The Hardest Languages to Learn for Native English Speakers

Feeling up to a challenge? We recently looked at some of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn. Now, we've compiled a list of the most challenging. These languages will take you a long time to pick up.

That means you'll feel much more accomplished when you can speak and understand them, right? If you love a challenge, try your hand at one of these languages.

1. Arabic

It's one of the top five most-spoken global languages, used frequently in business, diplomacy, and tourism. Arabic also happens to be one of the hardest for English speakers to learn.

There are dozens of regional Arabic varieties, which can differ radically from one place to the next (think about how much trouble you might have understanding a rural Scottish accent, for example).

Arabic has 28 letters in its non-Latin alphabet. Words are read from right to left, without vowels. Many of Arabic's sounds do not exist in English, so much like rolling an "r," you use your mouth in a different way when speaking. And lastly, the grammatical structures differ from English, with verbs coming before the subject and changing from singular to plural to dual form.

2. Mandarin Chinese

The Foreign Service Institute estimates that most English speakers would require 88 weeks of full-time study to learn Mandarin effectively. That's about 22,000 hours of intensive learning before you gain proficiency. By comparison, they estimate that to learn Spanish or French, it would only take a quarter of that time.

Mandarin Chinese is both one of the most useful languages to learn and one of the most challenging. Thousands of special characters comprise the alphabet, which is unlike any Latin-based language.

Mandarin is also a tonal language. With four tones, one word can be pronounced four different ways, each with a different meaning.

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3. Polish

You probably know a Polish word when you see one, because for English speakers the pronunciation seems impossible. How would you say następstwa (consequence) or szczęście (happiness), for example?

While Polish uses the Latin alphabet, spelling and grammar still give English speakers a hard time. There are seven grammatical cases, so you'll need to grasp technical sentence structure before you're truly comfortable. Polish words also adhere to a gendered system that many English speakers find difficult.

As Poland develops into a major European economy, knowing Polish as a second language will surely come in handy. Just expect it to take a while before you can comfortably read and converse.

4. Japanese

Just like Mandarin Chinese, Japanese has a character-based writing system. That means you'll have to learn thousands of characters before you can write. Even further, Japanese has three independent writing systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Each one has a different alphabet. It also adheres to two different syllabary systems.

On the bright side, Japanese is pronounced phonetically, making it marginally easier to speak than some other Asian languages. So you can take comfort in that as your Japanese studies progress!

5. Korean

Did you know that Korean is an almost entirely unique language? It is known as a "language isolate," or a single language family. That means it has no direct genealogical relationship to other languages.

Korean grammar is very different from English. You would use a subject-object-action sentence structure when describing an action. Sentence structure, verb conjugations, and syntax are all challenges for native English speakers. Plus there's the matter of learning an entirely new alphabet, which borrows some Chinese characters.

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6. Finnish

If you've ever seen Finnish written out, you've probably noticed that it seems nothing like English. Even with lettering and pronunciations that appear similar, you have to contend with a wide variety of conjugations, accents, and alterations.

Finnish has no connection to Latin or Germanic language groups. With 15 grammatical cases in total, the smallest change to the end of a word can drastically shift the meaning of an entire sentence. Case endings are often added to word stems and suffixes, which doesn't happen in English.

The FSI estimates it would take almost a full year of continual study before a native English speaker feels comfortable having a conversation in Finnish.

7. Turkish

Last on our list, we've included Turkish, thanks to its place in the world as an "agglutinative" language. Prefixes and suffixes are attached to words to indicate their meaning and direction. Mega long words? Yes. Difficult spellings and accents? Yes again.

The good news about Turkish is that there aren't too many grammatical exceptions to the rules. So once you learn them, you're well on your way.

What do all of these languages have in common? Their relative lack of similarity to the English language. Mastering any one of them will grant you membership to a rarified group, able to translate between two markedly different languages and cultures.  For business, diplomacy, or your own personal sense of achievement, that seems like reason enough to start learning today.