One question that has been sent in to us more than a few times is, “What is the hardest language to learn?” After some extensive research on the topic, we discovered that the answer is quite complicated. The complications occur because the answer is largely subjective (opinion), and it also depends on what a person’s native language is.
The answer for one individual may be completely different for another. This is true even among speakers of the same native language. One English speaking individual may pick up Korean relatively quickly while that same person may have trouble grasping Japanese. Yet another native English speaker may have no trouble picking up Japanese but find it nearly impossible to learn Korean.
However, despite the subjectiveness of the answer, there are a few objective things we can look at and analyze. We can also look at the length of time it takes people on average to pick up a language.
Your Native Language
While no language is simple to learn, those that are closely related to your native language are going to be easier to learn than those that are not. For example, an English speaking person will have less trouble (on average) picking up languages that are Germanic in origin (Norwegian, Dutch, Swedish, German) than those that are not. Languages that are closely related have similar writing systems, overlapping vocabulary and loan words. This lowers the difficulty and time it takes to gain fluency.
Languages like Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese utilize a completely different writing system which adds a layer of difficulty for native English speakers. While learning a new, exotic writing system can add to the challenge, it does not necessarily make a language more difficult. Grammar and sentence structure often play the largest role in perceived difficulty.
Adding another layer of complexity is culture. One of the best techniques a person can use to speed up their language acquisition is cultural immersion. Many students working hard to learn a language will immerse themselves in the culture of the language. This involves listening to music, watching movies, TV shows, listening to radio programs, even browsing websites in the foreign language. By immersing yourself in the culture, you can speed up the time it takes to pick up a language considerably. It’s one of the first things language teachers recommend to new students.
The complexity arises when the culture of the language is alien to language students. For example, Norwegian, German or Dutch culture would be much more familiar to a native English speaker than Arabic, Korean or Hindi. If a person is having a lot of difficulty understanding the culture of the language they’re trying to learn, there will be a higher chance of culture shock which can turn a person off entirely.
The Most Difficult Language
Using the few objective factors at their disposal, the consensus among experts is that there are 5 languages in contention for the title of “most difficult”. Those languages are Korean, Cantonese, Japanese, Arabic and Mandarin. While they require roughly the same length of time to gain fluency and comprehension, one language just slightly edges out the other four. According to the NVTC and the Foreign Service Institute, Japanese is, on average, arguably the hardest language for an English speaker to learn. It takes students studying Japanese an extra week or two longer than the students of the other four and currently reigns supreme as most difficult.
We would like to again stress that this is just for native English speakers and is only an average of difficulty. The difficulty can and will vary on an individual basis, even among native English speakers. One individual may have a hard time picking up Mandarin while another has trouble with Korean.
Since it’s impossible to say which language is going to be the “most difficult” for you on an individual basis, we’ve provided a handy infographic below that will give you a general idea of difficulty levels among the most common languages. You will note that while it takes around 88 weeks (2200 class hours) to gain fluency in a language like Arabic or Mandarin, it only takes 23 weeks (575 class hours) to gain fluency in French, Italian or Spanish. Again, this is due to those languages being more closely related to English.
The statistics and rankings included in the infographic below were taken from data released by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State. Please keep in mind that these estimates are only intended for native English speakers.
Photo credit and Infographic source