What Is The Hardest Language To Write For English Speakers?


We all know languages are hard. That’s why so many start out by asking the question: what is the easiest language to learn? Since we’re always trying to figure out which are easiest and the ones to avoid like the black plague, we’ll learn what language has the hardest writing system. So that we can either avoid them or tackle them head on.

The hardest language to write for English speakers is Mandarin Chinese, followed by Cantonese Chinese. Other languages like Japanese, Korean, and Arabic are almost as difficult. However, the hardest language regarding writing would still be Mandarin due to sheer complexity.

There’s always more to be said about a subject, especially when it has to do with languages. For starters, why is Mandarin hard for English speakers? What more can be said about languages like Japanese and Arabic? And, are there more languages that are hard for English speakers to write? I answer that and much more down below!

Is English The Hardest Language To Write?

Coming from an English speaker perspective, since most of us speak it, we should rule out whether English has the hardest writing in the world.

English does not have the hardest writing system in the world, even for speakers of Asian languages. With it’s Latinized alphabet and phonetic properties, English is more accessible for speakers of languages even without phonetic foundations in their own writing systems.

English is known for being a language of exceptions, especially in written form. While languages like Russian or German are known for their difficult grammar, the rules of it rarely change. This can make English annoying to learn for those who have no experience with that kind of approach.

This affects the English spelling system more than simply the alphabet and script. Though, when taken all together, The simple and uniform nature of the Romanized alphabet and phonetic structure make it simpler than some to master.

Who Would Have The Most Difficulty With English?

Asian speakers will probably have the most difficulty with English due to it frequently not adhering to strict writing rules. This is followed by how there are few Asian languages with phonetical alphabets.

Thus, they may find English to be hard, while languages derived from Latin might see it as being easy.

However, one thing to keep in mind throughout the article is that every language will in some way be easy or hard for someone to learn.

What we’re dealing with is more along the lines of languages that are “easier” and harder” overall, and there are a lot of generalities that end up coming because of this.

Another thing to note as a general rule is that when trying to learn a language that has a different alphabet it will naturally be harder than learning one that has a similar one.

What Are The Hardest Languages For English Speakers?

One tool that would benefit us greatly is the research done by the U.S. Department of State, and its determination of which languages are harder or easier for English speakers by how long it takes them to learn it.

We should know that this research was about those who mainly intended on becoming diplomats for the government. Thus, they were taught by experts and professionals with long classroom study times every day.

This means that the average person learning at home will take much longer than the specified times because we do not have the same amount of time or resources devoted as those in the research.

The Super Hard Languages For English

In the super-hard category in this research (funnily enough, there is a category known as “super-hard”, which is well above the “hard” category), is where we will find our answer of the hardest language to write as well as learn.

The following languages are classified as “super-hard”:

  • Chinese
    • Mandarin
    • Cantonese
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Arabic

All of these super-hard languages took around 88 weeks to learn. In comparison to the hard languages averaging around 44 weeks, this shows a huge difference.

If it really would take the average person longer to learn these languages, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the super-hard languages can more accurately need two whole years to fully acquire it.

There are around 52 weeks in a year, so if 88 weeks are the best money can buy to learn languages like Chinese or Japanese, we can pretty much guarantee that its going to take more than two years to learn for the average Joe.

By exploring these languages we’ll certainly find our answer, since if they are the hardest languages, then that would naturally mean it includes the factor of the written word.

If you’re looking for answers relating to topics in language learning, then check out some of my other articles!

Is Chinese The Hardest Language To Write?

It probably won’t surprise anyone with a western background to know that the Asia languages are going to be the hardest for us English speakers to learn to write.

As one of the typical examples of a Asian language, and the most spoken out of all of them, we should start with Chinese. As such, is Chinese the hardest language to write?

Chinese, or Mandarin Chinese to be exact, is the hardest written language for English speakers to learn. Mandarin Chinese has complex grammar, especially when compared to English. Then the lack of a Latin alphabet leaves it to be very hard for those who speak English.

Due to it’s use of pictographics and lack of an alphabet, Mandarin Chinese’s writing system is very hard for most people in the world, not only those speaking English.

As is talked about in this study, English and Chinese language learners both acquire languages differently. Which is due to the fundamental differences that their native languages have.

The Alphabet

Where nearly all languages of European descent have an alphabet, most Asian languages like Chinese do not. This alone makes it incredibly different for those of us who speak English.

For an English speaker to learn Chinese written script, it would be almost like trying to learn how to drive a car with your knowledge of how to ride a bicycle.

It’s lack of alphabet is so utterly foreign, that this leaves many to see it as too daunting of a task to learn. The only real way to learn the written system of Kanji in Japanese and the original forms in Chinese is through memorization and continual use.

The Pictographs

Further adding fuel to the flame, since they don’t have an alphabet, is that they use pictographs instead.

For us in the Western hemisphere, using thousands of pictures or drawings instead of our beloved ABCs, is something we could never imagine actually doing with the English or Spanish languages.

Due to this we can probably consider that this would turn most people off of trying to learn Chinese, or any other similar Asian language.

That is a problem when a language is very hard, it takes a significant amount of effort, leaving a lot of people to choose another. Though for some, Chinese and others like it can offer a sense of great accomplishment if acquired.

The Forms Of Chinese

With Chinese, the best way to understand it is that there are several different versions. These versions are also not like dialects, since they are not mutually intelligible. The two largest and most well-known of these version are:

  • Mandarin
  • Cantonese

Though there are plenty of other forms, these are the ones that will matter most for us.

It’s funny how most of the time when we say “Chinese”, we might not know that we’re actually referring to almost entirely different languages within the term.

This is mainly due to it being really odd for us to imagine multiple versions of English, leaving it hard to think of Chinese in any other way but our own.

Mandarin Chinese

The chief Chinese form is Mandarin, because it is significantly spoken more throughout China than any other form. In fact, the hardest language to write is one of the most spoken languages in the world!

Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world if you are just counting native speakers, with around 918 million speakers.

As a reference, the number of native English speakers is around 379 million.

Yet, if including both native and those who speak it as a second language (or third, fourth, etc.), Mandarin Chinese has around 1.120 billion speakers as opposed to English’s 1.349 billion.

Cantonese Chinese

Though spoken much less, with around 80 million, Cantonese along with Mandarin are both considered to be super hard languages for English speakers

For those wanting to learn Chinese, Cantonese is the second best choice after Mandarin, mainly due to it being the language spoken in Hong Kong.

The number regarding how many Mandarin, Cantonese, and English are provided by Ethnologue.

Is Japanese Hard To Write?

One of the hardest languages for English speakers, the Japanese’s writing system will probably follow suit.

The Japanese Kaji system makes it one of the hardest languages to write, and for English speakers especially. Like Chinese, the use of pictographs makes it very difficult for anyone who writes in a language derived from Latin, or influenced by it like English.

Both Chinese and Japanese require you to memorize a large amount of symbols that represent their vocabulary. For most European languages this is a very hard thing to get comfortable with since their written systems revolve around representing sounds added to one another.

Japanese really could be seen as the second hardest language to write for English speakers, for pretty much all of the same reasons why Chinese is the hardest.

The point that makes Japanese inhabit the second spot is the two systems of more phonetic alphabets that are used in differing situations to compliment or even replace the Kanji form. Though Japanese writing forms are by no means easy to learn and very hard to master, these phonetic additions make it slightly easier than Chinese.

Is Korean Hard To Write?

As opposed to other languages located in Asia, Korean is considered easier to write. Does this mean it is easy, or only easier?

Korean is not as hard to write for English speakers as some other Asian languages, since it is primarily phonetically based. This does not mean it is easy however, since in comparison with English’s writing, Korean’s grammar and vocabulary remains very difficult for most.

Languages like Japanese and Chinese use pictographs, which have no way for a reader to know how it sounds without memorizing the specific “word” or picture.

Yet, the phonetic nature of Korean allows for a reader to be able to know how a word sounds by looking at sound representations within, which is very prominent in English.

As is discussed in this paper, Korean’s writing system is what you call a “alphabetic syllabary”. This means it has the good and bad of an alphabet, a syllabary and logography.

Though not to go too deep into the subject (it is deserving of an article on it’s own), it is clear that Koreans system of writing is just as complex while having phonetics.

Thus, it should not be surprising to hear that Korean is still considered to be one of the hardest languages to learn.

Is Arabic Hard To Write?

Few realize that Arab cultures and countries predominately reside on the Asian continent. Like with other Asian languages, Arabic is just as hard to learn for English speakers. Does that translate into the written form as well?

Arabic is very hard for English speakers to learn to write. It has a completely different alphabet, writing system, and sentence structure. These differences make it noticeably hard for anyone speaking a language of Germanic or Latin descent.

Like Chinese and Japanese, Arabic is very difficult to learn, which then applies to it’s writing. They also all share in being intimidating for anyone first wanting to learn a language.

Other Languages That Are Hard To Write For English Speakers

There are still plenty of other languages that are a battle for English speakers to overcome, as such what are some “honorable mentions” of difficult languages?

Honorable Mentions Of Languages That Are Hard To Learn Because Of Their Writing

A lot languages could go here, but here are some common names you might come across that people talk about:

  • Thai
  • Greek
  • Vietnamese
  • Icelandic
  • Lao
  • And the list goes on…

One example that you might hear a lot about is Russian, due to it’s Slavic descent it is very different from most European languages. Though not as much of a challenge as some of the Asian examples, it is deserving of a section of its own.

Is Russian hard to write?

The Russian language is very hard for English speakers to acquire, akin to many of the Asian languages. Does this translate into having a hard writing system?

Russian is hard for English speakers, and most of those in the Romance or Germanic languages. It’s unique alphabet does make it hard to learn, but what makes it so difficult is its grammar.

Very strict and unbending (not unlike the Russian people themselves), Russian’s grammar is foreign to many.

Russian is even considered hard to learn according to the aforementioned study done by the U.S. Department of State. This would mean that at least minimal (though it would surely take longer) of a whole year is needed to fully acquire the language.

How Hard Are Romance And Germanic Languages Writing Systems In Comparison?

All of these languages talked about in this article are hard for us English speakers, and the written aspect being first among the reasons why. Yet, how does this compare to languages that are considered to be close to English? Like the languages found in the Romance and Germanic groups for example.

With some exceptions, learning the writing of Romance and Germanic languages is much easier for English speakers. In comparison to Chinese or Japanese, the struggles that English speakers would have facing grammar or vocabulary is negligible to the enormous task that it would take otherwise.

Compared to the Asian and Slavic Languages (and those like Arabic) English speakers will find Romance and Germanic languages are a piece of cake.

The Final Talking Point On The Hardest Language To Write…

Japanese, Korean, Russian, and Arabic are all very hard, but Mandarin Chinese would take the crown when it comes to the written aspect. With it reasonably taking around two years for the average person to learn, it would take a lot of effort, but this can be a great accomplishment for some to learn.

For more information regarding every topic about language learning read some of my other articles!

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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