy and acknowledge that there are going to be a lot of new things to learn. Familiarize yourself with the tones, learn the basic characters, and start building short sentences. Start your learning process with Mango’s Mandarin course today!
Japanese is so difficult for English speakers for various reasons, its vocabulary and its grammar being the main reasons. It is spoken only in Japan (125 million speakers). Let’s see!
Vocabulary: Japanese vocabulary is very different from English because Japanese is a language isolate, which means that it does not belong to a language family, it does not have relations with other languages. And even though Japanese has lots of English loanwords, their pronunciation may be completely unrecognizable. For example, the word “chocolate” is pronounced “cho-ko-reh-toe.” Even if you speak another language, like German, and hear the word a-ru-ba-e-to and think, OK, it sounds similar to Arbeit, meaning “work” in German, in Japanese it means “part-time job.”
Pronunciation: Japanese pronunciation shouldn’t be too difficult because all of its sounds will be familiar to English speakers. There are some sounds you may need to practice, like the /f/ or /r/ sound, but generally speaking it’s very straightforward.
Now buckle up for the real challenges!
Spelling: Japanese spelling is a big challenge for English speakers because it employs at least three writing systems. First there is kanji, which is based on Chinese characters. Like Mandarin, you will need to learn about 2000 to function every day. And to compound the difficulty, each character has two different pronunciations: one Chinese and one Japanese! Characters represent words, so how do Japanese write the grammar features, like tenses, etc. that Chinese does not have? Here comes the second, writing system hiragana. Hiragana consists of 46 base symbols, rising to 100 if you add those with diacritics: For example, か (ka) becomes が (ga) if you add two small lines. Third, there is katakana which is used to write loanwords. Katakana is very similar to hiragana, so learning it won’t be too hard. For example, カ is “ka” in katakana – pretty similar to Hiragana’s か (ka), right? Again, there are 46 base symbols to learn (100 total with diacritics).
Luckily, like in Mandarin, there is the romanized version of Japanese that can be used to transcribe the language into Latin script: “romaji.”
Grammar: Japanese grammar has concepts that will be unfamiliar for English speakers, like measure words and particles. Apart from tenses and moods, there are several new notions to learn, like connecting words and sentences, which is not done with a simple “and,” expressing emotions (like uncertainty) by changing the endings and many more. Another difficult aspect may be the honorifics, ways of speaking and forming words which change depending on who you talk to (e.g., your friends vs. your boss).
You can give it a try with Mango’s Japanese course, where with our trusted methodology, you will build your knowledge slowly from easy to more complex structures, learning useful vocabulary at the same time and you will soon be booking a ticket just in time to see the sakura in Osaka!
Korean, spoken in South Korea and by a total of around 80 million people around the globe, is the third super-hard language on our list. Although the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is very simple to learn, the rest of Korean is difficult. Why? Let’s have a look.
Spelling: Korean spelling is quite easy to learn for speakers of any language. Koreans used to use the Chinese characters to spell their words, until King Sejong in the 15th century, noticing the great percentage of illiteracy, decided to invent a simple alphabet so no one would be left behind. There are 19 consonants and 21 vowels in Korean total. Their shape is like the shape the mouth makes when pronouncing them or it reminds you of something, at least the consonants. For example, ㄴ is the letter for “n”: Doesn’t it look like a nose?
Pronunciation: Korean pronunciation is much more difficult than its spelling. For example, the pronunciation of some consonants, like /l/ and /r/, will change depending on where they are in the word or on what word follows, despite being represented by the same letter! Or if a consonant is followed by another consonant, it may be pronounced differently. Vowel sounds are not easy to pronounce, and you will need to train your ear to differentiate between similar sounds.
Vocabulary: Korean vocabulary is a challenge because 70% of Korean words are of Chinese origin. The rest of the words are either native Korean or are loanwords. Despite their shared vocabulary, Korean and Mandarin speakers cannot understand each other because of differences in pronunciation. This all means that English speakers will have to learn most of Korean vocabulary from scratch, even if they already speak Mandarin!
Grammar: Korean grammar could be an obstacle for English speakers just like Japanese. However, there is added difficulty because although Korean has particles too, they change depending on the word that precedes them. For example, whereas Japanese has one particle, は (wa), that marks the topic of a sentence, Korean has two: 은 (un) or 는 (nun). There are also measure words, tenses, and honorifics, all of which may be challenging for English speakers.
Modern Standard Arabic (we’ll just call it “Arabic”) is a difficult language that needs some introduction. It is a variety of Arabic used by approximately 274 million people across the Middle East and Africa (although you should bear in mind that the people of these countries also use the local varieties to communicate with each other). Because of this, learning Arabic can be a linguistic passport to a good chunk of the world! There are many differences between Arabic and English, so let’s explore!
Spelling: Arabic uses the Arabic script, which will be entirely unfamiliar to most English speakers. First, Arabic is written from right to left. Then, shrt vwls r nt rprsntd b lttrs (Did you get it? “Short vowels are not represented by letters.”). Although you may see vowels drawn with short lines above and below consonants in children’s books, they are generally not written.
There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet which change their form depending on where they are in a word (beginning – middle – end). Luckily, some letters have dots or characteristic shapes that can help you recognize them.
Pronunciation: Arabic has many challenging sounds, like three different /h/ sounds, and some consonants that are pronounced with the throat constricted. These definitely need practice!
Vocabulary: Arabic vocabulary is difficult for English speakers because it needs to be learned from scratch. There has been some exchange of vocabulary between English and Arabic over the years (“algebra” comes from Arabic!), but this won’t help that much.
Grammar: Arabic grammar is challenging for a number of reasons. It has cases, two genders, and apart from singular and plural, there is also a dual number that is used with two entities. Numerals are slightly complicated as well. If you want to say “four women,” for example, “four” will have to be masculine and “women” will be in the genitive case!
But the most amazing (and potentially helpful) feature of Arabic is how it forms new words or different forms of the same word using roots, consisting of three consonants. All the words with a meaning related to the meaning of that root are derived by adding vowels or other syllables to the root’s consonants. The classic example is the root k-t-b (كتب). This is the root for words related to marking, inscribing or writing in Arabic. From this root we get:
What Makes Languages Hard?
Languages are hard when they are not similar to your mother tongue or other languages you know. Since English belongs to the Indo-European language family, you would expect Mandarin, which belongs to a totally different language family, to be hard.
Other components that can make a language hard to learn are:
How Different are the Structures of Hard Languages?
The structures of hard languages are very different from English and, in fact, from each other. Some simply add one word after the other (e.g. Mandarin), while others combine a whole sentence in one verb (e.g. Basque or Navajo).
Some examples of features that make the languages different are:
How Important is it to Learn Difficult Languages?
One reason difficult languages are important to learn is because they are spoken by a large number of people around the world (e.g., Mandarin), or are spoken in powerful nations (e.g., Korea, Japan). Some languages are so very different from English that learning them will open up new ways of seeing the world around us and have access to interesting cultures! Learning a difficult language can also bring new career opportunities.
Where Can You Start Learning a Language?
A great place to start learning a language is the Mango languages app. Apart from this, you should understand the reasons you want to learn your target language and the proficiency you want to achieve. Your reasons are important because they can help you persevere when learning gets tough. And when you are learning a difficult language, it most probably will! For more information on where to start, check out our guide on learning a new language!