Three of the Hardest Languages to Learn
Each year, thousands of people move through the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute. Among other things, these students learn, absorb and practice in The School of Language Studies where they’re immersed in intensive foreign language classes. For some diplomats, the goal is to become comfortable and socially conversational in the language of the country where they’ll be serving. For others, the goal is 100% fluency. These courses are also offered to the families of foreign service personnel, to help them fit in better in their new, temporary country.
What are the three hardest languages to learn?
As a result, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has a vested interest in learning the most efficient ways to teach and learn a foreign language, and they have compiled a plethora of data along the way. From this data, which quantifies things like the number of classroom hours, week, and/or years it takes to establish oneself as “proficient” in a foreign language, we can establish which languages are the most difficult to learn.
It’s important to note that the level of effort required to learn a foreign language is directly proportional to:
- How different the language is from your native language in terms of both grammar and vocabulary
- The amount of time you spend learning, listening and practicing the language
- The quality of language learning resources available to you
- Your motivation
- Your innate ability with language and linguistics
With all these factors considered, there are three languages that appear to require the most time, energy and experience in order to be mastered.
Clear your calendar to become fluent in Arabic, Chinese or Korean
All three require an average of 88 weeks, that’s 1.69 years, to learn – with the student spending roughly 22,000 hours in the classroom. In other words, it takes serious dedication.
Challenge yourself to learn Arabic
If you are looking for a linguistic challenge, we recommend you try Arabic. In truth, Arabic is a very broad and general term as it covers a myriad of dialects under one umbrella. There are three main versions of spoken and written Arabic: Classical, Modern Standard and colloquial. Most people who seek to learn Arabic are learning the Modern Standard version.
So what makes Arabic so challenging for native English speakers?
First, there are very few Arabic words that have any linguistic connection to English. If you have studied Hebrew, you have an advantage because both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages, so they share common roots. There are far fewer vowels used in written Arabic, and that can make reading and pronunciation more challenging for Arabic language learners.
Secondly, Arabic language learners must also learn a completely separate written system, which is written from right to left. The grammar system, such as forms of personal pronouns (of which there are 12 compared to English’s two!) can also complicate things.
Are you a musician? Perhaps Chinese is more your style
If you’re a musician, you may enjoy the tonal variances found in Mandarin and most dialects of the Chinese language, which are “tonal languages”. This means that the tone used to pronounce a word will change the words meaning entirely.
One example of this would be the word Ma. There are 5 different tones that can be used to say this word, and each one has a different meaning. Therefore, depending on the tone you use, it can mean:
- To bother
- To scold
- An interrogative participle
In addition, Chinese language learners must memorize thousands of beautiful, but complex, characters in order to consider themselves proficient.
Also, there are very specific rules regarding language formality – you speak using a more polite form to those who are older than you, more senior than you in position or whom you are just getting to know. This cultural concept can be difficult for Americans who live in a country where polite forms of language are not nearly as stratified or complex.
With more than 1.2 billion Chinese speakers on the planet, this is an increasingly fruitful language to learn.
Shake things up with Korean
Finally, there is Korean. While Korean is not a tonal language, like Chinese, it is still very complex. Firstly, Korean sentence structure and syntax (the way words are arranged) are very different from English. Also, there are more verb conjugations, which are always a challenge to learn and keep straight. Finally, Korean also has a separate writing system, the majority of which is specific to Korean, but it also includes a respectable amount of Chinese characters.
Similar to other Asian languages, Koreans place a heavy emphasis on social politeness, and extending the appropriate level of respect to others – determined by age, social and professional status, etc. – which takes a while to get used to.
Looking for a language challenge? Try learning Arabic, Chinese or Korean and tell us what you think. Need help translating or interpreting one of these complex languages? Contact Chang-Castillo and Associates and see what flawless worldwide language services are all about.