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.
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.
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.
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 systems —hiragana, katakana, and kanji — which each have a different alphabet. On the plus side, it is somewhat easier to speak than Mandarin. Little wins.
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.
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.”
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:
- How a Finnish verb is conjugated (the personal endings)
- pitää is a verb affected by consonant gradation; thus you must know about the t-d alternation
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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