Learning a second or even third language is a challenging but rewarding endeavour that can enrich your life and lead to exciting new career and travel opportunities.
We’ve previously looked at some of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, but what about the hardest ones? As a general rule, languages that have significant linguistic and cultural differences to English will be more difficult for English speakers to learn.
So why would you choose to learn a language that will require more time and effort?
For one thing, some of the most difficult languages to learn are also the most widely spoken. Mandarin Chinese, for example, is spoken as a native language by 918 million people, which makes it an extremely useful language to learn.
Looking to reap some of these benefits while also acquiring a valuable new skill? Based on insights from the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), we’ve put together this list of the 15 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, from the hard to the exceptionally difficult.
Unlike most European languages, which belong to the Indo-European language family, Hungarian is a Uralic language. It is spoken as a native language by 13 million people, most of whom live in Hungary.
It’s a famously difficult language for English speakers to learn, with complex grammar and pronunciation. In the Hungarian language, there are 14 vowels with slight differences in pronunciation. Hungarian consonant clusters also have unexpected pronunciations when compared to English. For example, “sz” is pronounced as “s” and “s” is pronounced as “sh.”
Despite its complexities, Hungarian is a beautiful and creative language with some amazingly descriptive words that don’t exist in English. For instance, “Hiányérzet” describes the feeling you get when something you cannot pinpoint is missing, and “Káröröm” is when you feel happy about someone else’s misfortune. Interestingly, Hungarian is also a gender-neutral language.
Bulgarian is a Slavic language that has around eight million native speakers, primarily in Bulgaria. Given the country’s rich history, culture and literature, Bulgarian can be a fascinating language to study.
Like Russian, it uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which can seem a bit intimidating to those unfamiliar with it. Bulgarian can also be tricky for English speakers when it comes to vocabulary and grammar, as it doesn’t use many English loanwords and the verb conjugations are somewhat complicated.
On the bright side, though, there are plenty of great tools and Bulgarian courses available online to help you master Bulgarian. Once you’ve spent some time familiarizing yourself with the consonant and vowel sounds, and building up your vocabulary, you’ll already be off to a great start.
Serbian is a Slavic language that’s spoken by around 12 million people. Most native speakers live in Serbia, but it’s also one of the official languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. Additionally, Serbian is a recognised minority language in a number of other countries, including Croatia, Romania and Hungary, which makes it valuable to learn if you intend to spend time travelling, working or studying in Eastern Europe.
Serbian is notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn, with two scripts (Cyrillic and Latin), seven tenses and a consonant (R) that can sometimes be a vowel. Unlike Hungarian, it’s also a highly gendered language, with words like “učenik,” which translates to “male student.” One silver lining in all this is that Serbian is a phonetic language, which means words are pronounced more or less as they are written.
Albanian is the official language of both Albania and Kosovo, and is spoken by around six million people in the Balkans. Although it’s technically an Indo-European language, it’s not really comparable to any other language and borrows grammar rules and vocabulary from Greek and Latin as well as some extinct languages like Thracian, Illyrian and Dacian.
Albanian can be quite challenging for English speakers to learn due to its complex grammar. For instance, in Albanian, nouns have both a case and a gender, and the only way to learn them is to memorise the case and gender of each noun as you study the vocabulary.
Despite its challenges, Albanian is a fascinating language that will connect you to a unique culture. By finding opportunities to practice with native Albanian speakers, you can probably pick it up a lot quicker than you think.
Turkish is one of the more widely known languages in the Turkic language family. With over 75 million native speakers in Turkey as well as Iraq, Syria and many parts of Europe, it’s a valuable language to know. It’s also one of the more complicated languages for English speakers to learn.
Turkish uses a Latin-script alphabet (with a few modifications) and includes many loan words from Persian and Arabic, which makes for an intriguing mix.
One aspect of the Turkish language that can be challenging is the need to memorise the many grammar rules and learn how to apply them, as the rules for use of suffixes and word order are significantly more complicated than in English. Fortunately, it’s a phonetic language, so pronunciation is one aspect that shouldn’t be too challenging.
Farsi or Persian Farsi is an Indo European language spoken as a native language by around 70 million people, primarily in Iran and Afghanistan, but also in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Although it’s a complex language for English speakers to learn, a number of English words actually originate from Farsi, including “soup,” “pyjama,” and “checkmate.” One of the more challenging aspects of the Farsi language is that it uses an Arabic script, which not only looks completely different to the Latin Alphabet, but is also read from right to left.
Although it can take time to master, Farsi is a very poetic language in which many of the words have deep meanings as well as dual meanings, and learning it will connect you to a rich and diverse culture.
Greek is the oldest living Indo-European language, and although modern Greek does differ from ancient Greek, it’s not as far removed from its roots as Spanish or French are from Latin. Greek is spoken as a native language by around 13 million people, primarily in Greece and Cyprus.
There are many aspects of Greek that will be challenging for English speakers to learn, including a lot of new vocabulary, three different genders for nouns, and complex grammar rules. In order to read and write Greek, you will also need to spend some time memorising the Greek alphabet.
Even so, as an ancient language that is at the root of many European languages, Greek is very much worth the effort to learn.
With 154 million native speakers and 104 million non-native speakers, Russian is a valuable language to learn, and will connect you to a fascinating world of literature, philosophy and visual arts.
As a Slavic language, Russian shares similarities with Ukrainian, Polish and Serbian, and has many words where consonants are grouped together. This can make Russian pronunciation challenging for English speakers. Another thing that can be confusing for English speakers is that while some Russian letters are identical to Latin ones, others look the same but sound different. For instance, “B” sounds like “V,” “H” sounds like “N” and “P” sounds like “R.” Confused yet?
Hindi is one of the official languages of India and the native language of 341 million people. It’s also spoken in a number of other countries including Nepal and Pakistan, and has 274 million non-native speakers. Hindi descends from Sanskrit, an ancient South Asian language that can be traced back thousands of years and has similarities to ancient Greek and Latin.
Hindi is written in Devanagari script, which can take a considerable time for English speakers to master. When it comes to pronunciation, Hindi is a phonetic language, but there are many sounds that English speakers will not be familiar with. Many of the differences between words are also so subtle that it can be difficult for new learners to pick up on them.
Despite the obstacles to learning it, however, Hindi is a beautiful language with a rich history, and learning it will open up countless new travel, work and study opportunities.
Vietnamese is part of the Austroasiatic language family. It’s the national language of Vietnam and the native language of around 76 million people. Vietnamese can be useful to learn if you will be travelling through or staying in Vietnam for a longer period of time. This is particularly true if you plan to venture beyond the main cities and popular tourist areas where English is more likely to be understood.
Vietnamese can be tricky for English speakers due to its difficult pronunciation. It has six tonal variations, which are determined by diacritics. Since the intonation of the speech changes the meaning of the context, and some vowels can be paired up to form new sounds, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time listening to and practising Vietnamese before you can make yourself understood.
Fortunately, practice makes perfect, and once you get used to the different tones, Vietnamese grammar is actually quite straightforward.
Thai is the national language of Thailand and is spoken by approximately 60 million people, primarily in Thailand. It’s a good language to learn if you are planning to work, study or travel in Thailand for longer periods of time, as English is not widely spoken or understood.
With that said, Thai is a difficult language for English speakers to learn, because, like Vietnamese and Chinese, it is a tonal language. This means learners must be able to recognise the pitch of a tone in order to understand the context of what is being said. The Thai language has five tones, and some of them are not found in the English language. Thai also uses its own script, which consists of 44 consonants, 18 vowels, and six diphthongs that must be memorised.
On the bright side, once you’ve mastered these aspects, Thai grammar isn’t overly complex, and the vocabulary actually has some loan words from English, French and Portuguese, although the majority are from Chinese, Sanskrit, Khmer and Pali.
Korean is an East Asian language spoken by 80 million people in both North and South Korea. Although it’s not as widely studied as Japanese or Chinese, it’s a beautiful language that has what is considered to be the most logical system of writing in the world.
Why? The Korean alphabet was actually created by King Sejong the Great in 1443. He wanted to develop a simplified writing system specifically suited to the Korean language. He set up a committee of scholars who developed the alphabet that is still in use today, known as “Hangul.” Hangul consists of just 24 symbols, of which 10 are vowels and 14 are consonants.
But, although the writing system is fairly straightforward, learning Korean is still likely to be a challenge for English speakers due to differences in word order as well as double consonant and vowel sounds.
Japanese is an East Asian language that’s part of the Japonic language family and is spoken by 128 million people, primarily in Japan. Although it’s widely considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, there are many good reasons to learn it, from gaining a deeper understanding of Japanese pop culture and animations to new career and business opportunities.
One complicated aspect of learning Japanese is its writing system, which consists of tens of thousands of characters known as “kanji.” Although only around 2000 kanji are needed to achieve a standard level of Japanese literacy, that’s still a lot of characters to memorise.
Another aspect of Japanese that can be difficult to grasp is the emphasis on respectful speech or “keigo.” Depending on the formality of a situation and who you are talking to, a simple word like “you” might have ten different translations.
14. Mandarin Chinese
When you think of languages that are difficult to learn, Chinese is probably the first example that comes to mind. But, with 918 million native speakers and 199 million non-native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is an extremely worthwhile language to learn.
Like Thai and Vietnamese, Mandarin is a tonal language. It has four tones, and the meaning of a word may change depending on the intonation used. For example, the word “ma” could mean “mother” or “horse,” depending on which pitch you use. Written Chinese is also extremely complex, and the Chinese writing system uses tens of thousands of distinctive characters to represent ideas, concepts or objects.
Arabic is a Semitic language that’s spoken in 26 countries throughout the Middle East as well as northern Africa, including in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt. It’s the native language of around 245 million people, and is also spoken as a non-native language by 29 million people.
As beautiful as Arabic is, pretty much every aspect of this language is likely to be challenging for English speakers, from the Arabic script, which is read from right to left, to the complex grammar to the pronunciation, with many sounds that English simply doesn’t have.
Even so, learning Arabic will give you a greater insight into the rich and diverse Arab culture and open up countless new career opportunities, not to mention the sense of personal satisfaction and achievement you will gain from mastering one of the most difficult languages in the world.
Hardest languages, honorable mentions:
If you're a polyglot looking for your next challenge, you might also want to keep these notoriously difficult, yet fascinating languages on your radar, alongside the ones mentioned above.