The Hardest Language to Learn

What’s the hardest language to learn for English speakers? That’s tough to say. It depends on the learner.

But several entities, including the U.S. State Department, have some insight. But the analysis applies to native English speakers only.

The most difficult language to learn varies with the individual. The following all play a role:

  • Your native language. If you’re an English speaker, then learning a language that is close to English either in vocabulary or structure is easier. For example, French and German have many things in common with English. Chinese and Arabic do not. The hardest language to learn for English speakers, then, could be Chinese. If your native language is Polish, then learning French or German will likely be harder than learning Czech. Like Polish, Czech is a Slavic language.
  • Your motivation. Take a highly motivated State Department official assigned to China for three years. She will likely have an easier time learning Chinese than an unmotivated high school sophomore learning Spanish in a class that he finds boring. Her job performance depends on it.
  • Your method of learning. Consider the language student who lives “in country” and uses the target language all day long. He will learn faster (and, ultimately, better) than the student who listens to audio clips in a college language lab. Regardless of what the hardest language to learn is for a particular person, constant use makes the learning process easier.

Infographic: What Are the Hardest Languages to Learn?

The information in this infographic is from various sources. However, it seems to correspond to the evaluation method used by the Defense Language Institute. The hardest language to learn for English speakers is determined by the average number of classroom hours required for a certain level of proficiency.

A few caveats about the above infographic:

  • The term “language proficiency” is relative. Is proficiency the ability to communicate clearly in almost all situations with native speakers? Or is it the ability to understand conversational language and ask a limited range of questions?
  • The time ranges are oversimplified. Don’t be fooled by the time statistics given in the infographic. Can you learn Spanish in 600 classroom hours? Maybe. But how proficient would you be?
  • There may be variation among languages in the same difficulty group. There’s no guarantee that you will be able to learn Dutch in the same time as you are able to learn Spanish. (“But they’re in the same group in the infographic!” you say.) Again, the hardest language to learn (for you) depends on several variables.

So What’s the Hardest Language to Learn for English Speakers?

Sorry, we can’t answer that one easily. You can approach the question from the other way around, though. Instead of thinking about the hardest language to learn, ask yourself which language is the easiest to learn. Generally speaking, “easy” languages have the following:

  • similar words to those in your native language (called cognates)
  • a similar structure to your native language. Structure can refer to word order, verb tenses, presence or absence of case endings, and so on.
  • many of the same sounds (phonemes) as your native language
  • many of the same characters (alphabet) as your native language

Consider an Italian speaker. All things being equal, she will have an easier time learning Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Romanian (all Romance languages) than she will learning Russian.

Why? Russian has a different alphabet, a different phonemic inventory, and a greater number of cases. Will Russian be the hardest language to learn for our Italian speaker? Maybe, maybe not. But we can say with confidence that it will be harder than learning Spanish.

See the companion post “What Language Should I Learn?” to help you on your language-learning journey!

Leave a Reply