Saturday, August 22, 2009

The most difficult languages

A wise man once told me that the hardest language to learn is the one you are currently learning. That sounds pretty accurate, doesn’t it? But which languages are actually the most difficult to learn?

There’s not a definitive answer to this question as it depends on the person’s native language and previous exposure to language learning. Let’s take for example adult native English-speakers. Which languages would be the most challenging to acquire?

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, of the 63 languages analyzed, the five most difficult languages to reach proficiency in speaking and reading are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese, with Japanese taking the prize for the most difficult. These languages fall into the category of ‘88 weeks of study to reach proficiency’.

“Japanese is without question the most daunting language for a native English speaker to tackle,” agrees Richard Brecht, Deputy Director of the National Foreign Language Center, noting that the State Department allows its students three times as long to learn Japanese as it does languages like Spanish or French.

In an online poll, Chinese was chosen as the most difficult language to learn. Reasons given by poll participants included the writing system being different (every word is a different symbol and no phonetic clues as to how it is pronounced) and the tone system used. One participant hit the nail on the head: “Everything is different.”

What about German’s four cases or the seven cases and seven genders used in Polish? Learners of Hungarian have 35 cases to master. (How do you say ‘ouch!’ in Hungarian?)

So how do you stay interested and motivated when learning a difficult language?

My advice? Find interesting reading and listening material in the language. After spending two years immersed in a language spoken in a very small area, I didn’t want to lose what I had learned when I moved away. So now I watch the news from the local television and radio stations broadcasted online. It helps my ear stay tuned, broadens my vocabulary and keeps my knowledge of the culture and politics up-to-date.

What are your tips for language learners?


  1. I totally agree with ''the hardest language to learn is the one you are currently learning.''

    I mastered english perfectly or almost in 2 years about and I even write better then some english people and I'm french I was born french...and you know what? im still fighting to master my french and I'm 17 and that also goes in general.

  2. Malayalam, a Dravidian language of India is the hardest language for non-native speakers.