What is the Hardest Foreign Language to Learn?

By Alison Kroulek
Reblogged from The Language Blog by K International with permission from the author (including the images)

The hardest languages to learnNo matter what, learning a foreign language takes some effort. But some languages are easier than others. Which languages are the hardest for English speakers to get a grip on?

This infographic, based on information provided by the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, might have the answer.  It shows how much class time it generally takes to become proficient at speaking one of 23 major languages.

European languages like French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are classified as “easy,” generally taking 24 weeks and 600 class hours to attain proficiency in.

Meanwhile, in the “Medium” category, we have Hindi, Russian, Vietnamese, Turkish, Polish, Thai, Serbian, Greek, Finnish and Hebrew. To become proficient in one of these languages, it usually takes 44 weeks of study or 1,110 classroom hours.

Finally, the “Big Four.” According to the US Department of State, the four most difficult languages to learn are Arabic, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. To become conversational in one of these languages, you’ll probably need 1.69 years, spending 2,200 hours in class!

What makes these languages so hard to learn? For Arabic, one problem is simply that there aren’t many cognates to help give English speakers a head start on vocabulary.  Then, there’s the fact that written Arabic tends to drop vowels. One reporter trying to learn Arabic described the resulting confusion in Slate here:

Maktab, or “office,” is just written mktb. Vowels are included as little marks above and below in beginning textbooks, but you soon have to get used to doing without them. Whn y knw th lngg wll ths s nt tht hrd. But when you’re struggling with comprehension to begin with, it’s pretty formidable.

Other factors mentioned in Slate include unfamiliar sounds and a “ferociously unfamiliar grammar.”

What about the other languages? Chinese has two strikes against it. First of all, it’s a tonal language, which means that the tone you say a particular word in changes the meaning of the word. Secondly, there are literally thousands of characters to learn.

A complex writing system is also listed as a mark against Japanese, though some Japanese enthusiasts argue that the FSI is giving the language an undeserved bad rap.

English speakers trying to learn Korean face difficulties with syntax, sentence structure and conjugating verbs, plus written Korean uses some of those pesky Chinese characters, too. Again, there are dissenters. For example, translator and ESL teacher Donovan Nagel says,

“Languages like Korean, Mandarin and Arabic tend to draw this kind of negativity from people and it usually comes from bitter people who gave up at some point early on.”

Whether learning a particular language comes easy or not depends on a bunch of different factors, including your native language and whether or not you are already bilingual.

The complete infographic is below- do you agree with how the different languages are ranked?

Via: Voxy Blog

5 thoughts on “What is the Hardest Foreign Language to Learn?

  1. I find it surprising Russian and Hebrew are in the same category of difficulty for English speakers. I’m a native speaker of Russian and have learned (and since forgotten most of my) Hebrew. I see how learning a new writing system would be a challenge in either language for English speakers.
    However, in my experience, Hebrew grammar and morphology are super logical so that once you grasp a principle, you can apply it across the board with few exceptions. While it does “skip” vowels like Arabic, word-building patterns make (common) words very easy to recognize. I would imagine Russian would be more challenging for English speakers to learn, with its intricate system of inflection and morphology. My guess is that much more would need to be memorized in Russian than in Hebrew.
    I’m interested in hearing what English-speaker learners of Russian an/or Hebrew think.

    • I was similarly wondering why Hebrew is listed as categorically different from Arabic. They are both structurally consonant-based with the vowels written as diacritic marks. I’ve studied a bit of biblical Hebrew – just enough to be boggled that anyone can read it without vowels, especially given how it can affect the grammar and morphology.

    • I wonder. Personally I’d put it in the “Medium” category. Nearly all of the letters are familiar. It’s got some scary word order rules but, in my experience, there seem to be fewer exceptions in pronunciation or grammar that found in, say, French. Long words which intimidate the beginner are easily broken down into their compounds.

  2. I have seen similar infographics before. While not listing some languages, e.g. German (which about 95 million speak worldwide per Wikipedia), or Hungarian, (as Finnish, not an Indo-European language), they get the message across that English speakers who really want to get proficient in a language need to put the time in.
    What should be made clear is what these time estimates represent: Hours of intensive study in a Foreign Service Institute course setting?

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