Hands up if you’ve ever dreamed of learning another language? Most of us love the idea of being able to hold a conversation in Spanish, or pontificate in German, or translate our Marvel Universe slash-fiction for appreciative Japanese audiences. But not all languages are born equal. For the native English-speaker, some are significantly harder to learn than others.
A few years back, the US government-backed Foreign Service Institute (FSI) did a breakdown of the most-common world languages, and how long it would take a full-time, native-English student to learn them. Here are the top ten hardest major languages they identified, from the ‘very difficult’ to the ‘so difficult they’ll make your head explode’.
(Note: we’re just gonna be looking at major world languages here, which means no click-based tribal languages, for example, and definitely no made-up stuff like Klingon.)
10. Finnish (Study Time: 1,100 hours plus)
The fact that Finnish is even around as a national language today is thanks to one guy: Johan Snellman. A philosopher and Finnish nationalist, Snellman was the guy who brought written Finnish out of the shadows of Swedish (which was seen as being more cultured at the time). Sadly, though, Snellman’s opening up of written Finnish didn’t make it any easier for the rest of us to learn. While Swedish will take you around 600 hours study time, Finnish will take almost double that.
Although Finnish uses a mostly Latin alphabet, bar the odd ä, it has some distinctly weird aspects that make it tricky for English-speakers. First, like German, Finnish is one of those languages where you can keep combining words into gigantic compound nouns that look terrifying on paper (such as the 61 letter “Lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas”). Second, the standard and spoken language are wildly different, which can be a real headache for learners.
Lastly, any language which can present you with the sentence ‘Vihdoin vihdoin vihdoin’ and tell you that each of those three identical words means something different (in this case: “I finally whipped myself with a birch branch”) is guaranteed to set a few heads exploding.
9. Estonian (Study Time: 1,100 hours plus)
The good news is that you’re hoping to study Estonian in 2016, rather than several hundred years ago. Why? Because back then, the script was written in runes. In other words, the sort of thing to have the casual learner quaking in their boots. Not that you should get too complacent, though. Estonian still remains a freakishly odd language by European standards.
One issue is the dialects. Despite being spoken by fewer than 2 million people, most of whom live in a country significantly smaller than West Virginia, Estonia has two distinct dialects, Northern and Southern. The Southern dialect is often different enough from the Northern one to potentially qualify as a whole new language. That’s before we get to the weirder regional offshoots like kirderanniku.
The thing you’re most-likely to notice, though, is the sheer number of vowels. There are 9 distinct vowel sounds in the language, and 36 diphthongs (made by joining two vowel sounds). By comparison, it’s generally agreed that English has between 8-10 significant diphthongs. To an English-speaker, an Estonian conversation can sound a lot like yodeling.
8. Georgian (Study time: 1,100 hours plus)
Georgian has a non-Latin alphabet. This makes it immediately intimidating. Reading it is daunting. Speaking is no easier. A whole bunch of Georgian words and phrases contain no vowel sounds whatsoever, so saying them makes you feel like you’re choking on something.
Finally, Georgian is a language that’s unusually dependent (for a country that is technically still in Europe) on stress, intonation, and rhythm. Change any of these three and your sentence can take on a new meaning entirely.
All of which combines to make Georgian a scary language for an English-speaker to consider learning. Luckily, it’s an agglutinative language; a language where all the sounds stay the same when you combine them together in words and sentences. This makes it easy(ish) to break down what someone is saying into digestible parts. No short cuts with the written alphabet though, we’re afraid.
7. Hungarian (Study time: 1,100 hours plus)
There’s a wonderfully odd story tucked away in the history of Hungarian. First widely-written down in 1000 AD, the language stumbled in the 18th century. The scientific revolution had arrived and Hungarian, a language based around concepts of community, countryside and family, turned out to be woefully inadequate for dealing with science-based concepts. So rather than importing foreign words, a bunch of Hungarian academics got together and made up reams of new words. In doing so, they single-handedly shook up the entire language.
They also made Hungarian into a language that is painfully difficult for English speakers to learn, at least if they want to learn it formally. Learning Hungarian properly involves dealing with six verb tenses (in English we only have two, which we combine with other words to create stuff like the ‘future imperfect’ or whatever). Thankfully, though, most ordinary Hungarians only use two. On the other hand, they use a heck load of idioms. This means Hungarian sentences always sound colorful, but can also sound like someone talking in code.
Then there’s the matter of cases. Hungarian has around 20 cases, as opposed to English’s three (subjective, objective, possessive). Interestingly, it’s possibly the only European language to have in-built patriotism. When you visit parts of the old Hungarian Empire, you are ‘on’ them. Anywhere else, you are ‘in’.
6. Mongolian (Study time: 1,100 hours plus)
It’s not often we say this, but thank God for the USSR. Prior to 1946, the written language of Mongolia was absurdly difficult for non-native speakers to even begin to decipher. Then the Soviets decided their Central Asian republic needed a more Russian outlook and pushed through a Cyrillic alphabet. So nowadays the language looks like what you see in the video above.
Obviously, for an English speaker, that’s still terrifying. And so it should be. Despite having only around 5 million speakers, Mongolian has a vast number of dialects so different that some think they should be classed as separate languages. On top of that, modern Mongolian tends to mix in Chinese words and ideas, which opens up a whole new frontier of difficulty. Then there’s the sheer alien quality of it. Like Estonian, it is a vowel heavy language. That means it can sound almost musical to English ears… but freakishly hard to replicate.
The good news is that English words and phrases are now starting to creep into modern Mongolian. So you may not be able to book a hotel room or plane ticket, but you’ll be able to order a skinny latte with ease.
5. Vietnamese (Study time: 1,100 hours plus)
If you’ve got to learn a difficult, but not insanely difficult language, Vietnamese might be a good bet. Spoken by 70 million people globally, it has more speakers than every other language on this list so far combined. It’s also probably the most unlike English. While its Latin script might mean Vietnamese looks more friendly than, say, Georgian, don’t be fooled. The use of tones in this language is enough to make even language-lovers’ heads explode.
Vietnamese has six tones, which can be applied to pretty much any word, and completely alter the meaning. So a sentence like ‘Ban ban bán bàn ban’ may look like pointless repetition, but actually translates as “Friend Ban sells dirty tables.” This is a big deal. If you mutter when you speak English to your boss, he’ll just assume you’re being sullen. Attempt to do that in Vietnamese and you might accidentally insult his mother.
Interestingly, Vietnamese is one of the easier languages in the region, in part due to French colonial influence, which gave the language its Latin script. Go wandering into other parts of East Asia, and you’ll find languages that make Vietnamese seem like a walk in the park.
4. Mandarin & Cantonese (Study time: 2,200 hours)
These are two of the biggest languages you can possibly learn. Spoken by upwards of a billion people worldwide, they’re as important and as far-reaching as English, Spanish or Arabic. They’re also insanely hard, so hard the FSI estimates it’d take you over 85 weeks of full-time study to get to an adequate level.
Mandarin, like Vietnamese, is tonal. Saying a word in a slightly different way can alter its meaning wildly. It’s also a language completely devoid of tenses. There’s no past, present or future. Instead, speakers can use a single syllable in a looong sentence to change its entire meaning, by passively suggesting time has passed. As an additional headache, it’s also a super-polite language. There are many ways to address people, depending on their relationship to you. Use the wrong one and watch all the goodwill in the room evaporate.
Cantonese is problematic, too. Putting a word in the wrong place in a sentence can completely change its meaning to a ridiculous/hilarious degree. Speakers also talk differently about a subject or object as a way of demonstrating how important it is to them. The only real advantage it has over Mandarin is that you pronounce each syllable of equal length, making talking ever so slightly easier. Oh, and of course, both use non-Latin script.
3. Arabic (Study time: 2,200 hours)
To an English speaker, the Arabic script is fascinatingly strange, like sinuous lines drawn in sand. Isn’t that all sorts of weird and romantic? It’s also difficult. In 2010, a study revealed learning to read Arabic is unusually taxing on the brain.
It’s not just reading, either. The most-common version of Arabic is Modern Standard Arabic, used across in 26 countries across North Africa and the Middle East by around 300 million people. Only English and French are official languages in more countries. However, Modern Standard Arabic is subdivided into so many different dialects that a non-native who learns one version won’t necessarily be able to understand another. This can be both confusing and highly frustrating.
As regards the quirks of the language, Arabic has a flexible word order, which means you can mix up your sentences and still make sense. On the other hand, listening to someone else talk can be confusing as heck. That’s before we even mention the 12 forms of personal pronouns.
2. Korean (Study time: 2,200 hours)
We’re used to seeing Korean written down as wonderfully alien characters. To English eyes, this looks difficult enough, but it’s actually even harder. Written Korean is all bunched together into syllable blocks. Getting used to combining them in a legible way is just one of the many challenges facing English learners of Korean.
One major issue is word order. In Korean, the verb usually comes last. The rest of the sentence is pretty fluid, meaning words can shift around in places and leave you feeling massively confused. Even harder is the crazy-level honorifics system, which requires you to use a whole different set of words and verb endings depending on how you socially stand in relation to the person you’re talking to. The not-so-good news? Get this part wrong, and you could wind up badly insulting someone. The good news? Young Koreans are starting to discard this aspect of their language entirely.
1. Japanese (Study time: Over 2,200 hours)
This is it. According to the FSI, Japanese is the hardest major language for English speakers to learn by a country mile. It’s like Korean on steroids, a language so infused with politeness that being anything less than a native speaker is to walk into a linguistic minefield. Forget to use the correct vocab or honorific word forms and watch everyone look at you like you’ve just pooped on their bedroom floor.
An additional complication is that Japan is an extremely high-context society. The most important things in a Japanese conversation may well be those left unsaid. In the same way that us native English speakers can tell when someone’s being sarcastic (even if they’re using dry British sarcasm), Japanese people can take a whole lotta meaning from the social cues surrounding what is said. As a non-native, picking up on these can be incredibly hard. It’s not a problem with the language itself, per se, but it’s still a massive pain in the backside.
That being said, spoken Japanese is no more difficult to learn than many other Asian languages. It’s written Japanese that’s the real killer. Japanese writing combines five different systems: kanji, hiragana, katakana, Arabic numerals and a smattering of the Latin alphabet. Japanese linguist Haruhiko Kindaichi once wrote, “I don’t think any other country in the world uses a letter system of such complexity.” We’re inclined to agree.