Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers
You may have struggled through Spanish or French in high school, but these languages introduce a whole new level of pain.
Mandarin Chinese is a one of the hardest languages to learn for westerners for several reasons. The tonal system is foreign. Every word is represented by a complex character with no indication as to how it should be pronounced. There are over 40,000 word-symbols, 2,500 of which are commonly used and must be memorized for basic fluency. Mandarin also has many homophones, like "shi", which is associated 30 different meanings. Gaining fluency in Mandarin is not impossible, but uncommon for English speakers, requiring years of full-immersion.
Icelandic is a language that retains many its archaic roots, more so than most. The prime difficultly for English-speakers is learning the inflection system and pronunciation. Try to pronounce: EYJARFJALLAJOKULL. Some parts of speech are impossible say without regularly hearing others say them correctly. Complex grammar rules are also an obstacle. Similar to Russian, Icelandic nouns have multiple cases and three genders. Verbs are also conjugated with numbers, tense, mood, voice, and person.
Arabic presents a unique sets of obstacles for western-speakers. Chief among these is the writing. Although Arabic is easier than Chinese in that it has a true alphabet consisting of only 28 letters, writing is still difficult because script is written right-to-left with all vowels omitted: imgn rdng sntnc lk ths. Letters have up to four different forms depending on their occurrence within a sentence. There are no common words between English and Arabic like there are between English and European languages, so western students start with a clean slate. The US State Depart estimates that a student needs one year of full-time classroom training plus one year abroad to gain 60% fluency.
Although Hungary is a European country, its language has very little resemblance to its neighbors. Grammar, tone, vocabulary, and sentence structure are all completely different. Hungarian words derive most of their meaning from various endings, making them very difficult to learn. Each word can have over 26 cases or conjugations. Other challenging elements of Hungarian include different word order, high number of vowels, and its guttural tone. On average it takes a native Hungarian 16 years to become fluent.
Basque is a niche language spoken in parts of Spain and France. Given this locality and the language's use of Roman characters, it's odd that Basque bears little resembles to any other Indo-European languages. In fact, Basque survives as a relic from pre-Roman Europe. Basque is one of the hardest languages to learn because of its complex grammar. Words can have over twenty conjugates, with changes being made by way of prefix, suffice, and infix. New words are composed of not only roots modified by various endings, like the Romantic languages, but also beginnings.
Poland's history of subjugation and conquest has lead to the development of a language that's complex, archaic, and difficult-to-master. Polish is hard to pronounce and must be pronounced well in order be to understood. Grammar also presents a major challenge. Words commonly have seven cases. Some words, like "two", have up to 17 cases! For every English verb, Polish speakers have to learn two new ones, and plural nouns have multiple forms depending on the quantity being described. It's said Polish grammar has more exceptions than rules.
Japanese is a difficult language to learn because of it has one of the most complex character systems in the world. Japanese writing is mish-mash of three different systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. This, in addition to using Arabic numbers and Roman letters at times. Learning words is also challenging. Whereas an fluent English speaker can get by with roughly 3,000 words, Japanese speakers need to know 10,000. But even an average Japanese magazine will use 30,000. The State Department gives students three times as long to learn Japanese compared to French or Spanish.
Navajo is an ancient Native American language whose difficulty stems from its vast differences with English. During WWII, the US Army sent communication messages encoded in Navajo because the the Japanese didn't have access to any grammar references. Navajo is abstract and entirely foreign. The language is so tied to Navajo thought processes that it's difficult to grasp for anyone other than natives. Navajo is peculiar in that not all letters map into English, it's tonal like Chinese, the grammar is completely foreign, and the same words can have different meanings based on the length of pause between syllables.
Tuyuca is a difficult-to-learn language of Eastern Brazilian rain forest natives. Given its simple sound system, speaking Tuyuca isn't nearly as challenging as knowing how to phrase oneself. Tuyuca is an Evidential language, which means a spoke declaration has to imply how one came to know the thing purported. For example, to say "the girl went swimming" in one phrasing would imply one saw her doing so, whereas another phrasing would imply that one heard it from someone else. Tuyuca grammar forces the speaker to designate the source of knowledge through various verb-endings.
Estonian is a difficult-to-learn archaic language with a complex conjugation system and phrases dating back to the Ice Age. Words commonly have twice as many cases (14) as other Slavic languages. Estonian lacks articles such as "a" and "the", follows looser word ordering than English, has no grammatical gender, and has no future tense. Estonian is most closely related to Finnish.
- This list is relative to native English-speakers, so keep this in mind.
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