Mastering a foreign language can be a challenging task, with the intricacies of grammar, pronunciation, and words, and not many chances to communicate with native speakers. Despite the obstacles, the benefits of learning a new language are immense, providing learners with new opportunities and possibilities.
As the world becomes ever more globalized and English is used as a common language, it’s often enough to be proficient in it. Nevertheless, with accelerated globalization and companies growing into foreign markets, learning a new language can be of great benefit in breaking down language obstacles and unlocking success.
It’s predicted that by the year 2050, 13 of the top 20 economies in the world will be located in Asia and Africa, where English isn’t necessarily the primary language spoken. In response to this change in the global economic situation, many businesses from the West have started to send their operations to these continents.
Methodology and Insights
We looked at multiple sources – including the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, Yahoo, CEOWORLD magazine, Cudoo, Mango Languages, and Tomedes – to discover the most demanding languages for learners. We scored each language based on frequency in our sources, with the most common languages receiving the highest scores. Now, let’s look at the most challenging languages to learn, according to our research.
The Most Difficult Languages To Learn
Arabic ranks as the most challenging language to learn. Native to around 110 million people in the Middle East and North Africa, it features a right-to-left script and unfamiliar sounds in pronunciation. These rankings are based on the assessment of language difficulty, with Arabic requiring an estimated 88 weeks to learn, according to the US Foreign Service Institute.
Mandarin, China’s national language, is spoken by more than 1.3 billion people. It is used extensively in education and the corporate world in China but poses difficulties due to its complex syntax, writing system, and non-phonetic characters.
Korean vocabulary is largely derived from Mandarin, presenting challenges for both English and non-English speakers. With 21 vowels and 19 consonants, Korean is based on Hangul, a logical writing system.
Japanese is among the five hardest languages to learn, alongside Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Cantonese, as categorized by the US Foreign Service Institute. Its complex writing system and emphasis on respectful tone challenge non-native speakers.
Russian, spoken by over 150 million people worldwide, is crucial for business navigation and relationship-building in Russia’s global economic and political sphere.
Hungarian, the official language of Hungary and the European Union, has about 14 million native speakers. Its pronunciation and grammar, including 14 vowels, make it the most difficult language for English speakers to learn. However, non-English speakers may find it relatively simpler.
Icelandic, spoken by approximately 370,000 people in Iceland, ranks among the most challenging languages. Learning Icelandic can open doors to job opportunities in Iceland’s thriving tourism industry.
Greek, one of the world’s oldest known languages, influenced the development of English. Its complex grammar, including three noun genders and multiple cases and tenses, adds to its difficulty.
Persian, spoken in Central Asia and the Middle East, is known as Farsi in much of the Persian-speaking world and is the official language of Iran. With 62 million native speakers, it ranks among the top 20 most spoken languages globally. Its Arabic script and right-to-left reading make it challenging for new learners.
Turkish, known for its phonetic nature, poses difficulties with its complex grammar, suffixes, and word order. Spoken by around 75 million native speakers across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
Finnish, one of the official languages in Finland and the European Union, presents challenges due to its complex grammar, featuring numerous noun cases and verb conjugations.
Cantonese, originating from Guangzhou in China, has over 80 million native speakers in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Malaysia. The US Foreign Service Institute categorizes it as Category 5, alongside Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese, requiring approximately 88 weeks (1.69 years) to learn.
Serbian, a Slavic language widely spoken in Eastern Europe and official in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, presents difficulties with its seven tenses and two scripts. It’s considered a challenging language for non-native speakers.
The language is categorized as level 4 by the US Foreign Service Institute, indicating its complexity. Learning Polish can be advantageous for students and professionals in Poland.
Thai, spoken by around 60 million people in Thailand, is valuable for networking in social or business circles. Despite many Thais being proficient in English, learning Thai can enhance interactions in Thailand.
- Hindi Hindi, an Indo-Aryan language spoken in India, is the fourth most spoken language globally, with around 350 million speakers.
Basque, spoken in northern Spain and southwestern France by approximately 750,000 native speakers, is considered one of the most challenging languages due to its complex vocabulary and unique structure. It has no known relation to other languages.
German is widely spoken in Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Learning German is essential for those seeking education or work in Germany, as it is commonly used in educational institutions.
Vietnamese, part of the Austroasiatic language family, ranks as the 13th most challenging language for English speakers to learn. Pronunciation and tonal variations make it even more difficult for non-English speakers. About 76 million people in Vietnam speak Vietnamese.
Swahili, or Kiswahili, is the most widely spoken language in Sub-Saharan Africa. Common words in Swahili are found in Arabic, Portuguese, German, and English.
Navajo, a Native American language spoken in the southwestern United States, had an estimated 170,000 speakers in 2023.
The complexity of Albanian grammar can present a challenge to learners. Spoken in Albania and Kosovo, Greek influences the language and boasts approximately 7.5 million native speakers.
Bulgarian, the official language of Bulgaria, poses significant difficulty for learners. With similarities to Russian and using Cyrillic alphabets, mastering Bulgarian requires an average of about 44 weeks or 1,100 hours of study.
Learning Dutch typically takes an average of 24 weeks, according to the US Foreign Service Institute. A notable challenge for Dutch learners is pronunciation, with words starting with ‘g’, ‘ui’, or ‘r’ differing from English. Additionally, Dutch words often have multiple meanings, adding complexity to the language.
Spanish is often considered one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, but it ranks among the seven most challenging foreign languages for non-English speakers. It is the second-most spoken native language globally, following Mandarin, and serves as the official language in 20 countries, boasting a combined 475 million speakers.
Language learning is a challenging yet enriching endeavor. From Spanish to Arabic, each language offers its own unique journey. In our globalized world, mastering a new language is a key to unlocking opportunities and building bridges across cultures. Whether tackling a tough language or embracing a more accessible one, the pursuit of language is a gateway to a richer, interconnected world.
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