The World's Most Difficult Languages and Why They're So Hard

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Wednesday, 21 June 2017

When it comes to learning difficulty, not all languages are created equal. Some are simply much harder to learn than others. It should also be noted that not all students are created equal, meaning a language difficult for an English speaker might be less difficult for someone who speaks Russian or Mandarin. Regardless, we’ve compiled a list of the five most difficult languages in the world to learn, viewed from the perspective of those who speak English as a native language.

 

1. Japanese

One would think that Mandarin, Hungarian, or Finnish might start this list off, but we begin with Japanese, as it is dubbed the most difficult language by the Foreign Service Institute, a government organisation that trains employees of the U.S. foreign affairs community. Learning the two primary Japanese alphabets isn’t too difficult, as they are finite. There’s hiragana, used for Japanese words, and katakana, used for foreign words. Seems simple enough, right? But wait, it’s not over yet. Toss in kanji, a writing system adopted from Chinese characters, and you’ve got a whole new level of confusion. Speaking Japanese isn’t easy either, as native speeds are really fast. 

 

2. Mandarin

Also known as Standard Chinese, Mandarin is the official language of China, making it the most widely used language in the world due to the country’s vast population. According to Ethnologue, a think tank that analyses world languages, there were 1.197 billion Mandarin speakers in 2014. The writing system alone could make any linguist’s head spin; characters resemble complex drawings and there seem to be an infinite amount of them. A simplified script, known as simplified Chinese, makes writing easier, though it’s just another system that learners will have to accommodate. It’s not just difficult for westerners; those who grew up speaking Cantonese can also have some troubles with simplified Chinese as it’s less used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and amongst communities abroad. Speaking is difficult as well; there are four main tones for characters (five if you count the neutral tone). Saying a word, like ma, with the wrong tone is literally the difference between your mom and a horse. 

 

3. Hungarian

Hungarian is particularly difficult for English learners because words are formed completely differently, with phrases often combined to form a single word. For example, barátnőmmel means “with my female friend”. There are 18 case suffixes in Hungarian. In comparison, English has only three, and they still manage to baffle with their complexities. Add upon this complex grammar rules and cultural subtleties, and one can see that Hungarian is not an easy pick for the new language learner.


4. Finnish

It’s often said that Finnish has linguistic ties to Hungarian, making it a difficult language to learn as well, though to say they are very similar is a stretch. They both belong to the Finno-Ugrian group of languages (Estonian is also in this club), a result of the influence of foreign invaders of the past. Unlike Hungarian, Finnish “only” has 15 tenses. Like Hungarian, words can grow in length depending on what one wants to say. It’s almost magical, one could say, so much so that Tolkien developed his language of the elves for The Lord of the Rings with some help from this tricky language.


5. Arabic

Formally known as Modern Standard Arabic or Literary Arabic, the language is immediately recognizable in print for its beautiful flowing script. Learning the Arabic alphabet isn’t the hardest part of learning the language; speaking and writing is actually much more difficult. Words are constructed with a base root of three primary consonants that determine all the grammatical and descriptive characteristics of what one wishes to convey (case, quantity, gender, and parts of speech). Vowels are omitted in writing, making it difficult for students to translate text. Speaking isn’t much easier either, as the vast number of dialects across countries make comprehension a greater challenge.


6. Polish

Polish is a language that loves its consonants. Even the word for “hello” looks intimidating: cześć. English speakers often face problems when attempting to pronounce Polish words. Understanding the rules of the language is difficult as well: with seven cases that can be manipulated by seven grammatical genders (yes, seven), forming a sentence might feel like doing complex calculations in one’s head. A good representation of the language’s difficulty can be seen in the usage of numbers: there are 17 possible variations for each one.

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