Which is the hardest language to learn?


This is a very subjective question, because the answer will be influenced by the person asking the question.

The first thing to consider is the native language of the person making the enquiry. 

If the person is English speaking then the general consensus is that they will find it easier to pick up Germanic languages that have similar writing systems, grammatical rules and overlapping vocabulary.

That being said there are some other factors that make a language more complex to learn.

Factors that make a language complex

Whether the language is tonal

Tonal languages such as Chinese have different words, that sound the same to a foreign ear but in fact mean different things.

The number of characters that need to be learned

Japanese for example has thousands of characters that have to be learned before being able to write. It also has three independent writing systems, each with a different alphabet. 

Complexity of grammatical rules

Some languages have very complex rules when it comes to grammar and sentence structure.

For example, Hungarian boasts somewhere between 18 to 35 grammatical cases depending on what you are including in the list. 

Distinctive pronunciation

Some languages are spoken in a way that make it difficult for new learners to master the pronunciation of words in that language.

For example the clicking consonants of the languages in Southern Africa may take a lot of practice for the average European to pick up.

The American foreign service institute categorises languages into four levels of difficulty based on the hours it takes for a person to achieve speaking, reading and writing proficiency. 

The categorisation assumes that the person’s native language is English and that they are learning the foreign language full time.

The more difficult languages include Arabic, Japanese, Chinese which all take an average of 88 weeks to learn, which is 1.69 years.

The languages that take less time to learn include the Germanic  - Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Danish - and Romance languages - French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian.

These take an average of about 23-24 weeks to learn, which is about 6 months.

But whatever the level of difficulty, all languages can be learned and there are several techniques that can make language acquisition easier. 


How to learn a language quickly

Target core vocabulary

Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language accounts for 50% of all spoken communication. The most common 1,000 words account for 80% of all spoken communication and the most common 3,000 words account for 99% of communication.

So focussing on learning key vocabulary first, i.e. the most common 100 words is an effective way to quickly start communicating in the chosen foreign language.

Studying with intensity

Studying a language with intensity and committing to investing a significant amount of time over a period of months will trump an hourly class each week over a period of years.

Engage in conversation

Studying a foreign language abroad is considered one of the best methods  of language learning as it forces the learner into numerous conversations with native speakers, thus speeding up the learning process.

But if the learner can’t drop everything and move abroad then the next best thing is to find a native speaker who will give them an opportunity to engage in regular conversation.

Learn it for a reason

Moving abroad speeds up language acquisition because the learner has to learn the language in order to go about their daily business. They not only wants to learn the language, they need to learn the language. 

Having a compelling reason to learn a foreign language strengthens the motivation to learn.

Become tolerant of ambiguity and mistakes

When learning a language there will be a lot of things that will be missed and a lot of mistakes that will be made in conversation.

The learner needs to learn to be comfortable with ambiguity and their own mistakes. The focus should be on trying to understand the gist of the conversation taking place and over time ambiguity and mistakes will be ironed out.

Focusing too much on knowing everything and speaking perfectly can be detrimental to the learning process.

Enjoy TV, music and books in that language

A good way to learn language is to enjoy cultural material within that language.

It’s important to choose material of an appropriate difficulty level, so for beginners it’s better to watch children’s cartoons or dubbed versions of sitcoms that they are already familiar with.

Using all of the previous techniques have been proven to significantly speed up learning a foreign language.