The 5 most difficult languages

The current lockdown can be used to learn a new language. Most Germans already learn English and French during their school years. However, which languages are actually the most difficult to learn as a native German speaker? Read below everything you need to know about the 5 most difficult languages to learn.

Dictionary

Why are some languages harder to learn than others? 

How difficult it is to learn a new language depends primarily on your native language. Depending on how far the desired foreign language is linguistically from your own native language, the degree of difficulty will be determined. 

  • Learning is more difficult if the chosen foreign language uses a different alphabet than the native language, e.g. Russian vs. English. 
  • There can also be major differences in terms of pronunciation. Some languages contain sounds that do not occur in your native language, e.g. the rolled “R” in Spanish. In this case, it takes some practice to reproduce the sounds when speaking and to perceive them correctly when listening.
  • The fewer common words two languages share, the more difficult it is to acquire the new vocabulary. In English, for example, words can be found that are not completely identical but similar enough to make learning very easy for native speakers of German. Languages that do not have such parallels are correspondingly more difficult to learn. 

Factors that influence your learning process

  • Time: How much time do you invest to learn the new language? 
  • Interest: Is your interest high enough to keep up consistently over a longer period of time?
  • Native speaker: Do you have the opportunity to communicate with a native speaker of the chosen foreign language? Maybe you even have the opportunity to travel to a destination where your chosen language is being spoken. In the natural surroundings, learning a language comes easier and more naturally.

Age: Generally speaking, children can pick up foreign languages quite easily, although not perfectly. A foreign language learned before the age of 8 to 10 can often be learned without an accent. Of course, this should not discourage anyone from learning a foreign language later in life. However, with increasing age, it becomes more difficult to break certain habits, such as the pronunciation of specific sounds.

alphabet

The 5 Hardest Languages in the World

Mandarin

The most widely spoken language in the world is Mandarin. It belongs to the group of Chinese languages. Mandarin is particularly difficult to learn because it is a tonal language. That means that each tone has a phonetic transcription system. Thus, one word can have multiple meanings, depending on stress, sound, and pronunciation. Likewise, individual words can take on different meanings depending on the context. In addition, while written Chinese is the same throughout the country, pronunciation varies by region and dialect. Mandarin does not have an alphabet from A to Z as we know it. Instead, over 80,000 characters are used. However, knowing around 3000 to 5000 of these characters is already sufficient to speak and write as well as navigate through daily life situations.

Japanese

In Japanese, the writing system is a big challenge for those who want to learn the language. This is due to there being three different writing systems. There are all based on the Chinese script but independent of each other: Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. Each writing system is based on a different alphabet. Another challenge to learning Japanese is the many forms of politeness that are commonplace in Japan. These include, for example, the different forms of addressing men and women. It can also be confusing at first that in Japanese a question is indicated by the interrogative word „ka“. However, the question word is at the end of the sentence. Thus, good listening skills are required to distinguish between propositional and interrogative sentences since you will not know which kind of sentence you are dealing with until the “ka” at the end of the sentence is added or omitted.

Arabic

The Arabic language has a particularly large number of dialects which differ greatly from country to country or even from region to region. For example, in Moroccan Arabic which is strongly influenced by French a word may sound completely different than it does in Egyptian Arabic. Therefore, many learners of Arabic learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). This is understood by all Arabic-speaking countries but not spoken. In everyday life, native Arabic speakers hear and read MSA only in the news, the newspaper, or other official speeches.

Written Arabic is particularly difficult because vowels are generally omitted. Native speakers know from context which vowels to use. For a foreign speaker, however, this is a great challenge. In addition, there are diacritical marks which can also completely change the pronunciation and meaning of the word. For example, the same word can have five different meanings, depending on the diacritics used. Pronunciation is also not very easy for native German speakers as many gutturals are used in Arabic.

letter

Hungarian

Hungarian is one of the languages with the most difficult grammar rules. There are a total of 26 grammatical cases which must be observed and learned. In comparison, in German there are only 4 grammatical cases. In addition, instead of the in German well-known 26 letters, there are 44 letters in the Hungarian alphabet. Furthermore, Hungarian is a so-called agglutinative language, i.e. suffixes are ’stuck on‘ (’sticking on‘ in Latin means ‚agglutinate‘). The sticking on of these suffixes replaces the prepositions used in German. Likewise, possessive pronouns do not exist. These are also replaced by suffixes. Because of these grammar rules and the associated pronunciation, Hungarian is very difficult to learn for native German speakers. 

Finnish

Similar difficulties as the case for Hungarian are present in Finnish. Finnish is also an agglutinative language. This means that suffixes are ‘stuck on’ to words. Likewise, there are many more grammatical cases than in German. However, while there are 26 grammatical cases in Hungarian, there are ‚only‘ 15 of these grammatical cases in Finnish. Another challenge is that Finnish does not resemble any other language. Estonian is the closest relative of Finnish. Thus, when learning Finnish, you will encounter many words that you have never heard before – even though Finland is geographically not that far from Germany. This is mainly due to the fact that foreign words are not simply taken over in Finnish but they are given their own word. For example, the English word „computer“, which is also „Computer“ in German, is „Tietokone“ in Finnish. 

In a nutshell

The further away a language is from one’s native language and the fewer parallels can be found, the more difficult the language is to learn. For Germans, languages with a logographic script, i.e. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, are particularly difficult to learn. Languages that have their own alphabetic script, such as Arabic, Russian or Greek, are also more difficult to learn. Many factors determine whether you will find the foreign language you want to learn easy or difficult. Most importantly, a lot depends on your learning behavior and your motivation.