The very hardest languages to learn whether because of grammar, pronunciation, syntax, or all of the above — written by actual language learners.
The hardest languages to learn are, mercilessly, also some of the most widely used. The variants of Arabic and Chinese are spoken by over 1.5 billion speakers in the world. Billion!
There are, of course, small and difficult languages. Yes, people love to talk about how Finnish and Estonian are some of the hardest languages in the world. Sure, they’re hard. But very few people speak them, and unless you’re extremely committed to the region (which you might be… Estonia is magical), enjoy mental gymnastics, or just like languages that sound like Elvish from Lord of the Rings, neither language is probably for you.
So let’s look at huge languages (or families of them) that are hard. But remember — just because they’re hard doesn’t mean you can’t learn them. Millions do, and so could you!
In this guide… What are the hardest languages for English speakers?
- How we picked these languages
- Arabic — including Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Levantine Arabic
- Chinese in its major forms — Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese
- Japanese, which somehow took Chinese characters and made them even harder to learn
- Russian… but learn it anyway. It sounds so cool!
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How we picked these languages
These lists of “hardest languages” are always a bit subjective.
Firstly, no ranking is perfect. There are a few rankings out there, like the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings, for example, that puts languages into various categories of the amount of time needed to get reasonably fluent in them. But people dispute these on forums anyway. So they’re not valid for everyone.
Secondly, we’re mostly concerned with learning languages for social impact — those that bring the world a bit closer together. Watching a Chinese person speaking to someone in Arabic, for example, gives you hope. So we won’t talk about languages with small populations of speakers — less than 50 million fluent (not necessarily native).
Finally, one thing is never mentioned in these analyses is how easy it is to get access to resources including good teachers and inspiration from other learners. Mandarin and Cantonese are (roughly) similarly difficult. But far fewer foreigners learn Cantonese, there are fewer textbooks, and there are so many people out there saying “it’s too hard” that many give up without even trying. Although, extra kudos for those who make the effort! (I never did — my Cantonese is just a few phrases and the rest is badly pronounced Mandarin).
We’ve also tried our hands at enough languages (learning from a few hundred words to getting conversational in them) to have a rough feeling for a lot of them. Thus, this has our subjective input as well.
So, here’s the list.
Chinese (including Cantonese, Mandarin, and Shanghainese)
Chinese is a huge language. The term “Chinese” itself is political. It can refer to an ethnicity (people of Han or another Chinese descent living anywhere from Mainland China to Hong Kong, Canada, Thailand, Singapore, or anywhere), a nationality (e.g. people of the People’s Republic of China, or people of the Republic of China, a.k.a. Taiwan), or a language — one of several. Which one is meant depends on who’s saying what and to whom. (See our article on Being and Speaking Chinese for more discussion.)
Chinese normally refers to Mandarin Chinese. But it can also refer to Cantonese. People referring to Shanghainese will call it such, and when speaking Chinese will normally call it shang hai hua (上海话).
What makes Chinese languages hard?
The short answer as to why Chinese languages are hard: Nearly everything! Except grammar.
Firstly, Chinese pronunciation is very hard. Mandarin and Cantonese have tones. The Cantonese ones aren’t as standardised as Mandarin ones, making learning them even harder. Combined with the unfamiliar sounds for English speakers (like pronouncing the slightly aspirated x sound in pronouncing Xi in the current President’s name), pronunciation is quite difficult.
Secondly, Chinese characters are a life-long journey. It’s estimated you need 4-5,000 to get through most of modern life (including a functional daily and professional vocabulary). At some point, I knew around 2,500 according to my flashcard decks, and with the help of an on-screen dictionary, I got by fine.
You cannot learn Chinese without learning characters — it will become a hindrance once you know around 5,00 words as you will find yourself wondering what all the variants of shì you hear in everyday life mean. Why does this word have a shì? And this one? Oh, they’re the “city” shì. This one is the “thing” shì. Once you learn those kinds of delineations you may as well learn what they look like.
Finally, Chinese has almost no homonyms with English. In fact, even foreign brand names like Apple and Walmart have translated equivalents — something I haven’t seen in any other country.
The only beacon of light in Chinese is the grammar is extremely easy. There is no verb conjugation by person or tense, no grammatical gender, no cases, and few particles. You just string words together. For example the grammar for the sentence “I didn’t go to the movies because I felt sick — maybe I’ll go tomorrow” is “I not to-have to-go cinema because I feel sick — maybe I go tomorrow”.
Another note — it’s exponentially harder to learn the smaller (non-Mandarin) languages. The number of resources drops dramatically, so you have to rely more on formal education or expensive private tutors. There’s also a large drop in usability and in inspiration from others. For example, you might need Cantonese in regional parts of the Hong Kong S.A.R., but you’ll need it much less on the Island.
And Shanghainese — the best resources are in Chinese, so that gets even harder. Same goes for smaller Chinese languages.
How can you learn Chinese anyway?
In spite of how hard Chinese is, you can learn it anyway. I did! It took a while, mind you.
It almost goes without saying that if you’re going to learn a Chinese language and have freedom to choose then learn Mandarin. There are so many more resources, qualified teachers, and people you can speak it with. Mandarin opens a broader range of job opportunities.
Unless you have very good reasons to learn Cantonese (like you live in Hong Kong long-term, or are connected with a Cantonese-speaking family), I would focus on Mandarin.
I’d recommend a path like this:
- Get a book and start familiarising yourself with the basics of pronunciation and grammar. I’d suggest “Colloquial Mandarin Chinese”. Go through about half of it, learning greetings, the sounds, and so on.
- Use Anki to learn about 250 characters. Start with the HSK Series 1. Don’t do this right away, but add them to your decks as they come up, and start doing it a few weeks after starting with the book.
- Use Glossika to start listening and repeating to sentences. Learn about 500 before getting a tutor.
- Get a tutor on italki and start speaking to them.
That should keep you busy for a while… until you go to China!
Small side note on learning Cantonese — because so few non-Chinese (or Asian) ethnicity people learn it, I found huge reward from learning just a couple of hundred words. Buying fruit and vegetables and ordering food in Cantonese always brought me smiles. If you do commit to it, I think you’ll enjoy the experience greatly.
Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic and other dialects)
The Arabic language family is large and complex — but all variants/dialects of Arabic are hard to learn — in different ways.
Firstly, it’s vague and imprecise to lump all dialects together as “Arabic”. At best, if you say “Arabic”, you probably mean Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This is the “official” definition of Arabic. If a country lists Arabic as their official language, they mean MSA.
But nobody speaks MSA as a first language, and people only learn it in schools. Mostly, citizens of Arab countries learn to listen and would struggle to express themselves.
That means your average citizen of an Arabic-speaking country only can experss themselves in Modern Standard Arabic if they went to school, it was a good school, and they paid attention and made an effort.
Nonetheless, there are good reasons to learn MSA. It is the language of government and diplomacy, and so you’ll be able to survive in a range of formal situations. It’s also the language of news and media, which means you can learn and maintain your language more easily. Finally, it’s a great platform to use to learn a dialect. You don’t have to learn MSA first, but it will help.
What makes Arabic hard to learn for English speakers?
There are a few things that make Arabic hard to learn. Again, like Chinese… a lot!
The orthography of Arabic: Arabic is written in Perso-Arabic script, right-to-left. This isn’t so bad. There are 28 letters, which is a reasonable number. However, Arabic (like Farsi, Urdu, and other languages using the script) omits its short vowels and pronunciation guides, which means that if you’re unfamiliar with a word (or its general “shape” — many have common shapes) you’re s.o.l. and won’t know how to pronounce it.
Grammar of Arabic: Arabic grammar is quite tough. It has a lot of things that make it hard. In all variants of Arabic, verbs are conjugated in many ways. There’s grammatical gender. The sentence structure of Arabic grammar is quite different to English. For example, the sentence “Excuse me, do you have a pen? I had one, but I lost it” grammatically translates to “After permission-male-yours, present about-you pen? Was-male present about-me one-male, but I-male lost it-male”.
It gets more complicated in MSA, as nouns are inflected by case, which means where nouns are in a sentence changes their ending.
In short, Arabic grammar ain’t easy.
Pronunciation of Arabic: There are many sounds in Arabic that aren’t used in English. It sounds totally alien for this reason. There aren’t tones, but frankly, even without tones, I think the pronunciation of Arabic is in the same league as Chinese.
Pronunciation of dialects is a little easier, with Egyptian Arabic being softest on the ears, and Lebanese/Eastern Arabic roughly in the same league. People from all Arab regions generally say they think Egyptians and Lebanese have the “nicest” sounding dialects.
How to learn Arabic anyway
If you’re committed to getting out of your comfort zone and learning a dialect of Arabic like we did, here’s what we’d suggest.
- Choose to learn a dialect rather than Modern Standard Arabic. You’ll get to speak with people, have fun, and visit a country and do things. And we’d suggest Egyptian Arabic.
- Get familiar with the alphabet. Get a book like Colloquial Arabic and start going through the chapters. The pronunciation will take a while to get.
- Start building up a vocabulary, using Anki to remember words.
- After five or six chapters, get your hands on Glossika and start learning sentences.
- Once you’ve learned around 500 sentences, get a teacher on italki and start learning more.
We’d suggest learning MSA after you learn a dialect like Egyptian Arabic as your “second” Arabic dialect. That’s my next Arabic project, anyway!
Yes, Japanese is only spoken in Japan. So why learn it?
Because Japan is amazingly beautiful, rich in culture, and English is very poorly spoken there. This makes Japanese a “useful” language if you’re interested in visiting Japan or interested in Japanese culture.
However, Japanese is a notoriously difficult language for English speakers. It’s roughly as hard as Chinese. Even though the pronunciation sounds are easier, many words have multiple pronunciations, and the language has several formality registers.
And add on to that that Japanese has a mixed history with influence from China (hence the Kanji, which in China are called hànzi, 汉子) as well as its own rich history. So you get confusing situations like kanji being pronounced differently depending on how they’re being used.
What makes Japanese hard?
Let’s analyse it piece by piece:
Japanese’s writing system is one of the hardest in the world. When starting out, you learn Hiragana, the phonetic writing system you often see in print. That’s not so bad. Many people ask “why can’t there just be Hiragana?” but life ain’t easy.
Next up you generally have to start learning some basic kanji. Kanji is the writing system imported from classical Chinese. There’s a lot of overlap in meanings in Chinese characters and Japanese ones, and you have a massive head-start if you already know Chinese hanzi. The overlap is greatest in traditional characters that weren’t simplified (much) by either writing system.
But both Japanese and Chinese underwent simplification processes for many common characters (a few hundred) in the mid 20th century, and they didn’t do it the same way. So many characters look like “cousins”.
Anyway, learning characters is really hard in Japanese because you have to connect each character with one general meaning and then multiple pronunciations. Most words in Japanese have at least two pronunciations (one from Chinese, one from Japanese), and some have more, coming from multiple variants of Chinese and historical Japanese. At least in Chinese it’s nearly always (~99.9% of the time) just one pronunciation per character! (There are some characters with multiple pronunciations in Chinese, but they’re interesting curiosities.)
There’s a small blessing: Japanese words tend to have one “dominant” pronunciation that’s used 80-90% of the time. A good strategy for learning Japanese pronunciation is to learn this dominant one (and to learn what kind it is).
Add on to that that Japanese vocabulary has almost no homonyms with English. Without labouring this point, apart from a little restaurant vocabulary, you probably don’t know a lot of Japanese words if you haven’t studied it. This is in stark contrast to European languages, where Kaffee mit Zucker und Milch is German for “coffee with sugar and milk” and politique économique libérale is French for “liberal economic politics”.
Japanese also has more grammar than Chinese, but it’s not too bad.
How to learn Japanese even though it’s hard
Learning Japanese is a mission. If you see someone who has learned it in 2-3 months, they probably focused on one aspect of pronunciation and didn’t learn too many Kanji. It’s just too hard. You need a year or two of fairly dedicated time to learn Japanese well.
That said… here’s a suggested plan.
- Learn the Hiragana writing system. A popular app is the Hiragana Pixel Party, which you can get on iOS but not Android. A popular Android app is Obenkyo.
- Start learning Kanji along with their “meaning” but without pronunciation. Get this book, Remembering the Kanji by James Heisig. He has a method of using mnemonics. For example, 圧 means “pressure” and is built of two radicals: 厂 (“cliff”) and 土 (“ground”). So you can invent a mnemonic: “There’s enormous pressure at the ground under the cliff.”
- Learn to write Kanji to learn to remember it: I have always been a huge fan of Skritter. It’s how I learned over 2,000 characters in Chinese. Get the app and pay the monthly fee — it’s well worth it.
- Once you know about 500 words (maybe as many characters), start learning the language. A great book that’s highly recommended is the Genki course, which you can buy on Amazon.
- Add all your words to Anki, a spaced repetition system, and keep learning them.
- Start learning sentences on Glossika. You’ll learn how to say everything from “Am I late? No, I don’t think I am” to “Your shoes are nice”. Critical daily things.
- Get a tutor and start speaking to them. Don’t leave this too late — teachers are invaluable even when you know nothing.
Many Japanese students feel like they’re perpetual beginners. You can get decently good in Japanese in the same time it takes someone else to learn three European languages. Believe in your mission!
Russian is spoken not just in Russia, but as a lingua franca across many Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries.
Why is Russian hard?
The main reason Russian hard is the grammar: it has an intriguing case system, lots of prefixes and suffixes, verb conjugation, and grammatical gender.
The Russian case system means the ending of a word changes depending on where in the sentence it is (what it’s being used as). So if you’re using a word as a direct object, indirect object, subject, an object that “possesses” something, or something done “with” an object, the suffix changes.
The prefixes and suffixes are used to modify the meaning of a word — nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They’re a bit like in English how we modify “take” with “under” to make “undertake”, or “stand” with “under” to make “understand”. But in English those combinations aren’t really predictable, whereas in Russian they are.
Suffixes in Russian also modify words, making things into professions (e.g. how “bake” becomes “baker”), abstract concepts (e.g. “large” to “largeness”) and so on.
And conjugation in Russian is much like Spanish and French, with verbs changing shape depending on person and number, and with a good number of irregular verbs. There are fewer conjugations to learn (e.g. there’s only one simple past tense) though.
The grammatical gender of Russian is like German — there are three genders. There’s male, female, and neuter. Luckily, gender is mostly regular and predictable based on the ending of a word. The most obvious exceptions to the rules are nouns relating to people — where the gender is determined by the fact that you’re saying “man”, “uncle” etc.
Secondarily, Russian is in a non-Latin alphabet — Cyrillic. This is daunting to a lot of native English speakers, who can recognise words in French and German more easily.
But it’s really not a cause to be concerned. It’s quick and easy to learn a new alphabet, especially since Russian is at least written left-to-right, and only has 33 letters. Some of them are even the same. (Though some look the same but are pronounced differently, too.)
And in some ways, it’s refreshingly simple to use the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s so straightforward that in Russian, people never spell words, they just repeat a word slowly. There’s only one one-to-one way to translate a sound into Cyrillic letters!’
How to learn Russian anyway
Russian isn’t so hard that you can’t learn it. Many do.
If you’re interested, here’s a suggested path forward:
- Learn the Cyrillic alphabet. This isn’t hard. You’ll grasp it within an hour, and within a few weeks it’ll have sunk in. Try this YouTube guide to learning it in ten minutes! But otherwise, I like Duolingo for learning alphabets (but not much after that)
- Get a book and start learning how the Russian grammar system works — making simple sentences, conjugating verbs, and what the case endings do. (Note: You don’t have to start using the case system yet.)
- Get a basic vocabulary, building up to a few hundred words in an Anki deck. Get started with Anki here.
- Build up a sentence bank using Glossika for everyday expressions.
- Start speaking with a real person with a teacher (get a teacher on italki).
Languages not on this list
There are a few major world languages notably NOT on this list. They have 50M+ speakers, but they’re pretty easy to learn. Those are the Romance languages — French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese — and German.
If you’re new at language learning and have freedom of choice, I’d go for one of the above.
Two other choices for easy languages (just not quite as easy as Romance and Germanic ones) are Indonesian and Swahili. Indonesian has predictable spelling, simple grammar, and easy pronunciation, and is only made difficult by the lack of words that sound like English ones. Swahili is pretty to speak and it’s very easy to pronounce and remember words. There’s a crazy noun class system, but it’s OK to get it wrong, and we wrote a guide to getting your head around the Swahili noun class system.
There are also a number of languages that, while challenging, aren’t as hard as the above and don’t deserve to be called the “hardest” languages. These are Korean — it has pretty predictable writing, simple enough grammar, and the sounds aren’t hard to make (even though there are a couple that bedevil me) — and Farsi.
And then there are major world languages that are still pretty hard, but which we — honestly — just don’t know enough about.
- Indian Dravidian languages including Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada: I don’t know enough about these. They look approachable, but given how ancient Tamil is (with roots dating back 2,500 years) I doubt it’s very simple — I need to learn more.
- Indian Indo-Aryan languages including Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani, Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Bhojpuri: A big list of languages from the same family! I’d personally love to learn Urdu (I have a head-start with Farsi), which is a gateway to Hindi — and from what I can see at least Urdu is roughly as hard as Farsi. But I can’t speak for the rest of the languages on the list.
- Vietnamese: They say it’s one of the most information-dense languages in the modern world, with each syllable packing more information than even Mandarin Chinese. This, coupled with its crazy tone system, the fact that individual syllables can have many different meanings, make it look hard. But I’m not sure how it stacks up next to Chinese, which kept the characters (for better or worse).
- Thai: I did try casually to learn Thai in Thailand, and know that its subtle tone system is much harder than it looks. This, coupled with unfamiliar orthography, made it quite a challenge. But I can’t speak for how hard it is compared to e.g. Chinese languages.
- Hausa: One of the major languages of Nigeria and the second-most widely spoken language of the African continent, Hausa is learned by a lot of people across many countries in West Africa. We considered learning it, trying to decide between Hausa, Xhosa, and Swahili (we picked Swahili). Most of those people have a head-start from a regional language, and I can see some relationship with Arabic. But I can’t tell how easy it is for English speakers. I do know this though — it has tones. ☠️
If you’d like to write in to us to give us guides on learning any of those languages we’d love to hear from you (maybe you can write a guest post).