The Most Difficult Languages to Learn

It is always good to be able to speak more than one language. Polyglots are valued assets in any company, and in general tend to be more educated and open-minded people; at the same time, learning a foreign language is often considered difficult—a lifetime task that not everyone can accomplish. This is partially true: whereas many languages are relatively easy to learn (mostly European languages), there are several hard nuts to crack among them. Traditionally, the garland for difficulty goes to Asian languages, but there are toughies among western languages as well. Let us take a look at the most challenging languages in terms of mastery—both for English native speakers and people of other cultural origins.

The Chinese language (precisely, both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects—the two most widely spoken ones) is probably the most difficult language to learn. According to the assessment of the Foreign Language Institute, an English native speaker might need at least 2200 hours (or 88 weeks) to start using this language more or less confidently (ELL). The most common hardship is, obviously, reading and writing: you will need to know about 3500-4000 characters in order to be able to communicate or perceive a written message. The system of characters China uses nowadays is “simplified,” but ironically, it is probably simple only for Chinese people: a foreigner will see even the simplified characters as a set of totally incomprehensible symbols. There is no alphabet in Chinese (except pinyin, a special transcription for Chinese words written in Latin letters), and instead of separate letters, it utilizes entire syllables. To make things more complicated, there are four tones in Chinese (something like intonations), so the same syllable pronounced in four different ways can respectively have four different meanings; some consonants such as “R” are pronounced in a way that might be hard for a westerner to reproduce. This is not to mention a rather peculiar syntax, extremely rigid word order, and the overall specificity of the Chinese way of thinking. All this—and lots of other smaller details—makes Chinese number one in terms of its difficulty to learn.

The Japanese language treads on the heels of Chinese. The good news about reading and writing is that you will need to learn only around 2500 characters. The bad news is everything else. Japanese culture borrowed Chinese characters about a 1,000 years ago; with true Japanese thrift, these characters were imbued with Japanese meanings and sounding, but the original sounding and semantics were not cast aside—which means that almost every character in this language has both Chinese and Japanese pronunciation and meaning, and to fully understand Japanese text, you need to know them both; many words use partially Chinese, partially Japanese sounding (the so-called “on” and “kun” readings). Japanese has the traditional, older version of Chinese characters, which basically means having to write more strokes. Also, a native English speaker might find Japanese pronunciation difficult, because many words simultaneously include extremely firm and extremely soft (and even whistling) sounds. As for the syntax, it is totally different from what you can find in European languages; verbs in this language often group at the end of a sentence.

You must have probably guessed already that number three is the Russian language. Spoken by at least 200 million people, it possesses incredibly flexible grammar, which actively uses numerous prefixes, suffixes, and endings (which change depending on a word’s gender, number, tense—altogether!). Russian pronunciation is not that difficult, but there are several unique sounds that you will hardly see in other languages (such as the mysterious vowel Ы, which basically sounds as if someone punched you in the stomach, but you have somehow managed to calmly endure this act, and only made a brief sound). However, along with Russian, there is Hungarian—one of the few European languages that are almost impossible for a foreigner to learn. To start with, Hungarian has 35 distinct cases, with 18 of them being in use constantly. 14 vowels, a heavy dependence on all kinds of idioms and phraseology even in everyday speech, several verb forms, and the overall complexity of pronunciation can make studying Hungarian a nightmare for a non-native person.

There are definitely other complicated languages, and listing them would take a rather long time. The first three leaders are, however, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian/Hungarian languages. Long story short, Chinese and Japanese are, in general, 100% different from any western language you probably know. As for Russian and Hungarian languages, they share third place in rating for their overly complicated grammatical structures and pronunciation, as well as for some unique features that probably no other European language possesses.

Works Cited

  1. “Language Difficulty Ranking.” Effective Language Learning. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. .
  2. Stacey. “Hungarian: One of the Most Difficult Language for Foreigners to Learn.” One Hour Translation. N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 03 Nov. 2016. .
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