Learning a new language is one of the hardest and most time-consuming challenges adults face, yet just how hard and how much time are somewhat relative concepts. Italians have a much easier time learning Spanish, for example, than English speakers do. Moreover, some people simply have an inherent aptitude for second (and even third or fourth) language acquisition, so they find it easier to pick up another lingo compared to the rest of us mere mortals. Interestingly, the single most difficult foreign language for English speakers to learn (that would be Mandarin) is in and of itself quite a simple language. The grammar isn’t nearly as complicated as German, for example. While international schools in China do a fantastic job of ensuring their students are experts by the time they leave, there are many challenges faced when picking up this language. To learn Mandarin, an English speaker must grasp a totally new writing system and multiple vocal intonations, and this alone can take endless hours. How many hours, exactly?About 2,200!Fun Fact: there are over 7,100 languages spoken worldwide, almost half of which are highly endangered. Only 23 languages are collectively spoken by over 50% of the world’s population
Here are the top 5 hardest languages to learn for most English speakers, according to their time-sucking attributes…and the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State.
Know what everyone agrees on, however? Mandarin being the single hardest language to learn. Ironic, when you consider it is also the single most widely spoken language on the planet, so learning it will become increasingly more necessary. English-speakers have their work cut out for them, trying to learn Mandarin. There are thousands upon thousands of characters to memorize and four distinct tones that give each word a totally different meaning. English has heteronyms as well, of course, such as ‘the tears you cry and the tears on a piece of paper’. Yet, the sheer number of Chinese heteronyms makes it seem as if English isn’t even trying to be difficult. The tones in Mandarin cause countless ‘lost in translation moments for ex-pats brand new in China. Be careful when complimenting someone’s mother in Mandarin, for example, lest you compare her to a horse, the other meaning of ‘ma’.And remember: that’s only two tones. In Mandarin, there are four in total. Mandarin is one of many Chinese dialects, which also includes Cantonese. All are deemed equally difficult for English speakers to learn.
The bad news is that Korean is exceptionally difficult for English speakers to learn. The good news, however, is that if you can master this one, it will also make it easier to learn Mandarin. Silver linings! Korean boasts a unique sentence structure, and its verb conjugation will drive the average monolingual English student to drink. Heavily. Funnily enough, however, many English-speaking students find Korean easier to learn than Arabic, so personal differences play a much bigger role here. These two languages seem to swap their position on the top 5 hardest languages to learn on published lists–no one seems quite to agree!
Japanese boasts three distinct writing systems, two alphabets, and thousands of unique characters. Your memory skills alone need to be legend-level to get (and store) all that. Part of the enigmatic Ryukyuan languages family (which, incidentally, are not mutually intelligible), Japanese exists in a linguistic world all its own.SpokenJapanese is surprisingly easy to learn, experts say, because it actually boasts few vowels and consonants (only 5 and 12, respectively –which is half as many as English). Still, the complexity of the written form seems to negate this perceived simplicity.
With its beautiful script and melodic sound, Arabic is music to the polyglot’s ear and eye, although being fluent is no walk in the park for English speakers. Arabic is the first of the aptly named ‘super-hard languages to learn and also requires over 2,000 hours of language study. First, it has a non-Latin alphabet and uses very few vowels, making it difficult for foreigners to pronounce. It has also borrowed very few words from English (how rude!), so there is very little similarity on which to rely. If that’s not enough, one must learn to write in the etisoppo direction sounds and grasp a distinct sentence structure, where the verb precedes the subject. Nevertheless, Arabic is still considered easier to learn than the following three languages…so there’s always that.
The ‘easiest of the hardest languages to learn, Vietnamese still requires you to commit at least 1,100 hours of classroom work. Getting a handle on the tone system is indeed challenging, although things get progressively easier with time. Or so we are told. Technically, Vietnamese is also a simple language: it has no genders, no articles, and no cases. Forming tenses is child’s play (so say the Vietnamese, obvs), and sentence structure is very similar to English (where the subject, verb, and object follow that specific order). Oh, and the 29-letter alphabet is no biggy. So, where do English speakers get stuck? That would be perfecting the six very distinct tones!