The Most Difficult Languages to Learn for English Speakers

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The Most Difficult Languages to Learn for English Speakers

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Being able to speak a different language is fun and can come in handy, especially when you’re traveling. However, learning one is hard work and takes a lot of practice and dedication.

Learning a new language can either be fun and easy or frustrating and difficult, depending on how determined you are and the language you wish to learn. Some are harder to learn than others, taking weeks to months before you can master just the basics.

Below are some of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers, according to the Foreign Service Institute standards.


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Xhosa (Category IV)

Xhosa is among the many languages used in Africa. It uses 18 click consonants—speech sounds that occur as consonants—articulated in three different places: the back of the teeth, the roof of the mouth, and side of the mouth.

Business Insider, an American financial and business news website, describes Xhosa as a “tonal language,” which means the intonation put on the word can change its meaning, with two tones (high and low). Speaking the language requires a person to indicate one of the 15 noun cases that agree with the noun’s gender.


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Vietnamese (Category IV)

Vietnamese is also a tonal language with six different tones that states the meaning of a word, along with the high number of vowel sounds, which can be difficult for English speakers. The language also has more pronouns compared to English and uses a “classifiers” system or words that change the nouns in certain contexts. Native English speakers may not be exposed to such a system, making the language difficult for them to learn.


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Hungarian (Category IV)

Built around the case system, Hungarian grammar has 18 noun cases that dictate how certain words are put together and expressed. It also has several vowels (á, é, í, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, ű) and consonants (cs, gy, ly, ny, ty, sz, zs) that may be difficult to understand for English speakers. Being a Category IV on the FSI standards, Hungarian takes up to 44 weeks to learn.


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Korean (Category V)

Pronunciation is one of the most difficult aspects of learning how to speak Korean especially for English speakers since there are double consonants that are pronounced differently to single consonants, for instance. Korea’s grammar system is also complex that it has formal and informal markers, as well as different word order that puts the verbs at the end of a sentence.


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Cantonese (Category V)

It will take a learner up to 88 weeks of studying to learn how to speak Cantonese, as per the FSI standard. Similar to Vietnamese, Cantonese is also a tonal language. There are eight different tones that the speaker can use in pronouncing a word.


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Mandarin (Category V)

Although Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, it is still one of the hardest to learn. Like Cantonese, this is also a tonal language that varies in meaning based on the intonation the speaker uses. The syllable “ba,” for instance, can mean “eight,” “pull out,” “hold,” or “dad” depending on the speaker’s tone.


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Arabic (Category V)

Arabic is also one of the most spoken languages with 315 million native speakers worldwide. But that great number doesn’t reduce the difficulty of learning how to speak it. For English speakers, it is difficult to read in Arabic since it’s written in a different alphabet and has very few common words with English, Business Insider says.


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Japanese (Category V)

One of the reasons why Japanese is difficult to learn is because it has more than one set of written characters. Learning this language requires memorizing all these characters—thousands of them—to achieve fluency. It is also highly contextual, meaning it takes on various forms depending on the formality of the situation.