What is the hardest language to learn?

Pearson Languages
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It's incredible to know that there are thousands of languages spoken across the world, each with its unique set of challenges for learners. A question that often pops up is: "Which language is the hardest to learn?". Today we take a closer look at this question and consider different factors that make learning a language challenging.

What is the hardest language to learn?
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Learning a language is a complex process that involves several components, including phonetics (sounds), morphology (word formation), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (communication in context). These factors all contribute to the perceived difficulty of a language.

Language Difficulty

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranks languages based on their difficulty for English speakers. Factors include similarity to English and script complexity.

FSI Language Difficulty Rankings

  •   Category I: Easiest languages (e.g., Spanish, French, Italian)
  •   Category II: Moderately difficult languages (e.g., German, Indonesian)
  •   Category III: Difficult languages (e.g., Russian, Hebrew, Arabic)
  •   Category IV: Very difficult languages (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean)

In theory, you should also be able to apply this the other way around to work out how hard It would be for someone to learn English. But it isn't quite as simple as that in practice. 

What about English?

Learning English can be challenging due to its irregular spelling, pronunciation and verb conjugation, despite its global dominance. However, learners have access to a wide range of resources, and the language's prevalence in media and technology makes it more accessible and easier to learn.

The English language poses a significant challenge to second-language English speakers due to its vast range of vowel and consonant sounds, including diphthongs, which might be unfamiliar to them. One of the well-known difficulties is the inconsistency between spelling and pronunciation. The irregularities in English spelling are infamous, making it challenging for learners to comprehend.

Another hurdle can be the extensive vocabulary, compounded by words with multiple meanings. Even more casual language and idioms can confuse and contradict basic language rules.

What can impact difficulty?

Linguists have identified aspects that can make a language more difficult to learn, such as inflectional complexity, gendered nouns, and intricate verb conjugations. There are also other factors that can impact the ease or difficulty:

Native language

The difficulty of acquiring a new language can be influenced by the learner's native language. If a language shares linguistic features with one's mother tongue, it may be easier to learn due to similarities in grammar or vocabulary. For example, someone who knows German or French may have an easier time picking up English than a Japanese speaker due to the languages having some overlap. At the same time, a Japanese speaker may have an easier time learning Chinese.

Sometimes, these similarities can be owed to the history of a language, where a language may have derived from another/the same source or intertwined at some point. English borrows a significant number of French and German words.

Cultural influences

Learning a new language requires understanding of both cultural and practical aspects. Adapting to different social conventions, cultural norms, and language usage in varied contexts can be challenging.

For instance, some languages have a broader range of vocabulary for different occasions and levels of formality than others. In places like Korea, your age can even determine how you're addressed, how you should speak and how you/others around you behave.

If you come from a language that shares similar norms and conventions, you will likely have an easier time picking it up.

So, what's the hardest language to learn?

There’s no straight answer for this question. Learning a language is a highly individualized experience. The difficulty of learning a language can vary significantly from person to person based on their background, motivation, and exposure to the language.

Determining the hardest language to learn can be challenging, as language learning is a personal process influenced by multiple factors. Although evidence, such as the FSI rankings and linguistic analysis, provides a foundation for comprehending language difficulty, it isn’t always the solid answer. To simplify it though, the more different the language is from your own, the harder it’ll be. Don’t let this put you off; learning a language can be a gratifying experience. Need some reasons to help you decide if you should pick up English? Give our post 'Why should I learn English?' a read. 

Fancy brushing up on your language skills or picking up a new language entirely? Check out the Mondly app.

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