What Are The Hardest Languages To Learn?

woman struggling

Learning a new language has many benefits. Not only are you able to connect with more people in this world and expand your cultural awareness, but as you learn a new language, you’re also training your brain. Language lessons can improve memory, concentration, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills.

According to most estimates, there are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world—and as you consider which language to learn for school, business, or personal purposes, you might be tempted to ask which languages are tougher or easier to learn. Well, as tempting as it is to talk about languages in terms of difficulty, there’s one problem: difficulty is highly subjective. (In fact, if you take anything away from this article, let it be this fact!)

The difficulty of learning a language is going to depend largely on the student, how quickly they learn new languages, and what languages they already know. After all, learning a language that already uses an alphabet you know is not going to be as hard as learning a language with an alphabet you have never seen before.

However, we were curious which languages are most likely to be the toughest for an English speaker to learn. We want to stress that we are only looking at this from the perspective of a fluent English speaker. A lot of the things you are about to read won’t apply if you aren’t an English speaker or if you are already multilingual.

What is the hardest language to learn?

Even if we limit our pool to English speakers, “What is the hardest language to learn?” is still a highly subjective question. However, we can turn to the US State Department for one metric that at least attempts to be objective. The State Department has different language difficulty groups that are based on the number of hours it typically takes an English speaker to reach conversation-level proficiency. Their hardest category includes languages that take a whopping 2200 hours or more to learn. That’s over 88 weeks of time just in a classroom!

Interestingly, only 15 languages fall into the State Department’s two “easiest” categories and all of them are closely related to English. “Easier” languages include:

  • Germanic languages (such as German and Swedish)
  • Romance languages (such as Spanish and Italian)

This suggests that the further you stray from English’s Germanic or Romance language relatives, the more difficult it will be to learn the language.

There are only five languages in the State Department’s hardest category:

  • Japanese
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Cantonese
  • Korean
  • Arabic

📚 What makes these languages so tough to learn?

So, what are some common factors that make these languages so tough? None use a Latin alphabet, and they have much different rules for sentence structure and grammar than English. Often, even the tone and inflection of each word matters a lot more than it usually does when speaking in English.

From these five languages, Japanese is often the one singled out by sources as being especially difficult. Why is that? For starters, Japanese has not just one, not two, but three different written alphabets:

  • the hiragana alphabet for native Japanese words
  • the katakana alphabet for foreign words
  • the kanji alphabet, which is made up of thousands of characters that combine Chinese and Japanese symbols together

Also, Japanese sentence structure and grammar is very different from English, and Japanese has a strict, complex politeness hierarchy system that must be followed. All of this often leads to Japanese landing near the top of many lists of very hard languages to learn.

Is English the hardest language to learn?

Given what we’ve already noted, you might be wondering if English is deserving of an equivalent ranking as one of the hardest languages to learn. Well, that too is a very subjective opinion. After all, people who are already fluent in languages that are related to English—particularly the Germanic and Romance language families—probably won’t find English to be that bad. However, English has a lot going on that could make it very frustrating to learn, even for a person fluent in one of these languages. Here are some of the commonly cited reasons that English is often considered to be a very hard language to learn:

  • English is an unusual mix of Germanic and Romance languages. Many English words are taken directly from Latin and Greek without changing their form or meaning at all.
  • The rules of grammar, pronunciation, and spelling in English are largely inconsistent and sometimes make no sense at all. For example, the past tense of ask is asked, but the past tense of take is took. Additionally, there are tons of exceptions to these rules that need to be memorized. For example, the beloved “I before E except after C” goes right out the window when we run into a word like weird.
  • English is full of homophones that are pronounced identically but have different spellings and meanings, such as the words way and weigh.
  • Often, English synonyms can’t be used interchangeably. For example, you often mean two different things when you say that someone is clever or when you say that someone is sly.
  • The order of adjectives is often based on what “sounds right” rather than a formal set of rules. Often, native English speakers know the “correct” order of adjectives without even actually learning it.

Roughly how many words are there in English?

All of the above issues cause problems even for native English speakers when trying to use proper grammar and spelling. Needless to say, a new learner is likely to struggle quite a bit when trying to wrap their head around the ridiculous rules—or lack thereof—of English. We may not be able to say for certain that English is the hardest language to learn, but we think it definitely makes a serious claim for the title.

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Hardest languages to learn, ranked

Ranking languages based on difficulty is, when it comes down to it, a fruitless exercise due to its subjectivity. The factors that determine a language’s difficulty will often vary from person to person depending on how skilled they are at learning languages and what language(s) they are already fluent in.

Still, we wanted to take a look at some reasons why many languages are considered so hard for English speakers to learn. We’ll start with the five languages grouped into the highest level of difficulty by the State Department. After that, we’ll briefly look at some other languages commonly said to be quite difficult for English speakers to learn for various reasons.

The super hard languages


Japanese has three different written alphabets. The kanji alphabet has thousands of characters and must be written while following the correct order of symbol strokes. Japanese has a strict and complicated politeness system that must be followed.

Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese

Both of these languages from China use a complex, non-Latin alphabet with thousands of characters. Both are tone languages, or tonal languages, so the exact meaning of a word depends on how it is spoken. Speaking these languages fluently involves mastering very precise pronunciations that are going to be unfamiliar to an English language speaker.


Arabic is another language with a non-Latin alphabet. Though it consists of 28 characters, the complex Arabic script is still often said to be quite hard to learn. Arabic grammar is very different from English grammar, and Arabic is a highly gendered language. Finally, written Arabic often excludes the vowels, making an already difficult challenge that much harder for English speakers.


Korean is yet another language that uses a non-Latin alphabet with many characters. Korean grammar and sentence structure is completely different from English, which will cause many new learners to struggle. Lastly, Korean has complex pronunciation rules and has a strict rule of honorifics and politeness similar to Japanese.

Very hard languages

Finno-Ugric languages

Hungarian has at least 18 cases, and 14 vowels, and relies on idioms. Hungarian will be both hard to speak and read for an English speaker. Finnish is an inflectional language—the endings of words change depending on how they are used—with a complex vocabulary and grammar that is still changing today. Estonian has 14 noun cases, various consonant, and vowel lengths, and a complex grammar system with many exceptions.

Native American languages

Some examples of the languages of the native peoples of America include the Navajo language, Tsalagi (Cherokee), and the Algonquian languages. None of these many languages use a Latin alphabet. Instead, they typically use syllabaries, or symbols represent syllables as spoken. All of these languages differ from English with their use of unfamiliar and complex vocal sounds. Many of these languages are also only spoken by a small number of people. Depending on the language, it may be impossible to find someone willing to teach it to a person who is not a member of a tribe.

Read more about Native American languages and language groups.


Although Vietnamese does use a version of the Latin alphabet, the language is a tonal language that requires very precise pronunciation and elocution. Additionally, Vietnamese vocabulary and grammar is completely different from English.

Slavic languages

This family of languages includes Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Slovenian. Regardless of which language you pick, you’ll likely run into difficulties. Some Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, most of them have complicated grammar and sentence structure different from English, and they are all distinct from one another.


The Germanic languages of Scandinavia are usually considered some of the easiest ones for English speakers to learn. However, this is typically not the case for Icelandic. This language has retained much of its Old Norse influences, which means many words, letters, and sounds are going to be unfamiliar to an English speaker. Icelandic is also known to have an even more complicated verb conjugation system than English does, which is likely to scare away many new learners.

Learning a new language is a worthwhile pursuit; we hope this list has at least parked your curiosity and encourages you to explore a new language. You too can be a polyglot!

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