Does English Make The List Of 19 Most Difficult Languages?


Learning languages can be difficult, but many of us have at least one second language we are learning or planning to learn. It takes time, and it’s not easy, but it’s always rewarding. English is not different for those choosing it as a second or even third language.

English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. With its irregularities and adoption of words, phrases, and concepts from so many other languages, it poses a significant challenge. The learner’s original language determines how difficult: Germanic, Latin, Sino-Tibetan (Asian), etc.

Which language is the most difficult to learn? Well, there are a lot of factors that go into that. But mainly, as you get further from the familiar comforts of the native language you are used to, language acquisition becomes much more challenging. Read on to find out what makes certain languages the most difficult. 

What Makes a Language Like English So Difficult to Learn?

Language learning in general is a useful skill that can both expand your ability to communicate with other people and engage parts of your brain that would otherwise go unchallenged by speaking only one language.

Unsurprisingly, the earlier in life you begin to learn multiple languages, the easier it will be to add to your linguistic repertoire as you continue to age. Most linguists agree that the human brain acquires language, meaning the ability to speak and understand the language, up to the age of 12.

According to researchers at The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY after age 12 the language learning ability of the average person diminishes. They are not certain whether this is solely due to cognitive reasons or if environmental and language learning methods and input play a significant part.

That doesn’t mean anyone over 12 shouldn’t learn a new language. It just means, if you only ever learned to speak one language (like many people born in America), you’ll probably just have to try a little bit harder to sound like a native speaker.

Learners of English from different backgrounds will have varying levels of exposure to learning foreign languages. Everything from grammatical concepts to phonetics to the written alphabet can make the process more or less difficult.

The language difficulty listed below is based on the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State’s ranking system. Keep in mind; this is a relative analysis based on native English speakers. So let’s see how English difficulty for those learning it as a new language compares and correlates with these difficult languages for speakers of English to learn.

Super Hard Languages to Learn English From

The FSI categorizes Category IV “Super Hard Languages” as languages that are very difficult for native English speakers to learn.

They estimate it takes about 2200 hours to achieve a level of fluency equal to a native speaker, with about half that ideally being spent immersed in a country that primarily speaks that language. This ‘immersion’ experience can be simulated outside of a native environment, but it takes considerably longer and requires quite a bit of effort.

You’ll notice most of the languages in this category are from Asia. That’s because their written languages have absolutely nothing in common with the phonetic alphabet used in English

Arabic 

Number of Speakers: 422 Million

Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. With an extremely long history, Arabic has influenced other languages, including English, with words like alcohol and coffee. It is difficult to learn because of its writing system and grammatical structure, plus it has sounds English just doesn’t have!

As you can imagine, if it is difficult for an English native to learn Arabic, it will be equally difficult for the opposite situation. A speaker of Arabic will have significant obstacles to overcome when acquiring English as a second language. It can and is done every day, but with considerable effort.

Chinese 

There are many languages spoken in China, with one main thing in common: they are particularly complicated to learn as a second language. Coming from one of these dialects to English will be no different.

Cantonese 

Number of Speakers: 80 Million

Cantonese is a group of Chinese dialects mainly spoken by people in Southeast China, Hong Kong, Macause, and overseas Chinese communities. Unlike English, the written characters are mainly pictorial, not phonetic. An English speaker will have to learn the pronunciation for each. 

Similarly, when someone is taught as a child to read written text in opposite directions and in visual instead of phonetic form, it will be an up hill battle learning a language like English. This is coupled with the same problem English speakers find in Arabic. There are sounds that the languages do not share.

Mandarin 

Number of Speakers: 1.12 Billion

The language with the greatest number of native speakers in the world, Mandarin is the official language of The People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. The meaning of many words depends on unique inflections, and it is incredibly easy for a non-native speaker to mix up words that sound similar to an untrained ear.

The English language has much more subtle inflections that change meaning and relies much more on sentence structure to give emphasis to words and phrases.

For a Mandarin speaker, in the beginning English may seem like a much less precise language, but as time goes on they will discover that the methods of designation are simply much more ‘under the surface’.

Wu

Number of Speaker: 80 million

Wu is a group of linguistically similar languages spoken mainly in the eastern part of China near Shanghai. It is known as one of the most internally diverse language groups, with different subgroups having low mutual intelligibility. Wu dialects maintain many features of ancient Chinese languages.

Speakers of Wu have a hard time communicating with others of their own language groups, so it is no wonder that learning and irregular and very large language like English could pose some difficulty. It by no means is an impossibility. On the other hand, it is not a simple task.

Korean 

Number of Speakers: 77.2 Million

Korean is considered a language isolate by modern linguists, meaning that it has no clear origins in any other language. Because of that, a polyglot may have difficulty with its grammatical structure or vocabulary.

For Koreans to learn English, the similar phonetic nature of their written language can be deceiving. The English and Korean alphabets can be fairly easily acquired, but this has little to say about the ease or difficulty in learning the grammar, vocabulary, and modern use of each. English is not ‘walk in the park’ for Native Korean Speakers.

Japanese 

Number of Speakers 128 Million

Though the three countries are geographically close, the languages of Japan, China, and Korea have almost nothing in common. To be considered fluent in Japanese, you need to be able to identify and understand roughly two thousand unique characters. Though these are predominately shared in written form with Mandarin Chinese, their meanings and pronunciation could not be more different.

For someone native to Japan, English is no easier to learn than for Chinese speakers. It comes with unfamiliar sounds, a phonetic written system, and words and grammar borrowed from languages around the world. The writing system is also ‘backwards’ making a written transition even harder.

With much to be gained from reading and writing in a new language and mimicking sounds heard, English is a formidable foe for the new native born Japanese student.

Taiwanese

Number of Speakers: 16.5 Million

Taiwanese, also known as Taiwanese Hokkien, Holo, or Taigi, is spoken by about 70% of the population of Taiwan. Because Taiwan is technically considered part of The People’s Republic of China, most residents speak both Taiwanese and Cantonese, though the two languages are mutually unintelligible.

Like with other citizens of Asian countries, English poses a sizable challenge for the new learner. Language learning is never easy, but for someone coming from Taiwanese, English takes more effort than learning another Sino-Tibetan language.

Hard Languages To Learn English From

The FSI categorizes “Hard Languages” as languages that are difficult for native English speakers to acquire. They estimate it takes about 1100 hours to achieve a level of fluency equal to a native speaker.

For students going in the opposite direction (learning English with these as native languages), this same designation applies. Though these are not considered as ‘hard’ of situations as the ones above, it is still as sizable challenge for speakers in these languages to learn English as a second or third language.

Dzongkha 

Number of Speakers: 640,000

Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan and is written in the 30 characters of Tibetan script. Though there are a number of ways Western linguists have attempted to transcribe Dzongkha into Latin letters, none accurately represent the phonetics of the language.

Coming from this language to a Western Language and specifically a Germanic based language like English, it is no surprise that students will have trouble with pronunciation and vocabulary. Much of the world is now exposed to the sounds of English, but hearing it and reproducing it with meaning are two different things.

Estonian 

Number of Speakers: 1.1 million

An offshoot of the next language on our list, Finnish, Estonian uses Latin as the basis for its language with additional letters ä, ö, ü, õ, š, and ž. Unlike English, Estonian has nine vowels and 36 diphthongs (or a vowel with two sounds within it) – 28 of which are unique to Estonian.

Many students of English and native English speakers alike do not know that English has Latin influences, but is originally a Germanic language. With this in mind, you can see that a heavily Latin based language that added much to its grammatical base has a fairly large divide between it and English.

For students coming from the Estonian language as their native tongue, English holds a deceptively high effort requirement.

Finnish 

Number of Speakers: 5.8 Million

The official language of Finland, Finnish, is entirely different from the Nordic or Slavic languages that are spoken around it. Containing the same unique vowels as Estonian, Finnish also has a proclivity for double consonants and double vowels like in the phrase “good day” or hyvää päivää.

With its own irregularities and peculiarities that simply have to be acquired at face value, Finnish speakers will find much of the same arbitrary elements in English. For this reason, they may know of the difficulties these bring, but that doesn’t save them from the process of pushing through them.

Georgian 

Number of Speakers: 3.7 Million

Though Georgian is spoken in areas of Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine, the Georgian writing system is incredibly difficult for a newcomer to learn. This is mainly because it has a number of characters that appear nearly identical, such as ვ, კ, პ, ჰ, ყ, ფ, გ, and ც. 

This also has similarities in the Westernized alphabet of English. Many students find it difficult when writing u, w, q, p, b, and d. Both languages have many other differences that will make it harder to produce sounds and form sentences.

Hebrew

Number of Speakers: 5 Million

The language of Judaism, Hebrew, only resurfaced as a prominent spoken and literary language in the 19th century after nearly dying out somewhere between 200 and 400 CE. Unlike English, the Hebrew language is written from right to left.

Modern Hebrew is sometimes mistaken for ancient Biblical Hebrew. Though they have similarities, they are not the same language today. For a speaker of Modern Hebrew, English is not particularly easy because of its vast vocabulary, difficult pronunciation patterns, and different writing system.

Icelandic 

Number of Speakers: 314,000

Because Iceland is a relatively isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic, the language hasn’t changed much in the thousand years since it’s been settled. You might remember back in 2010 when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. If that doesn’t show you why Icelandic would be hard to learn, I don’t know what will.

A little known fact is that Icelandic, like English is a Germanic language. Though they have this in common, the vast changes made to English over the centuries and the isolated nature of the country of Iceland have made them ‘worlds apart’. This poses a serious obstacle for the native speaker of Icelandic when trying to acquire English as a second language.

Irish

Number of Speakers: 1.76 Million

Irish, also known as Gaelic, was the dominant language of the original Irish people. Though Irish only uses about two-thirds of the Latin alphabet, it uses them in a way you wouldn’t expect, phonetically. Like this surname: Eòghann (pronounced yoo-en).

Pronunciation and phonics aren’t the only obstacles when a native speaker of Gaelic tries to learn English. The grammar and sheer volume of vocabulary found in the English language are also a problem.

There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for most in Ireland when it comes to learning English. Due to its proximity to England and the nature of its history, English is the main language taught to children in schools.

This for better or for worse, relegates Gaelic to a cultural language usually learned only by a portion of the population and normally as a second language itself. Therefore, the difficulties of learning English won’t be undertaken by adults in most instances.

Mongolian 

Number of Speakers: 5.2 Million

Mongolia is in a region within the People’s Republic of China, the language is written in both Cyrillic (the same written language as Russian) and traditional Mongolian script. Many consider this language nearly extinct, so there is a lack of great instruction material for those seeking to learn Mongolian.

For this reason it is a difficult language to learn for most. For Mongolians looking to learn English there will not be the same problem. Due to English’s worldwide acceptance, much material is available. That is where the easier time ends and the more challenging quest begins.

Mongolians are used to their own forms of writing, grammar, and more guttural pronunciation patterns. Learning such a different set of communication skills is a large hill to climb even if there is worldwide exposure to the language.

Thai

Number of Speakers: 44 Million

Thai is one of over 60 languages spoken in Thailand, and much of the language is borrowed from much older languages such as Pali and Sanskrit. The written language has 44 consonants and 32 vowels, which is nearly three times as many as English.

This may seem to indicate that it would be easier coming from Thai to English. Yet, in the first place learning alphabets and their characteristics is arguably the easiest part of language learning.

Secondly, this points to a problem that native speakers of Thai will have when learning English. There tends to be a lot of understood knowledge in English using similar combinations of sounds. Furthermore, these sounds are not directly related to how they are written.

Native Thai speakers like others in this list may think in the beginning that English is less precise. Yet, as they progress they will come to realize that there is much hidden in subtlety in the English Language.

Urdu

Number of Speakers: 101.6 Million

The official language of Pakistan, Urdu, is a relatively easy language to speak but much more difficult to learn how to read and write. Each word in Urdu can be written in four to six different ways. That is coupled with the fairly restrictive culture of Pakistan which is steeped in staunch religious regulation.

English speaking countries tend to be more open and accessible in comparison, but the problem for speakers of Urdu will be the large vocabulary and many influences that have made English a rather more complex language than their own.

Vietnamese 

Number of Speakers: 90 Million

Influenced by Chinese and French, Vietnamese shares elements of both. Written Vietnamese is not incredibly complex, with most words being relatively short. It also shares the Subject + Verb + Object structure of English. However, much like dialects of Chinese, spoken Vietnamese relies heavily on pronunciation and inflection, with many words being incredibly similar.

The subtlety of the English inflection system and the more demonstrative use of word placement in sentences, means English tends to be a bit of an enigma for the native Vietnamese speaker. It of course is not an impossible task for them to learn it, only a difficult one due to the differences in their own language.

Zulu

Number of Speakers: 16 million

A Southern Bantu language spoken mainly in Southern Africa, Zulu is incredibly different from many other languages on this list as it contains a unique form of ‘clicking’ sounds, represented in writing with the letters C, Q, and X.

Really, all you need to know is that it involves clicking sounds and you can see that the gap between it and English is rather large. This can be mitigated if exposure to Afrikaans (spoken by roughly 14% of the citizens of South Africa) has been had to some degree by the student. Afrikaans is considered one of the easier languages to learn for English speakers and vice versa.

What’s The Verdict? English Is Notoriously Difficult to Learn.

“Most difficult” to learn is a relative metric, depending on what your native language is. The 19 languages above are ranked most challenging for those whose first language is English. But for non-native English speakers, English tops the list as one of the toughest languages to learn. What makes English language learners struggle?

  • Grammatical structure – seems illogical to non-native speakers
  • Spelling – words that look similar but sound different
  • Rules –with so many “exceptions”
  • Idioms – so many and so unpredictable 
  • Multiple meaning Words– words that have many meanings, mostly unrelated

Depending on what languages you are familiar with, English can be downright confounding.

Instead of simply stating that English is in the top 3 most difficult languages to learn, the list above helps you know how difficult it is depending on the native language of the student learning it. You can begin to understand the world of language acquisition and secondary language learning by understanding where people are coming from and where they wish to go.

The Final Talking Point…

Of the world’s 6,909 cataloged languages, these 19 make the top of the list as most difficult to learn. A second language is more difficult to learn the further its alphabet, sounds, and concepts stray from one’s native tongue. 

For someone who speaks Cantonese, Mandrin may not be as complicated. But for a native German speaker, any Chinese language may pose a challenge. While the exact degree of difficulty a language poses may be relative to where you are coming from, all of the languages above pose a very high challenge for a learner. 

References:

https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

https://www.newcollegegroup.com/blog/can-english-difficult-learn/

https://www.oxford-royale.com/articles/learning-english-hard/#aId=883e46a7-029d-4f64-902b-99faec7d1a6b

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/language-in-the-mind/201702/why-english-is-such-difficult-language-learn

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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