The Five Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

languages

Ok, so I understand that this a blog dedicated to giving advice about teaching abroad. But as a person that lived abroad for a while and has traveled extensively, I can tell you that a significant part of being overseas is acquiring new language skills. Whether you try to resist or embrace learning a new language, your brain will be bombarded by a barrage of foreign sounds from the time you arrive in whatever country you decide to teach in. Unless you are teaching in a country with a Latin based language, you are definitely going to be challenged by an incredibly difficult, yet intriguing new tongue. After all, the vast majority of English teaching jobs exist in countries where the population speaks Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese and dialects of Mandarin. Maybe you fared well in your college French or Spanish courses, but learning one of these languages is a new territory, so be prepared to take your gloves off and get your hands dirty.

Let me give you some perspective of what I am talking about. After  years of traveling, living abroad and complex relationships, I speak conversational Spanish and Japanese. I lived in Japan for four years and I’ve spent a combined five months in South America. Despite that difference, my Spanish skills at this point are about on par with my Japanese. To be fair, I haven’t spoken much Japanese since I left four years ago and my Spanish skills certainly have been improving during that time. However, I am confident that living one solid year in Latin America would likely allow me to learn roughly the same amount of Spanish compared to living in Japan for four years. Shortly before I left Japan, I could speak Japanese fluently. Other Westerners, often perplexed, would ask, “How long did it take you to learn Japanese.” My reply was always, “four years.” Then they would ask again, “How long did it take you to learn Japanese.” Again, I would replay, “Four years.”

The point I am trying to make is that the languages spoken where the majority of jobs exist are not easy ones to master. If you want to conquer a tongue quickly and impress your friends back home, teach for a year in Latin America or Spain. Unless you study your ass off and really make an effort, you are not going to make much progress in only one year in places like Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Russia. Now, this is not to discourage you either. For me, learning Japanese encompassed a large part of my overall experience there. It was a mental challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed, but not without frustration, anger, disappointment and despair. Learning any language is a daunting challenge, but trying to achieve the almost insurmountable task of becoming fluent in one of the world’s most difficult ones becomes an emotional experience. With that being said, I encourage anyone to give it a shot. If you fail, at least you tried. In the end, it will open your mind, change you and prevent you from ever seeing the world again in the same way. This is partly because reaching such a level requires one to embark on the point of obsession for that language. To not only learn an entirely exotic language, but an equally idiosyncratic culture.

So what is the world’s hardest language? I really think it is difficult to say what the ‘hardest’ language is simply because it depends on the individual and one’s own mother tongue. With that being said, below are the world’s hardest languages to learn for English speakers. Notice that I emphasize that these are the most difficult languages for native English speakers. This is for two reasons. The difficulty of a language is related to how foreign it is to our own language. Second, and as mentioned before, if you are planning to teach English abroad, you will likely be learning one of these tongues.

1. Arabic

arabic language

There seems to be a consensus among everyone I’ve met that Arabic is the most difficult language for a native English speaker. Although I only know a handful of words in Arabic, I’ve had a fair amount of students from the Middle East. Just by listening to them speak, I can immediately recognize how different it is from English. We should also keep in mind that the differences in languages are also related to cultural differences. French, Italian and Spanish not only share some root words in English, but these cultures are Western based, so there are some overlapping similarities. Arabic on the other hand, like all languages on this list, derives from a culture that is in many ways vastly different than our own.

There are an estimated 420 million individuals around the world that speak some form of Arabic, making it the sixth most spoken language. Arabic manifested into a language sometime in the 7th century A.D. after the Islamic Conquest brought together various Arab dialects. The rise of Arabic coincided with the rise of Islam. Modern standard Arabic, which is the official Arabic used for government and universities, derives from the Quran. However, there still remain various dialects of Arabic today, including Egyptian Arabic.

The fact that Arabic is quite difficult for Westerners to learn has been well noted. One theory as to why is the fact that most Westerners who study Arabic first learn the written form of the language before attempting to grasp its oral aspects. This contrast greatly to native speakers of Arabic who learn a particular spoken dialect of the language first before moving onto writing after the age of five. This is comparable to Asian students who learn written English first before moving on the conversational nuances. Although the majority of affluent Asia can write English to some extent,  their speaking abilities usually lag far behind. Conversely, many native Arabic speakers that study English often excel at speaking while struggling considerably at the written form of English.

Unlike Mandarin, which has thousands of characters, Arabic surprisingly only has 28, a number that seems entirely manageable. So why is Arabic so difficult for the average native English speaker? The real issue with Arabic lays in the challenge of mastering the correct pronunciation of its alphabetic characters. Like English,  Arabic has many sounds, a majority of which are erratic. For native English speakers, the act of enunciating certain words in Arabic correctly is seemingly insurmountable. Despite the fact that the US federal government has spent a great deal of money trying to get Americans to acquire Arabic speaking skills following 9/11, these efforts have largely proven to be ineffective. Thus, Arabic has made it to the top of this list as the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

2. Mandarin

Hello - word written on a smudged blackboard with a Chinese tranlation,with a hand holding chalk

While English is the most widely used language in the world, Mandarin officially encompasses the  most native speakers.  If you plan to teach abroad, there is a good chance that you will either consider China or eventually end up there based on the number of jobs available. It is also a great language to learn if you plan to do business in China or work for an international firm. Although Mandarin is a useful tongue to know in today’s global economy, it is also quite challenging for a native English speaker to master. In fact, there are plenty of Westerners who spend years in cosmopolitan zones of China without ever learning much of it.

About 70% of Chinese speak Mandarin or a dialect of it. In case you didn’t know, the rest of the population in China speaks mostly Cantonese. Although the written forms of Cantonese and Mandarin are quite similar, the spoken versions of each are different. So much that a Mandarin speaker couldn’t understand someone speaking Cantonese and vice versa. Some form of dialect of Mandarin has been widely spoken since at least the 14th century and it is thought that Mandarin has been used in the capital for at least a 1000 years. Starting in the early twentieth century, a standard form of Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect became the official language.

One reason Mandarin is such as difficult language for native English speakers is that it has a ridiculous amount of characters that more or less have to be memorized. These thousands of characters are a mix between the original and simplified versions. More importantly, Mandarin is so difficult for Westerners because it is ‘tonal’ language comprised of many short, one or two syllable words. In other words, the same word could have a few different meanings based on the tone that is being used. This may not sound quite difficult, but when native Mandarin speakers are talking to you quickly, these ‘tones’ become rather hard to catch. Lastly, most native English speakers struggle considerably with hearing and enunciating  ‘sh, dj, zh, sh, ch, z, c, s, j, q and k’ when they are placed at the beginning of a word.

3. Russian

russian keyboard

Russian is a Slavic language, so we could probably replace Russian with any of the other Slavic languages, such as Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Czech, Bulgarian, Serbian and so on. Russian, like all Slavic tongues are notoriously difficult for native English speakers and probably for anyone in the universe that doesn’t speak some form of Slavic. We will use Russian here since it is the most widely used and known of the Slavic languages.

Russian, which is spoken by about 175 million people, did not become an official language as it is known today until the revolution in 1917. However, Russian and other forms of Slavic date back to around the 9th century. Russian, like other Slavic languages, uses a separate alphabet called the Cyrillic. Prior to modern-day Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and other modern forms of Slavic, what existed was more or less a collection of Slavic dialects. Nevertheless, Russian, like all Slavic based languages, has remained a mystery to Westerners for centuries and this trend continues today.

One reason that Russian is so difficult for native English speakers is simply that it is based on the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately, Russian is a phonetic language, meaning it sounds the way it is read. However, similar to Asian languages, memorizing the various characters of Russian can be quite daunting. In addition, most native English speakers who study Russian have trouble with two features of the language. First, verbs can be particularly tough to grasp since you have to learn two versions for each one. For example, if you want to learn start, you learn nachynat/nachat. Another obvious challenge that makes Russian one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn is accent and pronunciation. The sounds incorporated into oral Russian are completely foreign to the English tongue. Vice Versa, most Russians struggle considerably with English pronunciation.

4.Korean

korean alphabet

Korean has become a trendy language for Westerners to study in recent years. Much of that is due to the amount of native English speakers that have taught in South Korea during the past two decades. With more South Koreans also moving to the West, Korean as a language has been recognized more than ever as a useful one for business and trade. The Korean economy has grown at a remarkable rate since the 1980’s, making it a key player in both Asian and international politics. Although South Korea is in the midst of an agonizing recession, the relevancy of the Korean language and political position remains.

Korean is the native language of roughly 80 million people worldwide. Deriving from early Chinese script, Korean is thought to have formed as a language in the 15th century with the development of Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Prior to the arrival of Hangul, What was spoken on the Korean peninsula is thought to have resembled that of the Altaic language family, which also includes Turkish and Mongolian. However, there is also a significant amount of evidence to suggest that Korean was heavily influenced by Chinese. Hangul, the modern writing system, was implemented in 1443 during the reign of King Sejong, who is considered to be the greatest king in Korean history.

Learning to write Korean is considered to be much easier compared to Chinese or Japanese. The Hangul writing system is not entirely complex and unlike Japanese and Chinese, one can function in Korean without memorizing over a thousand Chinese Characters. The issue for English speakers studying Korean is pronunciation. There are numerous sounds in Korean that are simply not compatible with the trained ear of an English speaker. The distinction between these sounds can also be quite minute, making listening a painful task for English speakers. In addition to the common problem of pronunciation, the grammatical structure of Korean is completely opposite of English. These two attributes make Korean one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

5. Japanese

1280px-Table_hiragana.svg

I lived in Japan for four years, so I can share from personal experience on this one. Japanese is a language that is immensely popular to study for Westerners and many individuals go to Japan just for that reason. While I was teaching English in Japan, I spent a good amount of time studying the language. Japanese is an elegant and sophisticated tongue, yet at the same time stubborn, idiosyncratic and the reflection of a truly eccentric culture. I say all of this with a real affection for Japan. Although I left the Japan nearly five years, the four years I lived there were filled with joy, confusion, euphoria, self-reflection and self-doubt. It was in studying Japanese that I routinely became lost and found myself again. Although I don’t study anymore and haven’t really since returning to America, I was fluent in Japanese by the beginning of my fourth and final year. It was a sensation of pure satisfaction, but once I become fluent, I also realized that I was further away from home than ever and I suddenly yearned to leave. What a strange irony, but I believe there are plenty of other Westerners that have a similar experience with Japan.

Like Korean, Japanese is more or less a relative of both early Altaic languages and similar dialects of Chinese spoken around the Korean peninsula. Japanese was heavily influenced by Chinese until around 1100, but took a drastic turn towards developing into a unique language between 1100 to 1600. Modern Japanese or something closer to what we know it as today, became standardized between the mid 1600’s to the mid 1800’s. Following the end of isolationism in the mid 19th century, the language was significantly influenced by first European languages and then English as many words in Japanese are ‘loan words’ from other languages. Today, the vast majority of loan words in Japanese derive from English, which is not surprising considering the political and economic alliance of Japan and the United States since the end of the  Second World War.

Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn for English Speakers for a few reasons. First and probably the most daunting aspect of the language is that there are three writing systems to learn; Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. The last one, Kanji, is the Japanese word for Chinese Characters. In order to be able to read a Japanese newspaper or the equivalent of being fluent in the language, one must memorize a minimum of 1800 Chinese characters or Kanji. First as a foreigner, you should learn Hiragana and Katakana since you could function and speak somewhat fluently by thoroughly mastering these two character sets. If you want to read books, study at a Japanese university or completely understand every  bit of writing, then its also necessary to conquer Kanji. When I lived in Japan, I mastered Hiragana and Katakana, which allowed me to eventually speak at a high level and I probably knew close to a 1000 Kanji (Chinese characters) before I left. So I wasn’t quite a Jeddi-ninja master, but close. Hiragana, a writing system developed between the 8th to 10th century to simplify Kanji, consist of 46 characters. Katakana, developed in the 9th century, also consist of 46 characters, all of which mimic the exact pronunciations of the Hiragana characters. Katakana is mostly used for loan words.

All of the languages discussed above are immensely difficult. If you would like to add to this list or feel that my top five is inaccurate, then please express your opinions in the comments. In my opinion combined with research on the topic, these are the five hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

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About James 66 Articles
Since finishing Graduate school in 2007, I have been teaching ESL and adjuncting as a political science instructor. I taught English in Japan for four years and I have traveled throughout Asia and South America. These days, I spend most of my time customizing Wordpress themes, blogging and understanding SEO. My next goal in life is to become a successful entrepreneur. I recently have started a teacher placement agency, Beyond Borders ESL Jobs, and I am looking for investors to start-up an online language school with an innovative twist.

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