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Top 10 hardest languages to learn in the world

By Sean Campbell• Last updated: Apr 5, 2024
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Learning a language is hard work, no matter how difficult that language is. It takes tonnes of hours, loads of practice, and countless mistakes to reach a “fluent” level. But what are the hardest languages in the world to learn?

We’ve taken a look at some of the languages that people find extremely difficult to master and rounded up ten of the most difficult. Otherwise, we’d be here all day telling you about how tough it is to master Gaeilge (Ireland), Taa (Botswana & Namibia), and Navajo (Mexico & the US).

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Top 10 hardest languages in the world

Here is the list of the 10 languages that are considered to be hardest to learn in the world.

1. Mandarin

No. of speakers: 1.1 billion

Counting only the native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most popular language in the world, with nearly 1.4 billion speakers. It is also widely agreed that Mandarin is the world’s hardest language to learn, but why?

First, unlike the popular 26-letter Roman alphabet, Mandarin has over 50,000 characters to remember! These characters aren’t phonetic either, which means they can’t be pronounced just by looking at them. This means it’s basically up to the learner to remember all their meanings.

Aside from the written aspect of the language, Mandarin speech also poses a big challenge. The language has four tones, which means that how you say the word can give it a different meaning.

For example, if you say “ma,” you could be saying “horse” (马) or “curse” (骂)!

2. Japanese

No. of native speakers: 124 million

Sticking to East Asia for the time being, just a short trip across the sea brings us to Japan and yet another of the world’s toughest languages.

Japanese shares similar difficulties with Mandarin as learners must remember thousands of characters before they can understand any of them. It is indeed one of the hardest languages to learn.

There are some connections between the characters of Japanese and Mandarin, though the pronunciation is often quite different. To make learning harder, Japanese has three different writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji.

If you’re interested in learning Japanese and wondering where to start, Hiragana and Katakana are considered the easiest to learn for beginners, who will need to master these before moving on to Kanji.

Also read: 7 languages to study for the best-paid jobs in the UK

3. Arabic

No. of speakers: 274 million

Arabic is an official language in over 20 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. Spoken by over 372 million people as their mother tongue, one of the things that makes Arabic difficult is the range of dialects in various regions, some of which are very different from others.

Like the languages above, the Arabic alphabet also causes difficulty for learners. Fortunately, there are only 28 letters in the script, so there isn’t as steep a learning curve!

It’s also written from right to left on a page, which takes some getting used to. Also, the lack of vowel sounds and the use of the back of the throat when sounding out words make pronunciation a real challenge for learners.

4. Xhosa

No. of native speakers: 8.1 million

To give you an indication of how difficult it is, Xhosa is pronounced “Kozza”. Except, you should also make a separate clicking noise with your tongue as you pronounce the ‘K’.

Many consider Xhosa the 4th hardest language in the world, saying it is an obscure language, though it’s anything but. Xhosa is one of eleven official languages in South Africa (a country we’ve written about in our article on how Nelson Mandela impacted global education). It’s the first language of over 8 million South Africans, including former president Mandela himself.

It is those “click consonants” which set many African languages apart and make them tough to learn. Xhosa features 18 different click consonants made in different parts of the mouth - the back of the teeth and tongue, the roof of the mouth and the side of the mouth.

5. Russian

No. of speakers: 255 million

The 5th hardest language in the world is another major language across the globe. Unless you have some experience with another Slavic language (those characteristics of north and east Europe and Eurasia), Russian will cause you some trouble.

The alphabet isn't such a huge issue and takes nowhere nearly as long to learn as Mandarin or Japanese, but Russian grammar is a tricky thing to master. There are tons of rules to remember, yet there are almost as many exceptions to these!

And of course, like any hard language, pronunciation also proves tricky as it's hard to know where the stress is in a word.

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6. Irish

No. of speakers: 1.9 million

Irish can be considered the 6th hardest language in the world due to—like the languages we saw earlier—its complex grammar. The language is known for having three dialects, and many words having no English alternatives.

In addition to the existing blockers, Irish has a difficult pronunciation for non-native speakers, making it hard for learners and international students to master the language.

Also read: What's student life like in Ireland?

7. Korean

No. of speakers: 72 million

East Asian languages are often hard to learn. And Korean is one among them, and the 7th hardest language in the world. Although it is not widely learned like other international languages, Korean is a unique one to master. Mastering the language is quite a challenge due to the difference in words and vocabulary.

8. Cantonese

No. of speakers: 85.5 million

With millions of native and non-native speakers, Cantonese is yet another difficult language to master for international students. The 8th hardest language in the world has complex vocabulary, grammar, tone, speech, and writing.

As Cantonese is also widely spoken in various study destinations, it is important to understand that Mandarin and Cantonese are different languages. Learners can master the language in around two years due to its complex grammar, vocabulary, and variety of tones.

9. Finnish

No. of speakers: 5.1 million

The official language of Finland and Sweden is often considered 9th hardest language in the world. Finnish is known for difficulty in learning complex vocabulary and following grammar rules. Overcoming the obstacles and mastering the language is equally rewarding.

10. English

No. of speakers: 1.4 billion

Even though it's the most widely spoken language on Earth, including native and non-native speakers, English carries the reputation of being one of the most challenging languages to master.

It's not hard to see why: all those grammar rules to remember, far too many tenses and conditional tenses, and so much inconsistency in the "rules" for pronunciation!

And on top of this, what makes English so difficult to learn is that the better you get at it, the harder it becomes! English has all sorts of different "everyday" and "fancy" words, formal and casual tones, slang terms, as well as a ridiculously large vocabulary, that the more you learn the easier it can become to make mistakes!

Also read: 10 Tips to improve your English language skills

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Frequently asked questions

What's the world's hardest language?

Mandarin Chinese is considered the hardest language for international students to master. The language consists of over 50,000 characters, making it extremely difficult to learn. These characters are not phonetic and the learner has to remember all of their meanings.

Mandarin speech also poses a big challenge as the language has four tones, as the words give a different meaning with each tone.

What are the top 3 hardest languages to learn?

The top three hardest languages to learn for international students are Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic.

What are the top 10 hardest languages in the world?

Here are the 10 hardest languages in the world,

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Japanese
  3. Arabic
  4. Russian
  5. Korean
  6. Finnish
  7. Hungarian
  8. Navajo
  9. Georgian
  10. Icelandic

Is Japanese one of the hardest languages to learn?

Yes, Japanese is widely considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.

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Sean, a freelance writer, copywriter, and editor hailing from Ireland. He finds fulfillment in delving into the world of...Read More

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