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Japanese, Finnish or Chinese? The 10 Hardest Languages for English Speakers to Learn

Learning a new language is never an easy thing to do, but there are ways to make it easier. There are also ways to make it more difficult. Aiming to learn French or Spanish comes with its own set of difficulties, but most of the learning is in new vocabulary and grammar. If you’re going to go through that boring stuff, you may as well go all-in and master a more difficult language — different alphabets, characters, writing styles and new sounds will push you to the limit.

Top 10 Hardest Languages For Translators to Learn

Without further ado, these are our top ten hardest (but most rewarding) languages to learn.

1. Mandarin

Mandarin is a language within the Chinese language group and is actually the most spoken language in the world. For an English speaker, however, mastering Mandarin is a tall order. Thanks to it being a tonal language, every sound in Mandarin’s phonetic transcription system pinyin has four distinct pronunciations. Add that to the fact that Chinese is a language rich in homophones and full of idioms and aphorisms picked up over the course of its long history, and Mandarin becomes arguably the most difficult language in the world for an English speaker to learn.

2. Arabic

In Arabic, most letters are written in 4 different forms depending on where they’re placed in a word, and to complicate things, vowels are not included when writing. This makes translation a much more difficult task in Arabic than most other languages. On top of this, Arabic has many different dialects, meaning that the Arabic spoken in Egypt is different from that spoken in Saudi Arabia.

This image shows the different dialects of Arabic spoken in northern Africa and the western Middle East

3. Japanese

What makes Japanese more difficult than your average character-based writing system is that thousands of characters have to be learned before being able to write in Japanese to any great extent: Japanese has three independent writing systemshiragana, katakana, and kanji which each have a different alphabet. On the plus side, it is somewhat easier to speak than Mandarin. Little wins.

4. Hungarian

Making the list with 26 cases, Hungarian has some of the most difficult grammar rules you’ll come across. In Hungarian, suffixes dictate tense and possession instead of the word order, which is how most European languages tackle the problem. Moreover, subtle cultural elements within Hungarian make it uniquely difficult to learn.

5. Korean 

As the most spoken language isolate — a language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship to other languages —  Korean is an especially unique language. For instance, when describing an action in Korean, the subject goes first, then the object, and finally the sentence ends with the action. Practically this means saying “나는 물을 마실” is directly translated as “I water drink” as opposed to the English “I drink water.”

Translation of a funny meme from a Korean middle school student's English class

Supposedly developed by a middle school student of English in Korea (click image for link to reddit thread), this meme is genius.

6. Finnish

Like Hungarian, Finnish takes complicating grammar to new extremes. While the lettering and pronunciation are similar to English, the grammar more than makes up for any similarities elsewhere.

Let’s take the Finnish equivalent of the English sentence “I like you” as an example. The English is simple because you place one word after the other, with no alterations to the root nouns or verbs. In Finnish the translation is  “Minä pidän sinusta.” Yet, to properly translate this sentence into Finnish, you need to first understand:

  1. How a Finnish verb is conjugated (the personal endings)
  2. pitää is a verb affected by consonant gradation; thus you must know about the t-d alternation
  3. pitää requires the noun in the elative case; thus you must know about the case system and how the pronouns are declined

Finally — and here’s the catch! — this isn’t even how modern Finns express this emotion. They’d more likely say something like Mä tykkään susta, a more colloquial form of the expression. So even you knew how to translate into Finnish, you’d still be wrong.

This guy is pretty exasperated by his inability to speak Finnish

Wanna try learning Finnish? Be prepared for a lot of this.

7. Basque

Like Korean, Basque is a language isolate. While it has borrowed vocabulary from the romance languages, the way it’s written and spoken is distinct from any other language. This even extends to differences between the several versions of Basque that still exist. Despite being spoken by less than 700,000 people, there are at least five distinct Basque dialects, so not only is it tough to learn, but you need to pay attention to which version you’d like to learn as well.

8. Navajo

Navajo is a verb-centered language where descriptions are given through verbs, and most English adjectives have no direct translation into Navajo. There are a number of sounds in Navajo that have no equivalent to an English speaker, which makes pronunciation especially difficult.

9. Icelandic 

Icelandic is far from the most difficult language on this list. It is however extremely complicated, and while not a language isolate, the fact that it is spoken by less than 400,000 people on one island has certainly left it with its own oddities. The language is largely unchanged since Iceland was settled in the ninth and tenth centuries, and rather than adopting foreign words for new concepts, Icelandic instead opts to coin new words of give new meaning to old words. All of this makes learning it a challenge, as becoming anywhere close to fluent you need to be in Iceland and make use of the resources there versus learning remotely.

A hot plate of pierogies, made easier if you decide to learn Polish.

One benefit of learning Polish is that you can order pierogis, which ostensibly means you can eat pierogis for every meal, every day. The good life!

10. Polish

Bringing up the rear with a familiar alphabet and a tame 7 cases is Polish. While by no stretch an easy language to learn it is a little less mind-boggling than those above, though you still have an extremely complicated gender system to contend with.

What groups all of these languages together is their relative lack of connection to the English language. Mastering any one of them puts you into an exclusive community, and few things are quite as rewarding as being able to translate between two vastly different languages and cultures. Taking on the extra challenge of languages like these certainly puts you in a perfect position to become a translator in a less competitive (and more sought-after, higher-paid) language pair.

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36 Comments
  • Stephen O.
    October 16, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Both Irish gaelic and Danish are pronounced totally different than they are spelled. This produces difficulty and confusion in learning them.

  • Gemma S
    October 17, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    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.

    • Patty
      February 4, 2016 at 11:46 am

      “especially” instead of “preferably”

  • Farqad
    October 22, 2015 at 12:10 am

    Language is a means of communication. If we presume that one language is more difficult than another, this will logically lead us to presume that some languages express ideas better than other languages, and this is untrue because a person’s ability to express ideas doesn’t depend on the language system, but it depends on the ability to combine words differently. So, all languages are coordinate and one language becomes easier or harder according to the degree of its similarity with a person’s native language.

  • Farqad
    October 22, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    There is a piece of information which will shock the whole world. It is this; if Arabic letters had not been dotted, no one single nob-Arab person would have been able to master Arabic all over the world. The great Arab grammarian, Abul-Aswad Al-Doeli (603-688) is the person put dots on letters and taught all people to read dotted letters to make Arabic much easier to learn for non-Arab people.

    • Waad
      March 26, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      After reading this, I wrote a few words without dots and asked my younger suster to read them. She DID read them but after a moment of thinking deeply about the sentence. So I believe what you’re saying is true lol

  • Farqad
    October 22, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    There is a piece of information which will shock the whole world. It is this; if Arabic letters had not been dotted, no one single non-Arab person would have been able to master Arabic all over the world because it is impossible for non-Arab people to understand the meaning of words in this case since so many words will take the possibility of three or more meanings in speech. For example, you will not know if this two-letter Arabic word “حر” means “hotness” or “dragged” or “thrust” or “dropped” or “sheared” unless you understand the meaning of the context and this is highly difficult. You see that حر is hotness, جر is dragged, خز is thrust, خر is dropped, and جز is sheared. Then, how is the case with other thousands of words other than this. Abul-Aswad Al-Doeli, who was a great Arab grammarian, was the first person who put dots on Arabic letters to make Arabic less difficult and more understandable for non-Arab learners.

    • bj
      March 6, 2016 at 1:23 pm

      Who knows what the original Quran must have been eh? Literally billions of billions of possibilities….

  • Pippa P
    November 5, 2015 at 5:42 am

    English can be difficult too with fewer and fewer people knowing the difference between less and fewer!!!!

  • Caner
    December 22, 2015 at 8:46 am

    actually Korean is Ural Altaic and i can clearly see it from the structure of sentence, which is same with Turkish, another Ural Altaic language.. i water drank….. i Star Wars saw..

  • John
    January 7, 2016 at 1:58 am

    Expression is what language is really about. English is a great modern language for its structure is very logical however it has its drawbacks. While good for communicating business, it’s not so good for expressing emotion; where it lacks people (try to) make up for it by being overly-polite or using a not so commonly used word (of which there are many) or playing with word use to express some feeling about something as an idiom. For a modern language the English dictionary has gotten a little, well, large (see what I did there). This I feel is what really makes other languages difficult to learn for native English speakers. Imagine not being used to being humanly expressive (without others thinking you not taken your medication) and then using a language that permits oneself to be. It can be daunting.
    For this reason I feel it is essential that native English speakers learn a second language at a young age.
    I do hope for a world that speaks one language however I do not believe English is the most appropriate global language and probably neither any other Latin derived language. It concerns me that a lot of other languages are being lost due to the popularity of English which would be such a pity.
    JK

  • Matt
    January 11, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    Mandarin is not the most difficult dialect in the Chinese language; Cantonese will be harder to learn. Mandarin is arguably the simplest dialect among the Chinese languages.
    Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese has nine.
    If you read Chinese words in Mandarin they make sense and sounds natural.
    But if you read written Chinese in Cantonese it still makes sense, but sounds extremely awkward and unnatural. No one in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the dominate language, will speak in such a formal way (unless they’re being sarcastic….)
    There is a whole set of Cantonese written words (both conjunctives, adjectives, adverbs, and nouns etc.) that differ significantly from Mandarin such that non-Cantonese speakers have difficulty in understanding the meaning (e.g. 生果 is Cantonese, a lot of Mainlanders that have not been exposed to Cantonese have difficulty in pronunciation and meaning. 生果 = fruit, fruit =水果 is Mandarin).

    Cantonese is under constant shift in Hong Kong. Thanks to HK’s recent past history (handover of 1997) there is a mixture of English phrases in HK Cantonese. Furthering the political and culturally climate between HK and Mainland China, new political words are in frequent generation and regeneration (ask your local Cantonese speaker).
    Lastly, I am a native HK Cantonese speaker, yet I still have some difficulty understanding some of the colloquial phrases teenagers use (e.g. 起晒青, which means extremely/scared; deriving from the compound 面青, which derives from the five letter simile ‘面青口唇白’. The phrase itself is a particular modern example of the favoritism towards idioms and similes in the Chinese language making harder to grasp the meaning.) Which may just be a testimony to my ignorance… idk, just sayin’ Canto is changing constantly.

    Disclaimer: This is not to say Cantonese is the hardest dialect. Just to illustrate Mandarin is the most common spoken dialect in China, not the hardest. Other dialects like Hakka, Shang-hainese may be equally hard or harder. idk about these…

  • Matt
    January 11, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    This part got deleted… idk why

    Cantonese is under constant shift in Hong Kong. Thanks to HK’s recent past history (handover of 1997) there is a mixture of English phrases in HK Cantonese. Furthering the political and culturally climate between HK and Mainland China, new political words are in frequent generation and regeneration (ask your local Cantonese speaker).

  • Pingback: How to Hack a Foreign Language | My Daily Learnings
    January 12, 2016 at 12:39 am
  • anna
    January 16, 2016 at 3:44 am

    Korean letters and Japanese kanji all come from China.. Maybe that’s why they are hard.

    • Johnny
      January 24, 2016 at 4:31 am

      You are very correct. They all derived from China.

    • Bob
      March 22, 2016 at 4:29 pm

      Korean letters specifically come from Korea, although much of its vocabulary has roots from China. The Korean alphabet was created by King Sejong the Great as an alternative to Chinese characters.

      In fact, Korea’s alphabet is considered by many linguists to be the easiest alphabet to learn and one of the world’s best crafted. It takes a matter of hours for any person to be reading and writing with few errors, compared to the years of memorization that Chinese characters need.

      If you take a few hours out of your day to watch some youtube videos, you can learn it too. You won’t know what the words mean, but you can read and pronounce what’s being spoken.

      There’s no way that you go that fast in Chinese or kanji.

  • Nereida
    April 14, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    beign hispanic and knowing three language. english, spanish, and french. it’s very difficult knowing one language and then french alot of words are spelled the same prononuced different can have the same meanings or even completely different. alot of french and spanish words have double meanings so be careful

  • Kerwin
    May 7, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    I would definitely say Mandarin would not be that hard when compared to Cantonese.
    Using the traditional Chinese letter, Cantonese has different way to communicate between oral and writing. Mandarin has only 4 tones while Cantonese has 9 tones with only one pronunciation. The idioms are way more than Mandarin and lots of people using it. Mandarin is just the most common dialect in China. Why? It is because it is comparatively easy.

  • Roman Soiko
    May 8, 2016 at 7:22 am

    I actually speak Chinese and Arabic and they are not that difficult

    Chinese grammar is very simple no masculine feminine singular or plural no declentions

    Arabic grammar is more complex as it has 13 verb forms (But a so called easy language Spanish French and Portuguese have 15 and 17 verb conjugations) the Arabic alphabet is very easy to master It’s not as easy as Korean but it is still relatively easy

    also Arabic verb forms are formed by the concept of 3 letter roots pretty intuitive to master

  • Me
    May 11, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    I can speak french well and i would strongly recommend to any one to learn another language while you are still young. You will be glad later on in life as things will have more meaning. Also it is said that it can stop dementia at old age – (its worth it then!). Furthermore, i have found since learning french that it has widened my understanding of the English language greatly as they both are derivatives of Latin. Its also just fun to suddenly start talking in another language in front of friends or native speakers of the language. it can be impressive and they will appreciate it. Start learning now! i would recommend you start learning a language that has a similar structure to your own. if you find it easy and you want a challenge, then i say learn a language with a more complicated structure or alphabet e.g Korean etc. There are helpful courses online.

    • Koreano
      July 3, 2016 at 3:16 am

      Korean alphabet’s one of the easiest to learn.

  • Abenaa
    June 2, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    I feel like the Celtic languages should be on here, Irish n Scottish Gaelic, along with many African
    ones, like Dan, Pulaar, Serer, Jho Luo and Xhosa just to name a few. and what about Nahautl ( Aztec) along with dialects of Maya and other Native American languages. These are just 10 of the most commonly known.

  • Inferno
    June 3, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Actually Korean is not hard. It’s one of the EASIEST languages I’d say. Don’t try to argue with me if you didn’t even learn Korean. It seems hard but it’s not. Some languages like Czech are MUUUUUCH harder than korean.

    • hmd
      July 30, 2016 at 2:16 am

      how do you learn korean?

      couse i’d like to learn it

  • Herburt
    June 25, 2016 at 2:29 am

    You should be putting CANTONESE, instead of Mandarin for the hardest language to learn.

  • Magyar Vagyok
    June 25, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    You might want to re-check that Korean phrase that you copy-pasted, because it is not finished grammatically. Instead of 나는 물을 마실 (ㄹ indicates future tense so): 나는 물을 마실 겁니다. (I will drink water.) According to your translation it should be 나는 물을 마십니다. (I am drinking water).
    Btw Japanese is S-O-V language too.

  • max
    June 29, 2016 at 8:12 am

    i am actually trying to learn korean and it’s pretty a difficult language , after all it’s a language that’s unique , but i will try my best .

  • Koreano
    July 3, 2016 at 3:15 am

    It’s not impossible to learn chinese, but it’s impossible how to WRITE chinese perfectly. There are millions and millions of chinese characters and it’s impossible to learn all of them
    To add, learning korean is really easy when you just understand the grammar. and in korean’s case, unlike englsih, you don’t have to memorise words. You make a word and add a word, that will be a word. it’s easy.

  • Josh
    July 4, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    I read your posting and your posting is excellent. But I found a mistake about Korean. You wrote 나는 물을 마실, however, 마실 is wrong expression. It can be 마실래, 마실거야, 마실게요, 마실래요 and so on. Actually, 마실래 or 마실거야 usually used to friends. Also Korean use to 마실래요 and 마실게요 to their elder people.

  • Antony
    July 6, 2016 at 10:25 am

    Heard of malayalam? Spoken in South Indian state Kerala… Mandarin Is a piece of cake after that

    • Jithu Nair
      July 19, 2016 at 4:58 pm

      Yup,Malayalam is one of the hardest languages to learn in the world.I think they didn’t consider Indian languages at all.

      • Daniel
        July 22, 2016 at 11:45 pm

        Lived in southern india for one year and barely started grasping Malayalam. Tamil also is extremely difficult..These are the Dravidian Languages and Chinese, which I speak, is far easier. Any list of most difficult languages should begin and end with these Southern Indian Languages.

        Burmese and Thai…very difficult!!

  • Qczy
    July 15, 2016 at 12:52 pm

    Język polski wcale nie jest taki trudny 🙂