March 1, 2009

World's Hardest Languages to Learn

Have you ever wondered what the world's hardest languages to learn are?

Well Leximo has been wondering so we decided to ask other language enthusiasts and here are their responses.


"Icelandic is the hardest language to learn because of its archaic vocabulary and complex grammar. Learning it is additionally difficult for English speakers to learn because most native speakers under a certain age also speak English wel"l - Peter A. Gudmundsson

Russian or Mandarin

"I've studied Spanish, French, German, Swahili, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. (I'm only fluent in English and Spanish, though.) The hardest would be either Russian (the awful grammar!) or Mandarin (the tones, the writing). Foreigners have told me that English is pretty easy, then they qualify that to mean the written, not the spoken. Reason: simple grammar". - Miles Abernathy


"Arabic, because it is a language which requires you to learn how to write and read opposite than you are accustomed to (right to left rather than left to right), the sounds are guttural and you have to learn new annunciation for the language.

I studied the language for a little over a year, 5 days a week, eight hours a day at the Defense Language Institute until I was "proficient." I then lived in Cairo for three years, where I became much more proficient in conversational Arabic (Egyptian Dialect) "- Michelle M. Friedman


"I have heard that Icelandic is the hardest language to learn, however, I can't imagine anything more difficult than learning Mandarin Chinese.

I speak am a American English speaker from the south, I speak spanish well, and can converse and carry on business in Polish, Hindi, and Russian.

I have taken up Chinese as a part of expanding my ministry and though I have a strong proclivity towards language, the tones in Chinese have posed a particular threat to my success in learning it.

Amazingly enough my young children have mastered the tones and can even be understood by native speakers- who just look at me and smile. I have no experience with Icelandic but it is my heartfelt conviction that Mandarin is the toughest language to master". - Andrea R. Frayser


"Check out “How to learn any language” by Harry Farber. The guy speaks abut 35 languages and claims Hungarian is one of the hardest as it has masculine, feminine and neuter genders as well as about 7 different verb conjugations. It is also one of a handful of “independent” languages, meaning no one really knows their origins and they are not linked to any base language set like Latin (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) One of the easiest is supposedly Polynesian. To make a word plural, you just say it twice". – Jim Taylor


"The reason is because there are a million words in English and new words show up all the time. Also, the rules for sentence structure in English don't follow the rules for most of the languages in the world.

Most languages have the verb come first before the subject where in English the first follows the subject. English also has articles like a, an & the, which other languages, like Chinese, don't have.

The average language has about 50,000 words in its vocabulary compared to English at a million. French is second with a quarter million words". - Lloyd Lofthouse


"I’d say the hardest language to learn is Hindi. While I love the writing, the script is even less distinct and more difficult to read than Chinese characters (which I can read). Also, the fact that there are different words whether you’re speaking to a male or female or whether you as the speaker are male or female makes it even more complicated".

"Also, their words are soo long. Either before or during brief trips to these countries, I’ve picked up some Greek, Italian, French, Arabic, German, and Swahili; I’ve also studied Chinese and Spanish. However none compares in difficulty to learn, pronounce, read, and understand than Hindi. Another reason why Hindi is hard, even in country, compared to these other languages is because people are more likely to speak to you in English in India, whereas in the other countries you can hear more of the native language. These are my reason for arguing Hindi is the hardest".

Some recommendations I’d have for others learning languages are

  1. Do an immersion in the language (go to the country) if you truly want to learn it.
  2. If that option is not available, start with comprehensive input (ie listen to as much as possible), then find a language partner to practice speaking.
  3. If you want more structure in learning a language (or someone to start you with the basics) but can’t find or afford a course locally, you can search a site like to find teachers who teach any variety of languages online.
– Toffler Niemuth


"I'd go with Cantonese. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is not only a tonal language (which is hard for people who grew up speaking a non-tonal language) but it has 8 tones, as opposed to the 4 for Mandrin. This makes it difficult even for speakers of other
  2. Chinese dialects.
  3. Chinese has a pictograph writing system. As opposed to western characters, Korean, Thai, Arabic or Cyrillic, there are thousands of characters to learn as opposed to tens. I have been told that literacy in Chinese writing consists of knowing 4700 characters".
- Gary Arndt


"While I'm sure there are harder languages (Cantonese comes to mind), Mandarin Chinese stands out as an incredibly tough language to learn. I also speak Spanish, which felt hard when I was learning it, but in retrospect and in comparison to Chinese, it's a piece of cake. Here's what makes Chinese hard:

  1. The Written Language - with a total of 20,000+ characters, just learning the 4-5000 necessary for reading a newspaper is quite a hurdle. There's no real secret to it; it must just be learned by practice.
  2. The Tones - Chinese is a tonal language, which means if you accidentally use the wrong inflection, you'll say something completely different. Pronounce "ma" with a downward, followed by upward inflection instead of a high even one, and you'll accidentally call your "mother" a "horse".
  3. Combinations - Chinese, being monosyllabic relies on combinations of simpler words to form bigger ones. The bad news is that when you combine compound words to form other compound words, you often split the original words before combining. For example, take "super", which is "chao ji" and "market" which is "ji shi" (by the way, those "ji" are different written characters with different meanings that just happen to be pronounced with the same tone). To create the word "supermarket", you drop the two "ji" words and say "chao shi". (sorry, I don't have a link for this one yet!)

Once you can get over these three hurdles, the learning curve flattens and adding vocabulary does become much easier, but that takes a while. I'm not there yet, having studied the language for nearly two years". - Theron Welch


"Tamil – They are a total of 247 characters, more than script, pronunciation is tough. For example, it is actually Tamizh (zh doesn’t have an exact English spelling)". – LTGenPanda

So there you have it, according to the people Leximo interviewed, those are the hardest languages to learn. Looks like there's a clear consensus that Chinese, whether Cantonese or Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn. If you think we missed a language, or would like to suggest another, let us know by leaving a comment.


  1. Sven, to your grammatical and idiomatic delight I did mean -like an eaten cake- I think that with two languages in mind, you have a right to mix once in a while. Unlike any foreigner I learnt english as if it were my own. It wasn't so long ago, 10- 15 years maybe. I'm still young, 27. This could only be understood perhaps by someone who has parents of two distinct nationalities and has had contact to two languages from start. I could argue that the reason of english having so many words is precisely because it's so widespread that it not only has influenced other languages like the chinese but has also influenced itself over time. ¿How many mexican american 'chicanos' or asian americans- hindus, arabs ukranians, french live in the US? And they're americans. Most don't speak their mother language like a native would. In fact, last time I went to a cruise in the Caribbean many although with latin american faces didn't speak a word of spanish. Only english. In Paris I met many asian- latino like people who did not know a word of any other language but english, they didn't even speak french right. And they treated you like a foreigner. It was funny for me to get that feeling because for a long time as a kid I too was american in a way. Many were shocked when I spoke to them in english. Yes, I speak fluently and perfect. I've met americans, french, italian and irish who speak perfect spanish, or viceversa. it's not impossible. No one is stupid. With respect to your verb uses, I'm aware of that. You've only mentioned french and german. These two languages have strong similarities to english. So it shouldn't be hard for you. A friend of mine who lives in Russia hates english, and even though he could speak it right he doesn't want to. He undertands perfectly when he reads though, but hates it. And he hates the fact that spanish stopped using latin declinations. I defend english in very much the same way you do when they denigrate it. I try to say why it is not so simple. I even speak of the modern translated version of the beowulf poem or Shakespeare to say that it's not so plain. But, I also give hints and encourage people from my language who need to learn english as a requisite for school, work, or college. Of course I also enjoy Cervantes and Borges. The spanish, a language just as easy as english :) has many terms and words that may have different meanings and senses if you put it in different contexts or say it in a different way. Believe me when I say it, this does not happen in Russian or English. ¿Why do you think laws here are so hard? We always carry this double or triple interpretation of things. Many words aren't known either in their lexical latin origins, and even less the lexical changes and meanings adopted over time by other languages like french or english. There are many latin american spanish ways of saying things, that would not be correct to the latin form of saying it. Also, tomate, chocolate--- they all end in te ¿Do you know why? Because it's aztec, and those words come from the aztec language. This to not speak of catalan and the spanish from spain way of saying things. ¿Why do you think a cuban novel like tres triztes tigres has many phrases interpeted differently in mexico or colombia or spain even though its written correctly in the same language? The reason why many -foreigners- learn english is because they have to. It's become a necessity like math. Not many like it though, and 99.9 % of them don't even care about what we're talking about. Mostly just care to learn it for bussiness and relationships. They wouln't care if they said it australian, english or american. Or spanish. We too have many sayings like -piece of cake- so what?

  2. Hindi and Tamil are Indian languages. Among Indian languages they are easier. Malayalam language in Kerala State is the hardest Indian language, perhaps the hardest world language.

  3. Actually when you think about there really isn't a "hardest language to learn." it all just depends on the language you already know. I'm fluent in English and Japanese so right now learning French is pretty easy But that's just me.