hardest languages map

The 12 Hardest Languages And Why You Should Learn Them

Kelsey Wetherbee Published on June 1, 2023

Are you looking for a challenge? Maybe you’re adventurous and want to learn a language that most people shy away from. The languages on this list are some of the most difficult for an English speaker to learn. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth the time and effort to learn them. They are some of the most spoken languages in the world. Learning one or more of them can open doors professionally, culturally, and linguistically.

There are so many different languages you can learn. Most sources agree that there are more than 7,000 languages used worldwide. Some are indigenous languages and may be in danger of extinction. These are often some of the most difficult to learn because of a lack of resources available or a shortage of native speakers. This article focuses on the more commonly spoken languages that are difficult for English speakers to learn. 

hardest languages map

Sources: www.state.gov/foreign-language-training, www.worlddata.info

It’s also important to note that these are the most difficult languages to learn if you’re a native English speaker. This is because the languages on this list have significant linguistic and cultural differences from English. 

If you speak another language, you may already have an advantage. For example, if you already speak Mandarin, you have insight into how to learn Japanese kanji characters. Similarly, if you want to learn Polish and you already know a language like Czech or Slovenian, you’ll have a bit of an advantage over others.

hardest languages map

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There are significant benefits to learning one of these languages on this list. For example, if you are learning a language that the State Department considers critical, you can receive a scholarship to study this language and it’s likely that you’ll get a job with the US government. Similarly, many private businesses are looking for translators and interpreters in these languages and you can find an excellent job working for an international company. 

Additionally, many people need to learn one of these languages for personal reasons. Whether you have family members that speak the language and you want to be able to communicate with them, or maybe you plan to live in a country that speaks one of the most difficult languages, learning the language might be necessary.

While these languages are considered “hard” or “difficult” for English speakers to learn, it doesn’t mean they are impossible. With the right resources and a good study plan, you’ll be able to make significant progress in learning the language in no time.

What Are The Most Difficult Languages to Learn?

To determine what the most difficult languages are for an English speaker to learn, I first consulted the Foreign Service Insitute. They list the languages Arabic, Chinese – Mandarin, Chinese – Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean as the most difficult languages to learn. While there are many other very difficult languages to learn, the rest of the languages on this list were compiled by looking at language-learning experts from Babbel, Bertlitz, and Mondly. The list is somewhat subjective and is based on opinions from personal research and outside expert sources. 

Below you’ll find the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn and how many people speak them as a native language. Scroll down to learn more about each language.

LanguageTotal Number of Speakers
Mandarin1,310,000,000
Cantonese73,400,000
Arabic371,400,000
Japanese125,600,000
Korean79,300,000
Vietnamese86,500,000
Russian156,000,000
Polish38,700,000
Turkish77,800,000
Thai39,800,000
Hungarian10,400,000
Finnish5,400,000

Mandarin

Mandarin Chinese is an official language in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore. More than 1.31 billion people speak Mandarin as their first language. It takes the number one spot on this list as the hardest language to learn for many reasons. First of all, Mandarin uses a writing system that consists of more than 50,000 characters! This seems like a daunting number, but even native Mandarin speakers will typically only use about 10,000 characters. For people starting to learn the language, you’ll need to know 1,000-3,000 characters to be able to read a newspaper.

Mandarin characters

Another reason why it’s difficult for English speakers to learn Mandarin is because it’s a tonal language. There are four different tones: flat tone, rising tone, dip tone, and falling tone. There’s also a fifth neutral sound that’s not considered a tone. Changing the tone of the word completely changes the meaning, making it difficult for speakers of atonal languages, such as English, Spanish or German. One common example is the word ma. It can mean mother, numb, horse, or scold depending on the tone you use.

Related: The Best Apps to Learn Mandarin

Cantonese

Worldwide, there are more than 73.4 million native Cantonese speakers. It’s an official language of Hong Kong and Macau but isn’t recognized as one in mainland China even though it’s the most spoken language in the Guangdong province. There’s debate as to whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect. Many linguists believe it’s different enough (meaning not mutually intelligible) from Mandarin that it should be considered its own language. You can watch the video below to learn how the two languages differ.

Cantonese was mostly a spoken language, and when it was first written they used the already-established Chinese Mandarin script to write it. Mandarin now uses simplified characters as the standard, but Cantonese continues to use the more complicated traditional characters. While Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has 6! There are also more final ending sounds of words in Cantonese.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Cantonese

Arabic

Arabic is one of the most spoken languages in the world with more than 371.4 million speakers. It’s an official language in 22 countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, but is a common language in many other countries, as well. One of the most obvious ways Arabic is different from English is the script. Words are written from right to left and the letters can take a different shape if they’re written at the beginning, middle, or end of the word. Also, most Arabic words are written without short vowels and it’s implied that an Arabic speaker will be able to read/pronounce the word correctly without them.

arabic characters

Arabic adds another layer of difficulty because there are many different dialects. Since the countries where Arabic is spoken cover such a large geographical area, there are significant differences between the dialects, and they are not necessarily mutually intelligible to all Arabic speakers. Should you choose to learn Arabic, it may be a good idea to learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in addition to a regional dialect. That’s mainly because MSA is used for more official purposes and isn’t used as a spoken language.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Arabic

Japanese

Japanese has never been declared the official language of Japan, although it is the de facto language spoken by most of the population. There are more than 125.6 million native speakers worldwide, and it’s one of the most spoken languages in Asia. It’s particularly difficult to learn because Japanese doesn’t just use one script. It has three different writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic writing systems, indicating how to pronounce a word. Kanji is the most difficult because it uses characters which convey a meaning, rather than a sound. Many kanji are borrowed from Chinese characters. 

Honorific language is also a very important part of Japanese culture. This is a way of talking that expresses certain levels of respect and humility. Not only are there different endings you can add to names, but also different ways to conjugate verbs. Japan has a culture of respect, so it’s very important to speak with the correct level of respect so as not to offend anyone. This is another reason that it’s an extremely difficult language for English speakers to learn.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Japanese

Korean

Korean is the official language of North and South Korea with 79.3 million speakers worldwide. Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is quite easy to learn and you can pick it up in only a few hours. But outside of that, there are other factors that make Korean a difficult language for English speakers, such as grammar. For example, the sentence structure doesn’t follow the typical subject-verb structure in English. Many times the object comes before the verb. Korean is a language that uses particles, and by adding particles to the beginning or end of the word you can change its meaning.

Like Japanese, the Korean language uses different vocabulary and grammar to denote formal or informal speech too. There are different speech levels (formal, polite, and informal), usually differentiated by using different verb endings as well as honorifics that show respect and hierarchy. It’s necessary to learn the most common ones because they are used in daily conversation.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Korean

Vietnamese

There are more than 86.5 million people that speak Vietnamese. It’s the official language in the country of Vietnam. While the alphabet is Latin-based (like English), there are additional letters with diacritical marks such as ă, â, ê, ô, ư, ơ. It’s also possible to have 2 diacritical marks on the same letter. Vietnamese is another tonal language, with 6 different tones that change the meaning of the word. The tones, in addition to some unfamiliar sounds, can make pronunciation quite difficult for Vietnamese learners. In the audio below you can hear basic phrases to get a sense of the tones.

Vietnamese grammar may also be challenging. The system of pronouns is more complex and can express more detailed information, such as social relationships and age differences through the use of pronouns. However, learning Vietnamese might be easier than learning the grammar of other languages because you don’t have to conjugate verbs. They rely on the context of the sentence to express when something happened rather than changing the verb.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Vietnamese

Russian

Russian is the official language of Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, and is also spoken by a significant number of people in the surrounding countries and countries that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union. There are more than 156.6 million people that speak Russian as their primary language. Russian is a Slavic language and uses the Cyrillic alphabet for writing. There are 33 letters, but some of them are familiar if you speak a language that uses the Latin alphabet. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is fairly easy compared to character-based languages such as Chinese or Japanese. 

sign in russian

Russian nouns are also assigned a gender, meaning that you’ll have to memorize what noun belongs to a specific gender, but this is no different that what happens with Spanish or French, for example. Word order is not as important as it is in English either. You can move around the subject, verb, and object, but the case must be changed to reflect the placement in the sentence. This is one of the aspects of Russian that make it especially difficult for native English speakers.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Russian

Polish

Polish is the official language of the country of Poland, but is also spoken by a large number of people in other countries including the United States, Belarus, Germany, and Canada. More than 38.7 million people speak Polish as their primary language. The Polish alphabet is based on the Latin one, but there are several different letters such as Ą, Ć, Ę, Ł, Ń, Ó, Ś, Ź, and Ż. Consonant clusters are more common in Polish words. You might see a word with 4 or 5 consonants in a row. But once you learn to pronounce them, mastering these words shouldn’t be a problem. You can watch the video below to learn how to pronounce the Polish alphabet.

There are also 3 different genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. This is similar to other languages such as German. There are also 7 different cases that change nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. And while Polish is a Slavic language, like Russian, there are many vocabulary words that have Latin roots, so you’ll be able to easily identify them. With a lot of persistence and patience, Polish can be a really rewarding language to learn.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Polish

Turkish

Turkish is the official language of the country of Turkey and Cyprus and is spoken by 77.8 million people worldwide. There are also a significant number of people that speak Turkish in other countries, such as Macedonia, Iraq, Iran, Greece, and Bulgaria. Turkish is an agglutinative language, meaning that you can add morphemes to a word to express complex ideas in a single word or phrase. Generally, suffixes are added to the word to express concepts like negation, verb tense, and possession.

There are also six letters in the Turkish alphabet that don’t exist in English: -ç, -ğ, -ı, -ö, -ş, -ü. This can be a challenge for pronunciation when you’re starting to learn the language. But Turkish is also quite a logical language that has aspects that might make it easier than some of the other languages on this list. For example, there is no gender used in the 3rd person and no irregular verbs. Still, it’ll take a lot of study time to master the unique characteristics of the Turkish language!

Related: Best Apps to Learn Turkish

Thai

Thai is spoken by 39.8 million people. It’s the official language of Thailand and is spoken by a significant population in Laos and Vietnam. Thai is a tonal language that has 5 different tones. While the tones aren’t as critical for understanding, as in Mandarin, it’s still necessary to learn them if you want to convey your meaning clearly. Pronunciation is also difficult, not only because of the different tones but also because there are sounds that don’t exist in English.

While very beautiful, the Thai script can pose a challenge for new learners. Luckily, the characters usually represent a specific sound, so once you can associate characters with a sound, this will help with pronunciation. However, the Thai script is difficult because it doesn’t use a space between each word. There are certain rules you can learn to help you distinguish where a word begins and ends, but this is one of the toughest hurdles to overcome for people learning Thai.

Related: Best Apps to Learn Thai

Hungarian

Hungarian is spoken by 10.4 million people. It’s only an official language in Hungary but is spoken by a significant number of people in Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia. The Hungarian language, also called Magyar by native speakers, is a unique language because there are very few languages that share similarities with it. Although the Hungarian alphabet is based on the Latin one, there are additional letters and variations.

There are 35 different cases in Hungarian, a system that English almost doesn’t use at all. Plus, pronunciation can be tricky. There are 14 different vowel sounds, many more than English, which can make reading or spelling the word difficult. There are also unique sounds used in the Hungarian alphabet that may be difficult for English speakers to replicate. So best of luck if you’re trying to learn Hungarian!

Related: Best Apps to Learn Hungarian

Finnish

Finnish is only an official language in the country of Finland, but it’s also spoken in parts of Sweden, Norway, and Russia. There are more than 5 million people that speak the language. There are very few vocabulary words from Finnish that have made their way into common English vernacular. The word sauna is one of the only examples. While this doesn’t necessarily make Finnish difficult, languages like Spanish and French share a lot of common vocabulary with English, making them easier to pick it up. Check out the video below to see how different Finnish can be.

Many people might argue that Finnish is so difficult because it has 15 different grammatical cases. Verb conjugations are also difficult because there are over 200 possible endings for each verb. On top of that, Finnish is a language where you can express complex ideas in one word by adding different parts to the word, whereas in English it might require an entire sentence. For example, the word söisinköhän means “I’m wondering if I should eat something.”

Related: Best Apps to Learn Finnish

Why Learning a Hard Language is worth it

While it might be tempting to choose an “easier” language over the options on this list, there are many reasons to learn them. The most obvious reason is that not as many people study them, so knowing one of these languages will make you a more valuable candidate for a job. The US government deems some languages as critical for international relations and offers scholarships and other benefits to people who want to study these languages.

Even if you’re not looking to work with the US government, there are tons of opportunities in the private sector. Many of the languages on this list are spoken in countries of great economic importance, like China. Many companies are looking for speakers of these languages to help facilitate business partnerships and negotiations. If you know one of these languages, you’ll most certainly have a leg up for getting a job.

Apart from career opportunities, there are many personal benefits to learning a difficult language. Many people want to learn one if they have a personal connection to someone who speaks the language. Others are simply interested in the culture and want a way to better connect with and understand it. Overall, there’s no wrong reason to learn a new language.

Hardest Languages to Learn: Where to Start

The hardest part of learning any language is just getting started. Some languages have so many options available that it can be overwhelming. For beginners, one of the best ways to test the waters is to start with a language-learning app. They’re easy and convenient and teach the basics in a way that’s fun and understandable.

Once you have a basic foundation in the language, it’s possible that another, more comprehensive resource, might be a better option. For example, taking an online course that involves live classes in addition to self-study, or using a comprehensive self-study book. If you have an intermediate or advanced level, you can begin to use authentic material, such as podcasts, news articles, and YouTube channels to get a better idea of how the language is spoken naturally.

Hardest Languages to Learn: Final Thoughts

Don’t let the word “hard” or “difficult” deter you from learning a language. In the end, every language has its own unique challenges. Any language requires hard work and dedication if you want to become conversational, and even more persistent effort to become fluent. The languages on this list are particularly difficult for English speakers, but they may be easier if you already know a second language. With hard work and dedication, you’ll be able to converse in any language you study!

Hardest Languages to Learn: FAQ

Which is the most difficult language to learn?

The US Department of State classifies Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean as the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. This is because they have significant linguistic and cultural differences from English. It’s estimated that it will take 2,200 class hours to learn these languages to a proficient level.

Is Spanish a difficult language?

Spanish is not a difficult language to learn if you know a language that is similar. It follows consistent grammar patterns and much of the vocabulary is similar to common words used in English. However, it will still take effort and lots of study time to reach a communicative level. But you’ll only need a few hours if you want to learn a few words and phrases for an upcoming trip.

How fast can you learn a language?

How fast you can learn a language depends on a variety of factors, such as how similar it is to your native language, your natural ability to acquire languages, and how fluent you want to become. You’ll only need a few months to learn enough to have a basic conversation. But if you truly want to become fluent, it’s a process that can take years. 

Check out this fluency calculator to see how long it will take you to learn a language.

What is the world’s easiest language to learn?

The easiest languages for an English speaker to learn are the ones that are most similar. Generally speaking, Romance languages like Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese are some of the easiest for English speakers to learn. This is because grammar patterns and vocabulary are similar, and there are many recognizable words that the languages share.

Kelsey Wetherbee

Kelsey is the Content Manager and Editor of Langoly. She is a TEFL-certified English teacher with more than eight years of classroom experience in three different countries. She’s an avid language learner with an advanced level of Spanish and is currently studying French. Whenever possible, she loves to travel and enjoys meeting people from all over the world. Connect with Kelsey on LinkedIn.

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