by Marc Anderson

What are the Hardest Languages to Learn and Why are they the Hardest to Learn?

happy family having a picnic

Most people in the world are multilingual, and everybody could be; no one is rigorously excluded from another’s language community except through lack of time and effort. Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them. – Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word

How long does it take to learn a second language, gain fluency, and build confidence in that newly acquired language?

How long it takes to learn a second language is a frequent question of language learners. And no doubt many of you have asked this same question yourself. It might come as no surprise that there is not a simple answer. There are many factors to consider. Some of these include:

  • the person’s prior experience in learning a foreign language
  • the individual’s learning ability
  • the motivation and inspiration for learning the language
  • the learning environment
  • the intensity of instruction
  • how closely the native language parallels the second language of study (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and script)
  • the level of proficiency the person wants to achieve (basic level, functional level, operational level, or extensive level)

What are the easiest languages to learn?

Keep It Simple on Scarlet in Flat Design.

The Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State and the British Foreign Office have listed approximate learning expectations for a number of languages. They report the easiest languages to learn as French, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch. They conclude that the languages that have a Latin base are the easiest to transition to English and vice-versa. These languages include (besides French, Spanish, Italian), Romanian, Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, and Romansh. They claim that it is relatively easy to decipher many of the words in the respective second language because of the huge number of words stemming from Latin. So learning both casual and formal vocabulary is the least difficult. They also report that the Germanic languages (English, German, Swedish, Danish, Faroese, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Dutch) are also fairly easy to learn.

Watch the video below to hear Richard Simcott talk about the easiest and hardest languages to learn.

What are the most difficult languages to learn?

On the other hand, these organizations report that the languages that are the most difficult to learn are Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean. These more difficult languages are characterized by the one or more of the following because they are/have:

  • most alien to the native speaker
  • difficult writing systems
  • many levels of formality
  • difficult pronunciation

What are some of the languages that fall in-between the easiest and most difficult to learn?

The next level of difficulty are those that have complicated grammar, difficulty pronunciation, and a complex writing system. These languages among others include Thai, Finnish, and Arabic.

Languages that have complex grammatical structures, case systems, and have somewhat difficult pronunciation fall into the next category. These are the Russian, Czech, and Polish languages.

The languages (Romanian, German, and Greek) are classified in the second easiest category of language learning. They are comprised of a slightly complicated grammar system, but one that is not particularly difficult.

What are the implications of this information for studying ESL?

First off, if your native language is Latin-based, you have a head start on deciphering many words in the English language. A staggering 60% of all English words come from Latin. Therefore, it will be much easier for you to achieve a higher proficiency in the English language at a quicker rate of learning. You will achieve success sooner which will be a motivating factor for you to continue with your language study.

These language in addition to English follow the Latin script (i.e. some may also have a second or third functional alphabet): Afrikaans, Albanian, Aragonese, Asturian, Aymara, Axeri, Basque, Belarusian, Bislama, Boholano, Bosnian, Breton, Breton, Catalan, Cebuano, Chamorro, Cherokee, Cornish, Corsican, Croatian, Cree, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Fijian, Filipino, Finnish, French, Frisian, Fula, Gaelic, Galician, German, Gikuyu, Guarani,  Haitian, Hausa, Hindu, Hawaiian, Hiri Motu, Hungarian, Icelandic, Ido, Igbo, Ilocano, Indonesian, Interlingua, Innu-aimun, Irish, Italian, Javanese, Judeo-Spanish, Khasi, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Kongo, Kurdish, Latvian, Laz, Leonese, Lingala, Lithuanian, Luganda, Luxembourgish, Maori, Malagasy, Malay, Maltese, Manx, Marshallese, Moldovan, Montenegrin, Nahuatl, Nauruan, Navajo, Ndebele, Norwegian, Occitan, Oromo, Palauan, Polish, Portuguese, Quechua, Romanian, Romansh, Samoan, Scottish, Serbian, Sindhi, Seychellois Creole, Shona, Slovak, Slovene, Somali, Sotho, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Swati, Tagalog, Tahitian, Tatar, Tetum, Tok Pisin, Tongan, Tsonga, Tswana, Turkish, Turkmen, Turoyo, Uzbek, Venda, Vietnamese, Volapuk, Voro, Walloon, Welsh, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, Zulu, and Zazki.

Couple Relaxing on the Grass and Eating Apples in Autumn Garden

What specifically are some other considerations when learning ESL?

As mentioned previously there are other considerations in determining how easy it is to learn English. Some of these you have control over and some you don’t. Understanding these factors that influence second language learning may help you in your quest to achieve your individual language goals.  Let’s look at each of these factors more closely:

The person’s prior experience in learning a foreign language

Do you know other languages? There is evidence that language learners transfer skills from one language to another. Knowing the components and the structure of one language enhances the knowledge in the other. Language transfer is described as the interaction between the learners’ prior linguistic knowledge (their native language or another learned language), the new language they encounter, and the individuals’ cognitive processes. Language transfer can occur in any number or combination of language components:  pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, etc.

The individual’s learning ability

John B. Carroll, a psychologist in the field of educational linguistics, formulated a theory about the individual’s learning ability that impacts language learning aptitude. He separates this learning ability from verbal intelligence and motivation. Carroll claims there are four separate abilities:  phonetic coding, grammatical, associative memory, and inductive learning.

  • Phonetic coding is the ability to perceive distinct sounds, associate a symbol with that sound and remember the association
  • Grammatical is the ability to recognize the specific grammatical function of a word, phrase, etc. in a sentence without any formal instruction
  • Associative memory is the ability to learn associations between words in a foreign language and their meanings and to remember the association
  • Inductive learning ability is the ability to induce or infer rules that govern the structure of a language

man painting a live picture


The motivation and inspiration for learning the language

  • Integrative Motivation The learner’s goal of learning a second language is defined as integrative motivation. Several researchers  (Crookes and Schmidt 1991; Falk 1978; Finegan 1999) state that students who are the most successful in learning a second language are those who admire the culture of that language, like the people who speak that language, and who strongly feel they want to familiarize or integrate into a that society that speaks that particular language. By using the second language in social interactions in a community that embraces that target language, then integrative motivation helps the learner with learning that language. This type of motivation also helps with more native-like pronunciation.
  • Instrumental Motivation Another type of motivation, instrumental motivation, is characterized as the desire to obtain something practical or concrete from the study of the second language (Hudson 2000). For example if you need the language towards graduation or a degree program, a specific job application, higher salary for your language ability, reading certain material in that target language, translation work, or achieving higher social status. Instrumental motivation does not rely on social integration of the learner into that particular society where the language is used.

Why are their two types of motivation for language acquisition?

Although both types of motivation are important for language acquisition, integrative motivation helps sustain more long-term success (Taylor, Meynard and Rheault 1977; Ellis 1997; Crookes 1991). It is reported that more second language learners have instrumental reasons to study the language. Yet it is those who follow an integrative approach to learning a second language who usually are more highly motivated and meet more success in the language learning. Oftentimes, learners have both types of motivation. For example an international students studying in Canada or the U.K. most likely is learning English for an academic reason while integrating with the people and culture of the new country.

The learning environment

Why is the input a learner receives so important?

The most important factor that affects second language learning is the input that the learner receives. Stephen Krashen discusses the important of the right learning environment. He also cites studies that show that the length of time someone stays in a foreign country is linked to the level of language acquisition. Another important aspect that impacts language learning is reading; i.e. reading large amounts of free choice reading which influences the learners’ grammar, vocabulary and overall writing skills. Still another positive contributing factor to second language acquisition is the ability to use the language (speaking) as often as possible.

couple in the cafe terrace talking

The intensity of instruction

What is meant by “intensity of instruction” and why is this so valuable to learning ESL?

Intensity of instruction refers to the length of time the students have some type of instruction (face-to-face, online, tutoring, etc.). It ranges from low intensity of 100 hours spread out over 250 days to high intensity of 100 hours of instruction over 2.5 months. Research shows that the greater the number of instructional hours, the more language gain the students made.  Sarah Young, from the Center of Applied Linguistics, addresses the effects of intensity of instruction on language gains in listening and speaking (2007): the time available for instruction and the instructional setting, type of instruction, type of entry, time of instruction, length of the program, and level of resources all play a role in language learning.

How closely the native language parallels the second language of study (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and script)

What makes languages similar to each other?

How closely the second language of study resembles the native language contributes to the success of learning the new language. For example, if the grammar structure is similar, then it would be easier to learn the second language. Likewise, the same for vocabulary (if there are either similar words or word stems), pronunciation, and how the language is written. That is why for a native English speaker, such languages as previously mentioned (Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean) are most difficult. They are the most alien to the English speaker. The writing is more difficult as characters are used instead of an alphabet. There are levels of formality and difficult sounds to pronounce (unfamiliar consonant and vowel sounds and combinations) that are not at all similar to the English language. There is a more complicated grammar structure. Whereas, if you were studying a language that is more similar to your native language, you could make some comparisons and use this prior knowledge to gain new knowledge more quickly.

The level of proficiency the person wants to achieve (basic level, functional level, operational level, or extensive level)

What level of language proficiency do you want to achieve?

If you only want to learn simple greetings (i.e. hello, how are you, my name is, thank you, please) then it is obvious that reaching this basic goal is much easier and will take less work and time than if you want to learn more of the language. For example to reach a functional level so you can answer the phone, take messages, converse about yourself/family would involve more time in study and more attention to building your grammar and vocabulary skills. The operational level would take more time to reach as this level of language acquisition allows you to operate in the language and to speak with fluency, understanding both casual and formal English. You can attend meetings and can contribute readily as conversation is no problem. The highest level of language acquisition is at a near native level. It is the level in which you can have success in education and employment arenas.

Concluding Comments

Remember that anyone can be multilingual if you exert time and effort into study. Let me know how I can help you. Write to me in the space below about your thoughts and your goals about language fluency. Our staff is here to help you make your life richer by knowing another language.

Other Resources and Alternative Opinions on the Topic

What’s the hardest language to learn in the world?
What are the hardest languages to learn infographic
10 Hardest Languages To Learn For English Speakers
Hardest Languages to Learn

Confused or doubtful young man scratching his head looking up

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.