Every language has its challenges for those learning to speak it. There’s German with its three genders, English with its creatively irregular spelling, and Polish with numbers that change depending on what you’re counting. Or how about the extinct Ubykh with 78 consonant sounds, or African !Xóõ with over 20 clicking noises that cause speakers to develop a lump on their larynx?
So which languages are hardest for an English speaker to learn? There’s not much in the way of research, but one bunch of guys who should know something about it have ranked languages on difficulty. The Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, a diplomat training facility, ranked languages based on the number of classroom hours it typically took their students to gain proficiency.
We’ve picked the three most widely spoken languages from the FSI’s hardest category (requiring a whopping 2200 classroom hours to become proficient – that’s nearly 92 solid days) and investigated what makes them such humdingers. But don’t be too hasty in crossing these off your language bucket list – there are some good reasons why you should sign up for classes in one of these bad boys. Read on to find out why.
Arabic is so different from European languages that it actually wires the brain differently. Written right to left in and unfamiliar alphabet with sounds that don’t exist in English and numerous dialects, it’s a daunting prospect.
Did you know…
- Arabic is harder for the brain to understand; the brain only uses the left hemisphere to read it instead of both hemispheres like other languages. The right hemisphere isn’t too hot on noticing details like the dots in Arabic script, and that’s a problem for English-speakers reading Arabic.
- Written Arabic doesn’t have any vowels. Y’r sppsd t fll thm n yrslf, whch s nt vry dffclt whn y knw a lngge (we can do it in English because the brain fills in the gaps) but much harder when you’re learning a new alphabet and vocabulary at the same time.
- Arabic has both formal and informal pronunciation rules, so how you say something depends on who you’re talking to and how many of them there are.
2. Chinese languages
Chinese languages like Mandarin and Cantonese notoriously difficult to learn because they’re so different to English. For a start, there’s no alphabet. English is written with 26 letters, but you’d need to learn around 2,000 Chinese characters just to be able to read a newspaper. And combining characters to form new words is pretty alien if you’re used to an alphabetic writing system. The character ren, 人 means person. Add another ren and you get a new character, 从, meaning to follow a person. Three ren 人 make 众, which means a crowd.
Did you know…
- Your brain is hardwired to find Chinese difficult – studies suggest that different languages develop the brain differently in childhood. The brains of English speakers react differently to spoken language than those of Mandarin speakers.
- Chinese schools hold dictionary look-up contests – with no alphabet, finding a word in an index can be a nightmare.
- Try to speak with feeling in Chinese and you may be met with confusion. Chinese has four tones that change the meaning of a syllable. So using an English questioning tone (raised at the end) or angry tone (falling at the end) will change the meaning of what you’re saying to a Chinese listener.
Spoken Japanese has fewer sounds than English and its grammar follows more regular rules. But it’s still considered one of the hardest languages to learn. For a start, it’s agglutinative, joining small grammatical units called morphemes to form words. We use some agglutination in English (like the suffixes ‘less’ and ‘ness’ in the word care-less-ness), but Japanese’s agglutination is much more extreme. But the real nightmares start with written Japanese.
Did you know…
- Written Japanese is fiendishly complicated, combining five different writing systems, kanji, hiragana, katakana and Roman.
- Even Japanese people have trouble with their written word – a couple of years out of school and a typical Japanese person will have forgotten a third of the graphs they knew.
- One study found that 90% of the content in Japanese magazines uses a pool of 10,000 words, whereas English only uses 3,000.
Why choose to learn a ‘hard’ language?
So why are we recommending learning these languages? For a start, all three are becoming increasingly important globally. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world and China is predicted to make the world’s largest contribution to global GDP by 2018. Arabic is an official languages of the UN, and Japan has a crucial trading relationship with Western countries.
But the benefits go beyond this. Learning a language is good for the brain, and there’s evidence that the harder the language, the better the brain workout. Bilingual people outperform monolingual people in spatial working memory tasks, have stronger brain monitoring function and a higher density of grey matter. They also have better attention spans and concentration. And because different languages cause the brain to develop differently, some, like Mandarin, use parts of the brain that English doesn’t use.
How italki can help
The good news is that italki can help you crack these challenging languages through one-to-one lessons that immerse you in a language in a way no textbook can. The most effective way to learn a new language is to use it, and we’ve got the people you can talk to in your chosen language whenever you like. It’s simple to find a native speaker and book online lessons at a time to suit you. Our professional teachers, community tutors and language partners are all the support you need to unlock your own potential.
- Business Insider: The Hardest Languages to Learn
- Infographic: The Hardest Languages to Learn
- Some obscure and very difficult languages!
- How long will it take to become proficient in a language?