While nearly everyone has the intuition that some languages are clearly more difficult than others to learn, there are still those who claim that there is no such thing as a “hard” language. Others, such as polyglots, argue that the term “hardest language” exists “for no reason other than discouragement”.
So, what’s the deal? Is there really any such thing as a “hard” language, or even the “hardest” one? Ranking languages on a universal scale of difficulty is itself difficult and controversial, and you’ll see that there is no short answer to these questions. However, I hope that through this post I’ll be able to shed some light on this topic and clarify a few points. I’d really love to hear what you think about this, so please leave your comments below and join in the discussion.
Language Difficulty Ranking
In my opinion, it would be pretty hard to sustain the argument that there is no such thing as easier and harder languages, although the level of difficulty will depend to a good extent on what your native tongue is, among a bunch of other factors. In other words, language difficulty is partly a subjective notion that varies depending on which language(s) you are fluent in, and partly an objective one that varies depending on things such as the writing system used, grammar complexity, etc. Mandarin Chinese, just to throw in an example, has a clearly much more difficult writing system than, say, English. Learning a 26-letter alphabet is a lot easier than learning thousands of characters, no matter which part of the world you were born in, and no matter how motivated you are to learn Mandarin Chinese.
Yet, because language difficulty is in large part a subjective notion, there is no objective language ranking that can apply to any speaker of any language. Let me clarify. For example, Japanese might be one of the hardest languages out there for a native English speaker (or so I’ve often heard), but for a Korean person learning Japanese, this latter will be infinitely easier than to learn English, simply because Japanese and Korean have so much more in common than Korean and English.
In a similar vein, learning Persian might be relatively easy for somebody speaking Gulf Arabic, but quite a challenge for a native Thai speaker.
If you’re looking for rankings, there are a few official ones published by governments. The Defense Language Institute (DLI), for example, is a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution that has 4 categories of languages classified by their difficulty. Category 1 is the easiest and 4 the hardest. Naturally, those levels of difficulty are from the perspective of an English speaker, so they are not “universal” rankings. This distinction is very important to understand. The list below introduces some example languages in each category:
- Category I language: French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish
- Category II language: German, Indonesian
- Category III language: Hebrew, Hindi, Persian Farsi, Dari, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian/Croatian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Uzbek, and Urdu
- Category IV language: Modern Standard Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean
For a more exhaustive list, scroll down to the very bottom of this post to see a neat looking diagram with languages ranked by difficulty and number of speakers.
Yes, Some Languages are Harder
From my own experience, learning Category 1 languages has been by far a lot easier than learning Category 4 ones. For example, in order to both learn Spanish and Korean up to a B2 level (high-intermediate), I have approximately put 3x the amount of effort and time with Korean than with Spanish. This is, obviously, a personal experience based on a variety of unique factors and circumstances, but it does give you an idea that those two languages differ in significant respects.
Am I saying this to discourage you to learn languages such as Korean, Japanese, and Chinese? Very far from it. In fact, I have so far loved the challenge that Korean has presented me. It has been a wonderful, rewarding journey that has opened a world of opportunities, and getting to know about a culture far from one’s own is very interesting and eye-opening. I do believe, however, that it’s important to have realistic expectations about the amount of time and effort learning a particular language will take, and be prepared in consequence. If you think that because it took you 1 or 2 years to get conversationally fluent in Spanish/French/Italian, it’ll take you the same amount of time with Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, the likely outcome is that once you realize this is not going to happen, you will either get discouraged or frustrated, or you’ll think you aren’t so “gifted” with languages after all.
More importantly, because of such significant differences between languages, you have to keep in mind that while a method for learning a particular language may have worked very well for you in the past, it doesn’t mean that it’ll work just as well with a different language. I could probably go to Italy and learn the language relatively easily in a few months just through immersion, by listening to and speaking with the people there. Yet, this strategy would probably not work, say, in Vietnam or Mongolia. The bottom line is, you have to be flexible about your learning strategy and expect that different languages and language families will vary in difficulty and complexity.
Most difficult language… But for whom?
One thing that complicates matters when talking about “easier” and “harder” languages is the fact that languages are multi-dimensional. Indeed, languages are usually divided into 4 skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening (linguists also often divide them into five structural components: phonology, semantics, syntax, morphology, and pragmatics—but we won’t pay too much attention to that for now).
You may have heard that Mandarin Chinese is the “hardest” language to learn in the world, and you might be right if you’re talking about written Chinese, but is the spoken language really that complicated? Many would say that while learning 4 tones does take some time to adjust, Mandarin Chinese has surprisingly simple grammar making it relatively easy to speak (e.g. nearly no verb tenses and no prepositions). And while learning to read and write Hangul (the written script of the Korean language) can be done in a matter of hours or days, speaking the language is an entirely different beast. Finally, while English grammar is relatively simple compared to, say, French, speaking and reading English is really not that easy given that there is absolutely no consistent pronunciation rule, whereas in Spanish you’ll stumble on the subjunctive mood and other complex verb tenses, but you’ll find the pronunciation rules to be a piece of cake.
The Bottom Line Is: What are the hardest languages to learn… It Depends
As you can see, the most difficult language really depends on a lot of things. You can add on top of that a whole lot of other factors that are equally or more important as some of those mentioned above: motivation, interest, need, culture, surrounding environment, psychological barriers, fear, etc.
Some languages will be harder than other to learn. In the end, though, it’s very hard to talk about the “hardest” language in the world because it all depends on the perspective of the native speaker, and on a whole host of different factors such as motivation and culture. Just be flexible in your approach to learning different languages, and have realistic (but not pessimistic) expectations about a particular language’s difficulty. Take it as a challenge to surmount, and remember that whatever language you choose to learn, it’s well worth the time and effort invested!
So, what do you think? Have you learned multiple languages in the past? Which one(s) did you find harder, and which ones easier? Why do you think so?
182 thoughts on “What are the hardest languages to learn?”
Maybe I can try to summarise this text and the subject.
There are such things as the easiest, easy, hard and hardest language, even if some people had been able to learn them with “ease” and “fun”… but that doesn’t mean they hadn’t actually struggle and that they didn’t like this difficulty.
The point is that we can measure the difficulties of languages… subjectively, it might always be subjective to all people.
And so, conclude an all-around objective ranking of languages by difficulty is wrong, as the exceptions in regard of the native-tongues learned and experienced of one are unlimited :).
But in fact, I think it isn’t wrong to try to determine, as this american institute did, a ranking of language by learning difficulty… for that target group of average north american mono(or maybe bi)lengual english speakers. To establish a general rule is helpful to make one’s prepare well about it. Perhaps institutes of every ethnocultural group would list the languages by learning difficulty in regards of its ethnocultural group details (native-language(s), and others if there are…) and that would be fine for most of people.
Good summary of the article Nicolas 🙂
Of course, I don’t believe it’s wrong to try to determine the difficulty of languages by ranking them. In fact it can definitely be useful for the particular group of native speakers it is aimed at, because it can help them to have realistic expectations about the length of time it will take them to learn a particular language. It can also help in determining how to adjust their learning strategy in consequence.
All in all, I think it’s just important to remember that a large part of a language’s difficulty is subjective, thus making rankings only good for speakers of a specific language and not for everyone.
The easiest for me is Esperanto. The most difficult is still Mandarin although I speak Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) natively.
That’s interesting, I thought speaking Hokkien would make learning Mandarin substantially easier. What is it about Mandarin that you find so hard, compared to, say, Esperanto?
Reading and writing is obviously challenging. Mandarin in Taiwan got influenced by Taiwanese dialect (Hokkien), so it would be a little bit different with Mandarin from Malaysia/ Singapore, which also got influenced by Cantonese and other Chinese dialect spoken there, and Mainland China.
Esperanto is very simple, logical, so I think everyone can learn it fast. Try it so you will know.
Esperanto is easy because it was intended to be easy.
Too bad that they couldn’t make it useful. That goes for Klingon. Klingonese?
Herr Zamenhoff would be thrilled (Esperanto’s Polish creator)!
I think the main reason why this argument exists is that people claiming all languages equally difficult really mean all languages are equally complex.
Hi Alexey. That may be the case, but would you say that all languages are equally complex? Depending on how you define complexity, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to sustain the argument that some languages are clearly more complex than others.
What’s the difference? Aren’t they synonyms?
I would have had to study some other languages in order to have any authority on the issue. I have found Chinese quite a challenge, but not impossible. However, it’s the only language I’ve ever tried learning seriously. I’d like to try a Romance language to see how quickly I can improve. Then I’d be able to make a comparison. If only there were more time in the day!
Yep, time is the issue isn’t it? By the way, how long have you been learning Chinese for, and approximately what is your level now? I’m planning on getting back to seriously studying Chinese this summer.
I think I’ve been studying for about four years now and I would say I’m at a strong upper intermediate level. For most of this time I’ve lived in a Chinese speaking environment and most of my study has been in my off time around work.
I would say learning extraterrial languages, exo-planetary languages,
such as Martian or the Arcturus language are the most difficult to
learn; even more difficult to learn than Chinese or Arabic.
Yes, I can speak Chinese and I tried Martian but its waaaayyy to hard! Its almost impossible!
For the purposes of motivating myself to learn, I find it helpful to focus more on the length of time it takes to learn the language than the difficulty. For me, difficulty means grammatical concepts that are different than those I learned as a child in my English classes, or pronunciation of sounds that don’t exist in English, as opposed to the length of time that it takes to memorize a set of characters or acquire vocabulary. That would likewise mean that the most difficult languages I am currently trying to learn are Finnish and Basque, with their multiple noun cases that don’t exist in English.
That’s a good point, but to others learning a more difficult language might motivate them to put more effort into it so as to reach a conversational level as fast as they would have learning an easier language. To me, anyway, language learning is a lifelong process that never stops, so rather than focusing on time (or even difficulty), I focus on how the language can enrich my life. What do you think?
You’re right; the difficulty could be a motivator for others to be especially diligent. I agree with your point on enrichment too. Speaking for myself, learning Spanish has enriched my life far beyond what I could have ever imagined: 30 years married to a Colombian who teaches Spanish at university level (to say she is my “soul mate” is a gross understatement); two bilingual kids, one of whom married a Mexican girl; travel and the ability to converse with native speakers; involvement with Spanish speakers in my job and in the community; and the continuous polishing of my capabilities in Spanish. Years ago, a Colombian friend encouraged me to learn other languages besides Spanish, so I went to work at Portuguese and later French. I also dabble in a number of other languages for which I have no concerns about how long it takes me to learn them. I just practice when I can.
Sounds like polyglossia = wonderful life!
I’ve never tried to learn one of the so-called “hard languages” such as Chinese, Arabic, Korean and so on. However, I do want to study Japanese one day and I’m aware of the difficulties I will encounter.
It’s inevitable. A totally new and different pronunciation, writing system, grammar structure, vocabulary…
It won’t be as easy as learning Spanish or French but it won’t be “too hard” either, because passion and motivation always win in the end.
Definitely. In the end, passion and motivation always win!
Well, many times–but not always. You’re obviously young, and I’m not. ; )
I am currently learning Mandarin…I started last June…so by now, three months have passed by…every two days I face a 3o minutes test on skype (test not lesson) – I can’t believe: I can talk in Mandarin!…Speaking Mandarin is easier than learning English!!! Ich habe sechs Sprachen gelernt…dann du kanst eine Idee haben.
You have learned to speak then? And we do not have a clue. Funny
You clearly didn’t learn German that well. Should be: Dann kannst du eine Idee haben.
Ollowllol? That’s Hawaiian, right?
Thanks, Mr. Ph.D. You clearly haven’t learned tactfullness that well. Should be: “Brother, let me help you out with German V2 word order.”
Some stuff are easier in the harder language, for example, Japanese has just two irregular verbs, that’s pretty nice, compared to French. ^^
._. uh have you tried to learn the written language? or even tried to touch the verb -te and -nai and when to use them? I do agree that french pronounciation is hard but japanese is much harder
Japanese is not that hard. I have a degree in Japanese – and I’m deaf. If I can learn it, write it and speak it, anyone can.
well yes that’s completely true anyone can learn it, its just hard to me due to the grammar and the kanji in which has usually 2-5 readings
Exactly. Kana-majiri system was invented by a sadist, as were Ge’ez/Ethiopic syllabary and Arabic/Aramaic abjads. But–they’re hecka fun to learn and play with!
Well, it’s not hard for you. I like broccoli. Do you? I can’t goose hunt. Can you? And so it goes…
Correct. NEXT I’M UH gon-NA learn SOME swe-DISH! ; )
Ok you write like that, why? Because my sentence seems a little bit strange? (I see that now, but it sure felt like a correct sentence at that time.)
Faktikst jag lärä mig nu svenska. XD
m 14 and im trying to learn japanese. the pronounciation isnt hard, the grammar and written system is hard, especially kanji. every language has vocabulary so that’s a given . i have a chinese base but the kanji is still very hard due to 2 readings and different sayings with kanji.
Noam Chomsky says that it’s EXCEEDINGLY difficult to learn another language.
Suzanne Flynn of MIT is a real whiz on L2 acquisition, which is a whole nuther animal from acquiring L1.
Yeah, I know. I leaned some Pig Latin in 5th grade. Just kidding!
You mention Mandarin Chinese as being difficult for English speakers, does anyone know how difficult Cantonese is for English speakers?
Cantonese is harder than Mandarin for the fact that it has 7 tones instead of 4.
Also, Cantonese has 16 vowel sounds!
Moving into Chechen territory…
I need your advice about one thing. A few weeks ago, I decided to learn Japanese and already bought a few online textbooks and so on. I studied Latin/Romance languages before but I know it has nothing to do with Japanese. For that reason, I don’t know how to start learning Japanese. Should I start from grammar? Or is it better to start learning some vocabulary directly? I never want to learn romaji as I know it’s pure evil in the long term. I prefer the hard way and wouldn’t mind working my guts out. My mother tongue is Turkish (luckily because Japanese and Turkish belong to the same language family as far as I know), which is an opportunity to understand the Japanese grammar system. (I am writing this because I know my language learning process will not be the same with the other Japanese learners given the fact that learning a language from a different family is a challenge always. For example, I failed to learn Russian myself because I really didn’t get the logic of this language and gave up finally.)
If you are a Japanese learner, please answer my questions. How do you learn Japanese? How does your study plan look like? I would really appreciate your answer. I know everyone has a different style in learning languages but there must be some reasonable learning methods out there 🙂
To answer your question in a few words, I would say first of all find a good textbook and work your way through it. Just be consistent and do a little bit of it every day. Visit the “Reviews” section of this website for advice on good textbooks.
Once you’re set, just go through the lessons naturally. You don’t need to start learning grammar in isolation, it will most likely be a waste of time. You need to get exposed to the language first of all. Learn the language through dialogues and whole sentences. Don’t fuss too much over the order of words or the unfamiliar grammatical structures. Just absorb the language through getting exposed to sentences and dialogues, and focus on the meaning of sentences as a whole rather than individual words.
Other than that, do what you enjoy: listen to music, movies, TV series, etc. in Japanese. Enjoy learning about the culture and the language, and things will come naturally. Don’t worry, it just takes time. Good luck!
Find a TPRS Japanese teacher. TPRS is a comprehensible input strategy that helps you acquire the language instead of learning it (memorizing words and grammar). I have had traditional language classes (Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, French) and TPRS classes (Japanese, Russian, French, German) and the difference in amazing. After a day in a TPRS class I leave understanding and speaking as opposed to years in traditional classes which have produced not much fluency. Look up fluencyfast.com (I don’t know if they have Japanese though), and tprstorytelling.com (you can find TPRS novels written with the highest frequency words in the language/I don’t know if Japanese is available though). I am a TPRS teacher/presenter because I also tried the method with my students and I am amazed by the progress.
You start learning hiragana. It is virtually the most basic thing you have to know.
Nice article. Much closer to the truth than some I have seen. I’d like to add another factor to take into account when considering the relative “ease” of a language: the culture of the speakers. Some cultures are more receptive than others to outsiders using their language. I won’t make any attempt to explain why this happens, but I can cite examples from my life. I have had two major immersion experiences, in Taiwan and Java. I found Indonesian considerably easier to pick up than Mandarin, simply because most Indonesians are very open and encouraging when outsiders try to learn their language. Chinese people who have no experience with foreigners often are really awkward with the situation, and will do their best to force the conversation into English, even when their English is much worse than your Mandarin.
Yes Paul, it’s true that some cultures are more receptive than others to outsiders. From my own experience, however, I would say that once you pierce through that initial barrier, those people that at first seemed the less receptive end up being some of the kindest and most open ones. One thing that can definitely make things harder is when the natives of a particular country insist on speaking English to you, even though you are making efforts to learn their language. But, as with other aspects of language learning, that’s part of the challenge and in the end that’s what makes it fun 🙂
Fascinating! Sociolinguistic variables on language acquisition.
I’m still wondering whether Korean really needs to be in the ‘hard’ category… I lived in Korea and has not done anything really to try and learn it. It was really easy to learn their alphabet in order to read where the bus was going etc. And some simple things I picked up very easily. I think if I would’ve done more to try and learn the language, it would actually have been quite easy…
I’m Afrikaans and I do agree that that’s the easiest language (and I’m not saying it because it’s my mother tongue)….
Hi Lize. I think that for people who haven’t studied Korean or have studied it only for a short period of time, it can appear as a fairly easy language. As stated in this article, Hangul (the written script) can be learned in a matter of hours or days.
However, as you progress you quickly find out that it really is indeed a challenging language. I think most people especially find the levels of speech and honorifics quite hard to master (in fact, it can at times even be confusing to native Koreans). The grammar is also very complicated, and the order of words, which is the complete reverse from most European languages, also adds a layer of difficulty.
If you have the chance, definitely get back to learning it. It’s a wonderful language and it really is worth the time invested into learning it!
Sam, Hangul can actually be learned in 15 minutes when each of them stands alone. But they can be pain in the ass too when put together into words/phrases. You may think you know how to read them but when you hear them spoken by native Koreans, you go, “What?! How could that sound like that? Shouldn’t that sound like this?”
Let’s take one simple example: 감사합니다. If you never listen to how it’s spoken, you may think it’s “gamsahabnida”, but the Koreans say it “kamsamnida” (where ㅎ is considered a weak consonant and ㅂ becomes M instead of B when meeting ㄴ).
Not to mention ㅂㅍㅃ, ㅈㅉㅊ, ㄷㄸㅌ, ㄱㅋㄲ, ㅅㅆ pairs which may sound the same to the untrained ears (I had hard time telling them apart when I first started studying Korean a few months ago, but it’s getting so much better now with a lot of listening and practice).
I’ve seen several times on variety shows that even some educated Koreans have trouble with dictation/transcription/spelling bee. Yes, this happens in other languages too including the “easy” English. But I’m saying this to ‘balance’ the popular belief that Hangul is super easy to learn. It is indeed less intimidating than Hanzi but still, some ‘adjustment’ is needed.
I agree that Korean is a wonderful language and worth the time invested into learning it despite some people being “allergic” to it because they hate K-Pop. 😛
Right! Don’t diss K-pop…or disregard phonotactics. ; )
Well balanced, from what I’ve read, although I’m not a specialist, nor a generalist!
“I lived in Korea and has not done anything really to try and learn it.”
I wonder how good your Korean is now. I don’t live in South/North Korea. But I watch a lot of videos in Korean (TV series, variety show, etc.) and listen to Korean songs or podcast in Korean. That way, I too can easily pick simple expressions like ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me’, ‘I love you’, ‘no’, ‘I hate that’. Anyone can do that! 🙂 Yet I doubt that without really studying Korean (the grammar, the vocabulary, etc.) one can formulate longer sentences than that in Korean. The language is very different from “Western” languages; even Polish and Russian are easier to start with since, at least, the syntax of these two languages is more “normal”.
“It was really easy to learn their alphabet in order to read where the bus was going etc.”
Good to hear that. At least you won’t get lost. 😀
I always think it is cool to learn new languages. I speak both English and Mandarin and can understand a tiny bit of Hokkien, but I still find it hard to learn Spanish, Japanese and Korean. I seems to have a memory block with new languages. I also agree Mandarin is a hard language even though it is my mother tongue. It’s all about intensive memorizing and practising. I speak Mandarin well, but when it comes to writing, I still rely on a dictionary. Fortunately, we type everything these days.
French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish easier to learn than German, what?
I found German vastly easier than any romance language. I just found it really intuitive; in some instances, English and German sound more like different dialects than different languages, e.g.
Hello, my name is Stadius and I am XX years old. I have brown hair and brown eyes
Hallo, mein name ist Stadius und ich bin XX jahre alt. Ich habe braun haare und braun augen.
“Hallo, mein Name ist Stadius und ich bin XX Jahre alt. Ich habe braune Haare und braune Augen.” Capital letters must be included.
Hi Stadius. As stated in the article, ultimately language difficulty is a very subjective notion. However, although I haven’t learned German myself, I have heard from many people that they found it harder than Romance languages to learn, partly because of the difficult pronunciation and complex grammar. Out of curiosity, how long have you studied French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and German for?
I think that Stadius has gone on sabbaticus. Too bad… He sounds like a great guy!
This sentence happens to be very similar in construction, but other examples illustrate the difficulty of the language better…
“Last week I went to the hairdresser because I wanted my hair cut”
“Letze Woche bin ich in den Friseurladen gegangen, weil ich die Haare schneiden lassen wollte”
Literally: “last week am I to the hairdresser gone, because I the hair cut allow wanted”
Hmm is haridresser not the person, who do the hair cutting, because that would be Friseur in German. Friseurladen is the store. I think anyway, saying you go to the Friseur sounds better.
To me French accent is harder than German by miles…probably easier on grammar but not a lot.
If you think German is so easy why would you have 6 mistakes in these two very simple sentences? You better check your post before you want to play the smart ass.
Did I upset you in some way?
He takes it all a bit too seriously. It’s small potatoes, in the grand scheme of things. Happy studying!
actually 7 :))
not the point…
He’s just beginning to study it, that’s all. Lower you shotgun a couple notches.
For you, whom are a native English speaker, so Germanic languages, for you, are rather easy to masterize. For me, otherwise, German is extremely hard, even if I’m now rather skilled in English. However, I’ve learnt French within one year – I started in July 2014, at the very beginner level, and, nowadays, one year later, I speak almost as equal as a native French – and Spanish in just six months, always reading, listening and speaking as much as possible. But, guess what? I’m a native Portuguese speakers, behold the reason for which I did well whilst learning new Latin languages. I believe the very same would happen with a natural Finnish speaker trying to learn Estonian or a natural Russian speaker trying to learn Bulgarian. Same roots, same origins, similar languages, similar easiness.
There you go. You’ve done some homework. Good for you!
German is 100 times more difficult than French. No comparison. The accent in French is harder but that’s it. German has a case system and an ever-changing word order that make it challenging to learn for anyone not native to that system. German has two-part verbs and more genders. More prepositions in use and a complicated system of adjective endings. There is no comparison.
Absolutely. Stadius will learn (or not) the complexities.
I think the grammar of the last sentence is incorrect, although it’s still easily understood…
I think the correct grammar might be “Ich habe braunes Haar und braune Augen”, although I’m not certain enough to be willing to swear on that…
‘Mandarin Chinese’ is definitely easier than Cantonese and traditional Chinese. Cantonese is harder because it uses more tones and traditional Chinese characters are, well, much harder than the simplified Mandarin Chinese!
I would only know this because I am Chinese and I speak Cantonese, and my friends and family’s native tongue is Cantonese too, but they can speak Mandarin Chinese as well.
If you can understand traditional Chinese, you can understand simplified but if you learn simplified, you won’t be able to understand simplified. To us, it’s like learning English in slang, instead of learning formal English first.
You’re right, most people say that Cantonese is harder than Mandarin Chinese, since Cantonese has more tones. Most of the rankings I have seen typically put all the Chinese dialects in the same basket, however (i.e. Category IV, or hardest to learn), but it might be nice to have a table with the various Chinese dialects listed by order of difficulty from a native English speaker’s perspective. Are you aware of any Chinese dialect that has more tones than Cantonese by any chance?
Taiwanese Hokkien has tough tone sandhi and nasals. A large tone inventory as well. Shanghai version of Wu is tonally hairy as well. Yet babies learn it easily!
Can’t say that I completely agree with this. My native tongue is Mandarin and my school taught simplified Chinese. But I can read traditional Chinese with no problem only that I don’t write traditional Chinese.
FYI, I grew up in Canton so I speak Cantonese too. But I don’t think that has anything to do with my ability to read traditional Chinese since simplified/traditional only refers to the writing system. So calling simplified Chinese “slang” is technically incorrect because besides the characters, all else being the same in traditional and simplified.
Regarding the question of tones, I googled it and here’s what I found: Wujiang dialect of Wu-Chinese with 10 – 12 tones. Ancient Chinese has different tones than modern one too. But imp I really think it depends on how you define tones because some tones are so subtle that we don’t usually consider them as different tones(in fact Mandarin has 5 tones, but the 5th one sounds very close to the 1st tone so usually people just ignore it).
Honestly, I grew up speaking Cantonese so that will always be easier to speak.However, writing wise, was only taught how to write mandarin (simplified) so I think mandarin is easier to write, and its more simple anyways.
I don’t quite get why people seem to equate Hanzi with English letters, they really aren’t the same thing. What is much closer is to equate Hanzi with words. Especially considering when you see words in English as an adult native speaker you tend to stop looking at the individual letters of a word and more at the shape of the word itself. So whether you’re learning Hanzi versus Words, there are still thousands to learn of each.
I also think people make too much of tones. It is not like you learn one word and they go, “Here are four different meanings of the word” But you learn four different words and each one has a different sound, that’s all. It’s also not 100% foreign to English. Obviously English is not a tonal language, but for example “Read this.” and “I read that.” have a similar feeling.
Help a straggler out. What’s Hanzi?
Two years ago? I don’t even remember what I was saying. Hanzi are the Chinese characters.
Kannada? Malayalam? Telugu? I get your point, ALL Dravidian languages. Yes, they are tough indeed, with each Dravidian language having its OWN UNIQUE script. And the agglutination. And the fact that the internet doesn’t really help with these languages.
Yeah. Tamil, moreover, has MUCH LESS Sanskrit IE-derived vocab than Mal, Kan, or Tel.
Asking the question: “Which language is the hardest to learn” is similar to asking the question: “which musical instrument is the hardest to learn?”
Learning a language is a skill. Same as playing an instrument. Every language has its own challenges and pitfalls that are totally separate from any other language. To me, becoming fluent in Chinese is no harder than becoming fluent in Spanish. Learning both systems takes time, effort, motivation, dedication, and above all PRACTICE. If you don’t SPEAK the language, you’ll never learn it. Just like if you don’t actually sit down and PLAY an instrument, you’ll never learn how to do that either.
I think some language teachers and software programs try to make the mistake of teaching all languages in the exact same way. This is impossible. It’s like using the exact same method to teach both Flute and Piano. You can’t.
Each language is its own system, and I personally think that it’s a mistake to grade languages on perceived difficulty.
Good point. However, in the same way that learning a language or learning how to play a music instrument is a skill that you develop, both also have easier and harder ”options” that you can choose from. For example, it is fair to say that learning to play the xylophone is easier than learning to play piano or the guitar, given the different complexity of these instruments.
While ultimately one may disagree about grading languages on perceived difficulty, it can be an exercise with practical implications as, for example, governments and company need to estimate the time that learning a particular language will take for their employees to become proficient in it. If foreign service officers were given 16 weeks to learn Spanish and no longer to learn Chinese or Korean, obviously they would not reach a similar level of proficiency given the inherent difficulties attached to learning Asian languages for native English speakers.
In the end, as you point out, it’s certainly a mistake to teach all languages in the exact same way. And I think part of the reason why people tend to grade languages in order of difficulty is to make languages learners aware of this fact and make them prepared to put more time and effort to reach a similar level of proficiency as they would for easier languages.
Hii guys im Meryem, and im Turkish girl so that i know Turkish and Kurdish in fact, i can speak and read Korean and English to, im learning Japanese and i want to learn Chinese and… i know some Spanish and Russian. Actually I don’t know why im writing this words but i think im in love with languages ajajaja it’s my twitter > meryemaydin1907
Any questions regarding Chinese, turn to me ~ and I’ve followed you
For me French feels more difficult than Japanese. I can’t even say I spend less time learning French, because I had it in school 5 years, and learnt nothing, but I think I attribute this to the teaching style of the teachers, which didn’t match with me. Because now learning it on my own, I don’t think anymore it is that difficult. My Japanese is still better than my French. And I really do practice French also daily, but yeah maybe not as intensive as I do Japanese. Because Japanese is more fun, alone the Kanji are so motivating, because I love learning them.
One time at school, my P.E. teacher wasn’t there, so I was sent to French class. The teacher spoke in fluent French, and I leaned over to my friend Oliver and asked,”You can understand this?” and he just said,”Yeah. It’s like English, but fancier.”
That’s right, some languages are harder to learn than others and saying so is not discouraging at all. It helps the student pace him/herself and plan their time accordingly.
Exactly! It’s all about managing expectations.
That’s an interesting post! Congratulations for your blog! I have been learning German by myself for a few months, my native language is Portuguese and learning English as a second language was very intuitive because I was living in the US and I read a lot so I don’t even say it was hard. It’s funny because while studying German I can only use English and not portuguese as my reference language because my native tongue is totally different from German. You are right, it depends on the learner and on another factors to determine the difficulty of a language! For me German grammar and the order of words in a sentence are much more complicated. But learning is always possible with hard work! Thanks for the great work in this website
Thanks for your kind comment, Amanda! Yes, I guess if you can speak Portuguese and English as well as you do, learning German would make more sense given that English, after, is a Germanic language, as opposed to Portuguese, a Romance language. In the end, what is perhaps one of the hardest thing in learning a language is keeping oneself motivated and never giving up. In this respect, no matter how “easy” or “hard” a language may appear, if you like learning it and you are truly passionate about it, your life will be made a lot easier.
You have the best attitude of all!
Chinese is my mother tongue, however I can comfirm it is difficult (I grew up in Australia, but I learned chinese). However, Japanese is more difficult. There are 3 scripts, which make it extremely difficult, even though kanji (the most difficult of the 3) is very similar to Chinese. French, its pretty easy. It fairly similar to English, and you don’t have to remember a lot compared to Japnes,where you’re required to remember the hiragana table, katagana and kanji.
Is your username supposed to have any relations to Hatsune Miku?
well hiragana and katakana takes a week to memorize. I believe the grammar is the hardest part
Have you forgotten the writing part? That’s obviously the most difficult.
They take JOHN Doe a week to memorize. JANE Doe’s mileage may vary. Over-generalisations are suspect. Ego sum.
You didn’t mention that two of the scripts (hiragana and katagana) are just syllablaries (something like alphabets, but syllables, instead). They are extremely easy to learn. I think you could memorize them in hours, certainly in a day)..
You don’t have there Slovak language. Or Czech language. 😀 These are the hardest. 🙂
Yes. Vowel quantity, plus canonical 1st-syllable stress. Difficult phonotactics (but less so than Polish), and at least with Czech, genuine diglossia vis-a-vis the colloquial register. Wow!
I’m a native English speaker, but I have lived in Portuguese-speaking countries for more than 14 years, so I really know what it means to speak a 2nd language to very high degree of fluency. Probably a good first-step for people is to use something like TV shows or movies as a level-markers, instead of the standard [B.S]: beginner, intermediate, advanced. I’ve seen people that have studied English for 6-7 years, but can’t understand a simple TV show or documentary. The language I’m currently learning is Hungarian. Native speakers say it’s the “hardest” language, but I don’t think so. It’s just different. In the end, we all say the same things, just using different words.
True, native Hungarian here, having lived in the UK for 5 years now (and came here with an IELTS 8), I still need subtitles for TV shows and movies, otherwise I miss third of the dialogue. Learning languages in a formal setting really doesn’t prepare one to understand it “in the wild”.
yep, and since I wrote that message, I’ve been to Hungary to do an intensive language course. I love Hungarian even more now! And I’m even more convinced the whole existing “establishment” of language studies (arbitrary levels especially) are complete BS in the real world.
Europeans go as far as considering someone a different “ethnic” group, even if they have the same DNA, but speak a different language. That should give you an idea how HARD really becoming fluent in a language really is. Languages are HUGE things.
Those of us that speak 2 very well think it’s a piece of cake and we can’t image why so many people make a fuss over language. It’s just that we’ve forgotten the years (probably decades) we’ve put into learning our 2nd language.
The parameters for natural human language seem to be very narrowly constrained, as far as we can yet ascertain.
What abou Czech republic? Or Slovakia?
One of the easiest languages to learn I reckon
Personally, I think Korean is quite an easy language, and I’m 14. All you really need to do is learn the alphabet, the consonants, your vowels and subject particles…simple. 그래?
So I’m guessing you are fluent in Korean then? From my experience, it’s been slightly more complicated than you portray it 🙂
Well, 14 is easier than 58…all else being equal.
I truly enjoyed reading your article! I would like to cite the DLI and FLI listing of foreign languages, could you please provide me the year of publication?
I am also learning 中文 it seems easier than English other than a few slight things… 1. Chinese is a tonal language and if you say something wrong you look quite stupid. 2. The symbols aren’t too much of a problem, except for the huge symbols that are so hard to write…
It is an amazing experience learning it and I’d want to talk like a native Chinese person… I want to learn Traditional Chinese, Korean, and then I make the small attempt to learn Japanese…
I learn chinese and I’m Polish, but I think chinese is not this difficult as you think. according to the link Polish is the hardest. In fact I think it is. I’ve been learning a lot of different languages and my mother tongue is still problematic for me. you ought to consider putting polish, Czech and Slovakian as the most difficult ones.
Polish may be harder than certain languages but I don’t think you can say Polish (or any other language) is the hardest unless you have learned all the languages in the world (about 6000-7000 of them). Also, the article you linked is subjective like many other “the hardest/the easiest languages in the world” posts.
I am Spanish and speak English and Chinese fluently. I am not a devoted student and prefer to absorb languages by immersion and passive exposure. My experience was that, while the similarities between Spanish and English made English easier to learn, the real problem when learning Chinese is that you can’t read it unless you spend a lot of time memorizing literally thousands of characters (which I didn’t do), and being a tonal language you have to re-train your brain quite drastically. Korean, on the other hand, is very different from English or Spanish and yet it relies on a completely phonetic writing system (it’s a bit like our ABCs but arranged in two dimensions), which makes it much easier to learn than Chinese. Korean is not a tonal language, too.
If you can speak Chinese well it’s quite a blast though, because not a lot of people can.
“If you can speak Chinese well it’s quite a blast though, because not a lot of people can.” I thought 960 million (according to Uncle Wiki) is already a lot.
I think he meant “not a lot of Westerners can speak Chinese”.
Ditto. Why axes to grind?
Haha. He was implicitly referring to L2 speakers.
I am very close to mastering Japanese. I’m learning Korean at the moment. These languages are not difficult. I drew a picture of a Korean Vocaloid, and she has Korean lettering around her.
How does this institution categorize these languages? I notice that Indonesian language is more difficulut than Portuguese language???. A big question mark. It’s not true. Indonesian language is the easiest one.
Bahasa Indonesia lo jago ya?
Well, how do you categorize difficulty, then? For a native speaker of a Romance/Germanic language, Portuguese would arguably be easier to learn than Indonesian because the former has many more similarities with Romance/Germanic languages. With Indonesian, while it’s true that the language is well known for its simplicity (and it uses Roman characters), you still have to start from a blank slate.
śmieszne to jak cholera ale…w Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie…pozdrawiam tych,którzy nauczyli się języka Polskiego i nie mówią oddaj fartucha…
Ouch! All I picked up was “odd farts”?
It’s them thare phonics at work agin.
Native speakers sometimes cannot be objective about their own language. Myself included. It’s not so ridiculous.
Don’t know… But… What about russian? Everywhere where i heard about russian it was considering as one of the most difficult. We have the test all around the world to check the knowledge of russian language.
If you have no mistakes, for you and some people who haven’t done any mistakes there is a special ceremony. I think it’s enough…
There are tons of rules. As for me, russian is hard aboutthe rules. I’m russian. And do you really think that to learn russian it’s enough 44weeks? Lmao
Lithuanian looks at least “not easy”, eh?
I can’t see Hungarian on the list which is a highly inflected language in which nouns can have up
to 238 possible forms. Just saying ……
Polish is one of the hardest languages in the world (in general, see statistics) and you cannot learn it in just 44 weeks but 3 years.
I think is Chinese
1. we ignore reading and writing and focus solely on listening and speaking, and
2. we assume that we would have no prior knowledge of another language, which is basically how children start to learn language(s),
Then we could argue that the hardest language is the one with most sound units to master, and the easiest, the one with the least.
In such case, !Xu language from South Africa, with its 141 sound units (97 more than British English on average) is a strong contender.
But we wouldn’t even be able to learn it anyway, because the adult ear has lost the capacity to ‘hear’ all the sound variations, due to repetition and focus on those to which it his exposed. In other words, our brain discards (at an early age) those frequency peaks that are not required to survive in our environment.
This explains why it’s more difficult for adults to pronounce foreign words, but also why close sound frequency peaks create sound mix ups between languages. For instance, Chinese speakers mix up the L and the R in English, French speakers mix up the R and the J in Spanish, and English speakers mix up the C and the CH in Gaelic.
Interesting post! One thing I think you’ve left out is the fact that less commonly spoken languages can be very difficult to learn because of the lack of learning resources. I learned Vietnamese to a minimally-acceptable level while I lived there but it was very challenging, as there are really only a couple of text books, very few audio recordings to practice listening, and one or two decent dictionaries. I was lucky because I could practice with tutors, but living outside the country would make it even more difficult. Now I’ve moved on to learning Burmese (from outside the country this time) and it’s even more difficult – once you’ve finished the one good audio course and the one good textbook course then you’re basically on your own. The only other materials available online date from the 1800s! So even though the grammar, written language, and vocabulary are relatively simple, I’d wager that Vietnamese and Burmese would be more difficult than Japanese because there’s such a huge gap between the introductory materials and the ungraded readers and news reports – at least you can go to Japanese classes in most places!
I’ve read as much posted elsewhere by specialists. Je suis d’accord!
Icelandic is very hard to learn.
Even if you’re Icelandic you can still have a really hard time learning it preferably the grammar.
But it’s a very beautiful language and definitely worth learning.
Yes, I’ve heard that Icelandic is indeed a very challenging language to learn. Are you from Iceland yourself?
emm… Where is Armenian?
Good question! I guess due to a lack of space, unfortunately not all languages could make their way into the graph.
where’s Malay? suppose it’s the easiest language in the world. Much easier than Indonesian and Tagalog 🙂
How is Malay significantly easier than Bahasa Indonesia? I thought the two languages were strikingly similar.
That reminds me of another question: what is the ugliest, most irritating language in the world. I used to say Chinsee of the Cantonese variety, but when I heard Tagalog (Philippines), I found a worse one. It’s interesting because they are built completely differently.
Not true. Really Arabic or Japanese are simple. Only you need to manage those strange looking characters. I mean simple according to Polish, Finnish or Hungarian grammar and pronunciation. Chinese language does not exist…
I take it that you speak Arabic and Japanese fluently, Aaron?
Learning Korean now. Writing was a piece of cake, but speaking, while hard, isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I think it’s because I speak French fluently and Russian decently, and I’ve found little tricks in Korean that seem to help me. For example, Korean sentence structure is often very similar to Russian. Studying Italian for a semester helps me with the fact that pronoun + verb is one big word in Korean. Little stuff like that. Just pay attention to patterns, I guess.
How exactly does that construction work in Italian? The imperative, as in “Vacci”?
I speak urdu and i know arabic language coz i read quran daily
I really agree with what this article says about the different aspects of languages being harder. I found Spanish was super easy for me to get into the basics of. The pronunciation and vocabulary was super accessible to me. But I find that the grammar of more complex constructions becomes staggeringly complex and unintuitive for me. German, by contrast, I found I needed to work harder to get the basics of word order, cases / endings, but once I had gotten through that, mastering the “harder” aspects like subjunctive, all the different tenses, constructing complex sentences with multiple verbs and subordinate clauses, was much easier for me in German.
I also have studied a little bit of Mandarin Chinese. I found that for me, the tones were easy to learn but what really tripped me up was hearing (and pronouncing) the different consonant sounds. It was hard for me to even hear the distinctions between certain sounds, a lot of them initially sounded like gibberish to me, and my brain started out trying to force them into familiar sounds. Once I had gotten to the point of being comfortable with basic pronunciation though, progressing farther seemed much easier and more accessible.
I’m currently trying to learn Russian and it seems all-around hard on all counts. I’m struggling with the phonetics, there are a lot of sounds that are distinguished in Russian that aren’t, or just don’t exist, in other languages I know. But there are also cases and three genders like in German, and beyond that, the basic structure of the language is radically different from any of the Western European languages, things like how the verb “to be” will be omitted, or how instead of saying “I have this thing.” you basically say something like “There is this thing at me.” It’s super challenging but at the same time I feel like it’s broadening my mind and is going to make learning other new and unfamiliar languages a lot easier. After starting Russian I then went back and tried to learn some Portuguese and I’m like, wow this is super easy, even the pronunciation!
Ironically, Portuguese has a number of sounds which are used in Slavic, particularly Polish, and from your anecdote, apparently Russian as well.
My native language is Russian and the easiest language for me was not English. Instead, it was Spanish. The reason for that is simple. It’s because before learning Spanish I’ve already spoke Italian and French. That’s why I started to speak Spanish from the first days of learning.
The hardest language was German. And I think it’s because German has nothing to do both with Romance languages and with my native Russian. English was barely helpful, because I don’t have a huge vocabulary.
So, from my experience, the difficulty of a language depends on how it’s close to your native language or the ones you’ve learned before. But as you’ve mentioned there’s a whole lot of other factors which make it complex or simple.
Great infographics, by the way!
According to it, I speak 5 easy languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and English (I think it’s an easy one); 2 medium difficult languages – Russian and German (I think German is in this category); and no hard one yet.
From this graph, I would like to learn 3 easy languages – Rumanian, Dutch and Afrikaans; among the second category 6 languages – Greek, Hindi, Turkish, Polish, Hebrew and Finnish; and all of the hardest languages giving here, but mostly Chinese and Arabic. There’s still a long way to go! haha
What? Korean one of the hardest? Written Korean relies on many Chinese characters??? You got to be joking me! Written Korean is one of the EASIEST languages in the world since it’s completely phonetic. If you look up bandwidth of languages you’ll see written Korean rank very high. It’s very efficient and easy to learn. Are you mixing it up with Japanese? Japanese uses many written Chinese characters (Kanji).
Really? Polish should be next to the hardest languages. Try to pronounce the word correctly: “chrząszcz”, “trzcina”, “wyindualizowany” or “żółć”…
Polish has, objectively, some of the most complex phonotactics and sounds in general. You bet.
Every country I’ve been in has deemed their language “the hardest language in the world.” Every single one.
Really? Wow. Even Mexico?
It is quite subjective to say which is the most difficult language(s) to learn in the world. But I do agree that Chinese language(s) are the most difficult to learn languages and master in the world. For Chinese speakers like us, we would find learning Japanese, Korean much easier. A Mandarin speaker would find learning Hokkien/Cantonese easier. But to Caucasian (particular European or English language speaker), Chinese would be very difficult. “Chinese” is actually a variety of languages including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew etc. Mandarin is actually the easiest Chinese language amongst all Chinese languages. The difficulty for foreigner lies with its tone system and elaborate writing (characters). Mandarin has 4 tones, but Cantonese / Hokkien are even more difficult. Cantonese has 9 tones while Hokkien has 7 tones. Plus tones, you have tone change (tone sandhi) rules associated with every word…Hokkien for instance is almost out of reach for non-native speakers, but there are Caucasians speaking Hokkien pretty well. Not to mention, Caucasians speaking fluent Mandarin speakers is pretty quite common in Asia nowadays.
As alluded to elsewhere on the thread, Taiwanese Hokkien also mixes in some devilishly difficult nasal sounds!
Don’t disregard Mongolian. See wiki article. Whew! Way hard. Idiosyncratic phonology and grammar, with a marked vowel harmony unlike other vowel harmonies, converbs, all kinds of stuff. Don’t forget “Fluid-S”-type languages such as Chechen, moving freely in alignment between “ergative-absolutive” and “nominative-accusative” morphosyntax.
What about the German language?
Where does that place?
Spotted a very basic mistake of Japanese sentence in your infographic.
Anyway, you, without noticing, proved how hard to understand Japanese
language would be 🙂 FYI, “話す日本語？” at the left top needs to be
“日本語を話しますか？” or something. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4b43461f8562252dd7194f2a6bbe3836843fd125e18ae7e10e922ada2a88b470.jpg
No, the hardest one is Cantonese chinese
I think Malayalam is also a quite difficult language to learn. Some say it is harder than Hindi. Pls do look into Malayalam also. Thank you.
hi mods, very very nice article. i am planning to learn japanese some time in the future,
i have red several articles on how difficult it is. i love the japanese animations sadly most of their works are not translated. im a native tagalog speaker, luckily.. if your born in philippines
it is almost guaranteed you will learn at least 2 or 3 language without putting much effort.
(english, tagalog, and other dialects). im aiming for my third language
by the way… on the easy medium and hard infographic… which do you think tagalog belongs.?
you guys dont know about malayalam language its the toughest language in the world. you cant learn even your trying almost 4 years. I challenge you.
My native languages are Russian and Ukrainian, I learned English, German, Polish, and Norwegian. I really think German should be on the Category I list. Maybe case endings are a bit difficult to learn but once you’ve memorised them, there shouldn’t be any problems. Same goes for the adjective endings: once you’ve understood the system of their change, there’s nothing difficult about them either.
With Polish, I can’t really judge how hard it is to others since Ukrainian has much in common with it, so the hardest thing for me to learn there was the pronunciation of nasal vocals. Norwegian was not hard and fun to learn. As for English, well, the different tenses are still my biggest problem after years of learning at school and the uni. An English native speaker doesn’t understand why we need so many cases — I don’t understand why they need so many tenses 😀
Polish is very difficult to master. The consonant clusters are especially frustrating, and even once you’ve learned one, using it properly in a given word is another matter.
Wow, Hungarian is not even on the list 😮 It’s one of the hardest language on the planet.
Norwegian is NOT an easy language. Good luck learning 400 – 1000 different dialects.
Extra to add to Japanese. It involves mind reading because very little may be said but you just “know” what is mean from context, also the politeness rules give you a headache and particles are need but are difficult to learn. Also one text isn’t just used in a sentence the 3 are randomly dotted around. Btw I’ve only been learning for 2 weeks.