The Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on: September 28, 2023

Identifying the most difficult languages for native English speakers provides valuable insight before committing to learn a new tongue, allowing you to understand the challenges that lie ahead.

But not all languages are created equal when it comes to ease of learning, especially for native English speakers. 

In this article, we'll explore the ten hardest languages to learn, why they are considered challenging, and provide you with five valuable tips to conquer the linguistic Everest.

Top 10 Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers

According to the US Foreign Service Institute, the difficulty of learning languages for English speakers can be divided into four categories according to the time of learning (30 weeks / 36 weeks / 44 weeks / 88 weeks) going from the easiest languages to learn to the hardest one.

We invite you to meet the main languages which have a high level of difficulty for English speakers due to its significant linguistic and cultural differences with English.

1. Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is often considered one of the most challenging languages for English speakers due to several formidable factors. 

First and foremost, its tonal nature sets it apart. Mandarin uses four distinct tones, each with different pitch patterns, to convey meaning. 

A subtle change in tone can turn one word into an entirely different word, making pronunciation accuracy crucial. This tonal complexity adds a layer of difficulty that English speakers aren't accustomed to in their native language.

Additionally, Mandarin Chinese employs a character-based writing system, which is vastly different from the Latin alphabet used in English. Learning to read and write thousands of intricate characters demands considerable time and effort. 

Furthermore, Mandarin vocabulary and grammar differ significantly from English, further contributing to the language's reputation as a formidable challenge. 

The combination of tonal intricacies, character-based script, and distinct linguistic structures places Mandarin Chinese firmly among the hardest languages for English speakers to learn, making it a linguistic mountain worth conquering for those up to the task.

2. Arabic

Arabic is undeniably one of the most challenging languages for native English speakers to master.

One of the key reasons is its unique script. Arabic uses a right-to-left script, which is entirely different from the left-to-right Latin alphabet used in English. Learning to read and write Arabic script is a complex endeavor in itself, requiring learners to adapt to a new writing direction and master a range of unfamiliar characters and ligatures.

Another significant challenge lies in Arabic phonology. The language includes a wide array of distinct sounds, many of which do not exist in English. These include guttural and emphatic sounds that can be difficult for English speakers to pronounce accurately. 

Furthermore, Arabic features a complex system of vowels and consonants that change based on the word's position in a sentence. This intricate phonological system, combined with the script's challenges, makes Arabic a formidable linguistic puzzle for English speakers. 

Additionally, Arabic grammar differs significantly from English, with a unique structure and intricate rules for verb conjugation and noun declension. These linguistic differences add yet another layer of complexity, making Arabic one of the hardest languages for English speakers to tackle.

3. Japanese

One of the most striking aspects is the language's writing system, which employs three scripts: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. 

Hiragana and Katakana are syllabic scripts with hundreds of characters each, and Kanji utilizes Chinese characters to represent words or concepts. This complexity can be overwhelming for English learners who are accustomed to a single alphabet.

The need to memorize thousands of characters and distinguish between these scripts adds a significant layer of difficulty.

Furthermore, Japanese grammar is notably different from English. The language relies heavily on context, omitting subjects and often relying on particles to indicate grammatical relationships within a sentence. 

Japanese also employs a range of honorifics and polite language forms, which require a nuanced understanding of social context and relationships to use correctly. All these elements contribute to the perception of Japanese as a challenging language for English speakers, but mastering it can be an incredibly rewarding experience for those willing to take on the challenge.

4. Korean

One of the most notable aspects is its writing system, Hangul. While it's an alphabet-based script, it features unique characters that represent both individual sounds (consonants and vowels) and syllables. 

This means that learners must become proficient in recognizing and combining these characters to read and write Korean, adding an initial layer of complexity for English speakers.

Korean grammar is another significant hurdle. The language employs a subject-object-verb (SOV) sentence structure, which differs from the subject-verb-object (SVO) structure commonly used in English. This structural difference means that learners must reorder their thinking when constructing sentences, leading to potential confusion. 

Additionally, Korean includes various honorifics and politeness levels, which determine how one addresses others and expresses social hierarchy. The correct usage of these honorifics adds an intricate layer of linguistic and cultural understanding to the language. 

Overall, the combination of a unique script, distinct grammar, and intricate honorific system makes Korean a challenging language for English speakers to master.

5. Russian

Russian is often considered one of the most challenging languages for English speakers due to several distinctive features that set it apart. 

One of the primary hurdles is the Cyrillic script, which is entirely different from the Latin alphabet used in English. Learning to read and write in Cyrillic requires English learners to familiarize themselves with a new set of characters and their associated sounds. This shift in writing systems demands considerable time and effort.

Grammar is another significant factor contributing to the complexity of Russian. The language has a complex system of cases, with six different cases that change the endings of nouns, adjectives, and pronouns depending on their grammatical role in a sentence. 

That means that word endings constantly change, adding a layer of intricacy for learners who are unaccustomed to such a system. Additionally, Russian verbs are conjugated based on tense, aspect, mood, and person, which can be quite challenging to grasp for English speakers used to simpler verb conjugations.

These grammatical complexities, combined with the Cyrillic script, make Russian a formidable language to learn for native English speakers.

6. Finnish

Finnish is widely recognized as one of the most challenging languages for English speakers to learn, primarily due to its unique linguistic characteristics. 

One of the key hurdles is its complex system of grammatical cases. Finnish features a total of 15 cases, each altering the form of nouns and adjectives based on their role in a sentence. 

While English largely relies on word order to convey meaning, Finnish depends heavily on these case endings, making it a significant departure from the familiar structure of English sentences.

Furthermore, Finnish vocabulary is distinct and bears little resemblance to English. It includes numerous loanwords from other languages, such as Swedish and Russian, but these may not always provide an intuitive connection for English speakers. 

Additionally, Finnish words can be quite long, often formed by combining smaller words to create a new term. This word construction adds complexity and a need for memorization that can be daunting for learners. The combination of intricate grammar, unique vocabulary, and word formation rules makes Finnish a formidable language to tackle for native English speakers.

7. Icelandic

One of the notable features of Icelandic is its grammar, which is incredibly complex. 

The language has a rich system of cases, with four noun cases and two adjective cases. These cases dictate the form of words depending on their role in a sentence, and the endings of words can change significantly.

Another aspect of Icelandic that adds to its difficulty is its rich vocabulary and its preservation. Icelandic has retained many archaic words and phrases, making it quite different from modern English. 

Additionally, Icelandic words can be quite long and intricate, often composed of multiple smaller words combined to convey a specific meaning. This vocabulary complexity, along with the challenging grammar, makes Icelandic a language that demands considerable dedication and patience for English speakers to master.

8. Hungarian

Hungarian is widely regarded as one of the most challenging languages for English speakers to master, primarily due to its unique linguistic features. 

The language uses a system of cases, much like Finnish, where the endings of nouns and adjectives change depending on their grammatical role in a sentence. Hungarian has a total of 18 cases, which adds a significant layer of complexity for English speakers who are accustomed to a simpler grammatical structure.

Another daunting aspect of Hungarian is its vocabulary. While it does have some loanwords from other languages, Hungarian vocabulary is largely unrelated to English, making it necessary for learners to start from scratch.

Additionally, Hungarian words can be quite long and composed of multiple morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning in a word. This complexity in word construction can be challenging for English speakers who are used to shorter, more straightforward words. 

9. Navajo

Navajo, an indigenous Native American language, presents significant challenges for English speakers due to its unique linguistic features. One of the most striking aspects of Navajo is its tonal nature. 

The language employs high and low tones, which are crucial for conveying meaning. A small shift in tone can completely change the word's interpretation, making accurate pronunciation a key obstacle for English learners who are unaccustomed to tonal languages.

Moreover, Navajo grammar is incredibly complex. The language relies on an agglutinative structure, where words are formed by adding various prefixes and suffixes to a root word. These affixes indicate a wealth of grammatical information, such as tense, mood, and aspect. 

Additionally, Navajo verbs are notably intricate, with multiple prefixes and suffixes that indicate various grammatical nuances. 

10. Basque

One of the key reasons for this difficulty is the lack of known linguistic relatives to Basque. 

It is what linguists call a "language isolate," meaning it has no apparent connection to any other language in the world. This isolation presents a significant challenge because there are no familiar reference points from which English speakers can draw when learning vocabulary or grammar.

Additionally, Basque has a complex system of verb conjugations, which involves a large number of verb forms to express different tenses, moods, and aspects.

The language also features a unique case system, which marks nouns for various grammatical functions, such as subject, object, or possession. This system of cases is quite different from what English speakers are accustomed to, adding to the language's complexity. 

Overall, Basque's lack of linguistic relatives, intricate verb conjugations, and complex case system combine to make it one of the hardest languages for English speakers to tackle.

Why are these languages so challenging?

Each of these languages presents unique difficulties for English speakers. Here's a closer look at why they're considered some of the hardest to learn:

  • Tonal Nature: Mandarin Chinese uses tones to differentiate words, making pronunciation crucial for comprehension.
  • Complex Characters: Mandarin's characters require extensive memorization.
  • Arabic Script: Arabic's script is vastly different from the Latin alphabet used in English, making it challenging to read and write.
  • Multiple Writing Systems: Japanese employs three writing systems—Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji—each with its own complexities.
  • Grammar Complexity: Korean, Russian, and Hungarian have intricate grammatical structures that differ significantly from English.
  • Unique Scripts: Finnish, Icelandic, and Basque use scripts not found in English, requiring learners to start from scratch.
  • Rich Vocabulary: Icelandic and Hungarian boast extensive vocabularies that can be overwhelming.
  • Native American Languages: Navajo, a tonal language, presents difficulties in pronunciation and verb structure.

The Hardest Languages to Learn for English Speakers: Conclusion 

Learning one of the hardest languages for English speakers is undoubtedly a daunting task, but it's also a tremendously rewarding one.

The challenge itself can be a source of personal growth and a gateway to new experiences. So, don't be discouraged by the difficulty; instead, embrace it as an opportunity to expand your horizons, connect with new cultures, and develop valuable skills that will stay with you for a lifetime.

In conclusion, whether you choose Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, or any other challenging language, remember that perseverance and a passion for learning will be your most valuable assets on this linguistic adventure.


1. Which language is the absolute hardest to learn for English speakers?

There's no definitive answer, as the difficulty of learning a language can vary from person to person. However, Mandarin Chinese, with its tonal nature and complex characters, is often considered one of the toughest for English speakers.

2. Are there any languages that are easy for English speakers to learn?

Some languages, such as Spanish, French, and Dutch, are generally considered easier for English speakers due to similarities in vocabulary and grammar.

3. Can anyone learn these challenging languages, or is it reserved for linguistic geniuses?

Anyone can learn a challenging language with dedication and the right resources. While it may be more demanding, it's not limited to linguistic geniuses.

4. How long does it take to become proficient in one of these difficult languages?

The time it takes to become proficient varies widely based on factors like your prior language learning experience, the amount of time you dedicate to learning, and the language's complexity. Expect it to take several years of consistent effort.

5. Are there scholarships or programs available to help with learning these challenging languages?

Yes, various scholarship programs and language immersion programs are available to support learners interested in mastering challenging languages. Research and apply for relevant opportunities to aid your language learning journey.

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Paula is an accomplished content strategist, communicator, and journalist with over 7 years of experience creating materials for language learners. Having worked on language curriculums and learning platforms in Colombia, Spain, and Australia, Paula offers an international perspective on second language acquisition. Her background in journalism and brand messaging allows her to develop content that informs and engages language learners across diverse platforms and learning styles.