Challenging Languages for Learners with an English Background

Learning a new language is a pursuit that’s as practical as it is fun. While most people would set out to find the ones that are easy to learn, others like a challenge. And we salute them for that.

Whether you’re a polyglot looking to get your mind busy again, a first-time learner or someone simply curious here’s a list of the world’s toughest languages to learn if you come from an English background:

1. Mandarin Chinese

Are you surprised that the toughest language to learn is also the world’s most widely spoken language? What makes this native language so challenging for English speakers, or any other non-Chinese speaker for that matter?

For one, the writing system is difficult. You will have to memorize thousands of unique characters, something that you don’t tackle in most Latin-based languages. But with the help of Chinese tuition assignments, it would be an easy task.

Then there’s the tone. The tonal nature of Mandarin makes it hard for learners to master the language. It also uses many expressions that don’t have a direct translation (idioms) and words that sound the same but have different meanings (homophones).

Chinese has several dialects, and the most common dialect (Mandarin) has four tones. That means one word can be said in four different ways, and each pronunciation has a different meaning. For example, ma can mean four different things:

  • mā (媽 ) — mother
  • má (麻) — hemp
  • mǎ (馬) — horse
  • mà (罵 ) — scold

Just because something is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Knowing how to Chinese will allow you to access millions of people and experiences that you otherwise won’t get to have.

2. Korean

Good news: even though Korean made it to this list, the writing system (Hangul) is relatively easy to pick up. It’s not tonal, either. So, you can say the word “sarang” (사랑) in many ways, and it wouldn’t change its meaning.

So, what makes it hard? For us, it’s the complex use of prefixes and suffixes to replace prepositions, the unfamiliar grammatical structure, and the different speech levels that depend on the formality of the situation.

For example, to apologize in Korean, you say:

  • 미안합니다 (mi-an-ham-ni-da) (Formal)
  • 미안해요 (mi-an-he-yo) (Polite)
  • 미안해 (mi-an-he) (Casual)
  • 미안 (mi-an) (Super casual)
Guy stressed with homework
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3. Arabic

Two things make Arabic hard to learn: it uses its script, and it’s written from left to right. This non-Latin alphabet has 28 letters with intricately distinct sounds, which can be challenging for beginners to familiarize.

Let’s also include the fact that the written form excludes vowels, and Arabic speakers only identify the words based on context. The grammatical structure is new too, and you have to learn the dual form of words in addition to the more straightforward singular and plural forms.

The good news is it’s relatively easier to learn a language today than it was before. We’re living in a much more multi-lingual-friendly world. There are voice-over translation services, and we have online tutoring. There are language learning apps that make the whole process less daunting.

While these three languages have proven trickier to learn than others, you at least have the tools to facilitate and enrich your experience. They’re not rocket science, and they’re not impossible to learn if you put the work in.

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