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Last Updated on October 22, 2020

7 Hardest Languages to Learn For English Speakers

7 Hardest Languages to Learn For English Speakers
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What are the hardest languages to learn? It depends on what your native language is. If it’s English, you’re in the right place.

When you peel the onion back to the beginnings of language formation, such as by studying the language families tree below, you will be able to see where different languages branched off. Now, you may be able to notice why Spanish has similarities with languages like German, Italian, French, etc.

That’s why the hardest languages to learn for native Korean speakers will be different from those that are hardest for native English speakers like us. Today, we’re going to focus solely on the hardest languages to learn for English speakers (hint: they’re located in different branches on the language tree).[1]

Language tree

    If you’re looking for official statistics, the Defense Language Institute (where they teach members of the CIA foreign languages) has organized languages into four categories, the 1st Category being the easiest, and the 4th Category being the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.

    • Category 1: Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese
    • Category 2: German, Indonesian
    • Category 3: Hebrew, Hindi, Persian Farsi, Russian, Serbian, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Turkish, etc.
    • Category 4: Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Modern Standard Arabic, etc.

    Before we take a closer look and see which of the above are the most difficult languages to learn, you can check out this TED Talk with John McWhorter to help you get inspired to learn a new language:

    1. Mandarin

    Number of native speakers: 1.2 billion

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    Country with the greatest number of speakers: China

    It may be the most widely spoken language in the world, but it is particularly challenging for English speakers. It is often spoken of as being the hardest language in the world to learn (and certainly the most difficult language on this list!).

    First, since Mandarin is a tonal language, you can have a completely different meaning of a word just by changing your tone. Just take a look at this visual of the four tones, and you can begin to imagine the difficulties this could cause English speakers[2].

    Mandarin tones in one of the hardest languages to learn

      Add to that thousands of characters, complex systems, Chinese dialects, and the language’s richness in homophones,[3] and you’ve got one of the hardest languages to learn in the world.

      2. Icelandic

      Number of native speakers: 330,000

      Country with the greatest number of speakers: Iceland

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      While the Icelandic language has not changed much since the island was settled in the ninth and tenth centuries[4], it continues to add new meaning to old words. It also doesn’t help that there are fewer than 400,000 native speakers who you can learn and practice with.

      3. Japanese

      Number of native speakers: 122 million

      Country with the greatest number of speakers: Japan

      Japanese has three independent writing systems[5]: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Before they can start writing, Japanese learners need to learn thousands of different characters in these writing systems. It is, however, significantly easier to learn than Mandarin!

      4. Hungarian

      Number of native speakers: 13 million

      Country with the greatest number of speakers: Hungary

      Most languages spoken in Europe come from the Indo-European language family shown in the tree above, but not Hungarian. It is, instead, a Finno-Ugric language[6] in which words are formed in an isolated manner.

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      In other words, it’s one of the hardest languages to learn because the word order is nothing like how English speakers normally structure words or sentences. For example, “with my [female] friend” is combined into just “barátnőmmel.” If you’re confused, don’t worry. So are we.

      5. Korean

      Number of native speakers: 66.3 million

      Country with the greatest number of speakers: South Korea

      Korean is a language isolate, which means it isn’t linked to any other language family root. It also has seven different speech levels that native speakers flip back and forth to depending on the formality. The image below just begins to scratch the surface of the complications caused by the speech levels and the use of honorifics[7]:

      korean speech levels: how to address other people

        6. Arabic

        Number of native speakers: 221 million

        Country with the greatest number of speakers: Egypt

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        Despite having 221 million native speakers you can potentially learn from, Arabic is still one of the hardest languages to learn. First, vowels are not included when writing. And, to complicate things further, most Arabic letters are written in four different forms, depending on the placement of the word.

        7. Finnish

        Number of native speakers: 5.4 million

        Country with the greatest number of speakers: Finland

        If you’ve ever watched The Lord of the Rings, you’ll know about the strange language the elves speak. The Finnish language is what the author J.R.R. Tolkien based the Elvish language on[8]. Finnish, like Hungarian, is a Finno-Ugric language in which grammar complications are taken to the extreme, which makes it difficult for English speakers.

        Furthermore, just when you’ve got the hang of translating Finnish to English, you’ll quickly find that modern Finnish speakers have their own way of expressing emotions that’s different from the traditional translation!

        The Bottom Line

        The hardest languages for English speakers to learn depends on a number of different factors, not just one. The number of speakers, the language’s origins, its similarity to English, and other factors contribute to determining how much difficulty you’ll have learning it.

        However, what’s important is not which is the hardest language to learn. As with learning any language, it comes down to how passionate you are about learning, how you’ll deal with psychological fears, and who you will go to for help.

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        Every language will come with its own challenges, but it’ll also come with its own rewards, experiences, and fulfillment. Remember, whichever language you decide to learn, your time will be well worth the investment.

        More Language Learning Tips

        Featured photo credit: ORIENTO via unsplash.com

        Reference

        [1] Soho Press: THE PROTO-INDO-EUROPEAN FAMILY
        [2] MIT: Mandarin Tones
        [3] Wikipedia: Homophonic puns in Mandarin Chinese
        [4] Iceland: Language
        [5] Dartmouth: Japanese Writing Systems
        [6] Britannica: Finno-Ugric languages
        [7] LingoDeer: Korean Speech Levels
        [8] Omniglot: Quenya

        More by this author

        Sean Kim

        Sean is the founder and CEO of Rype, a language learning app. He's an entrepreneur and blogger.

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        Last Updated on July 20, 2021

        How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

        How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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        You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

        Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

        Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

        Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

        1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

        According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

        “Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

        Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

        Warming up

        If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

        If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

        Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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        1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
        2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
        3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

        Stay hydrated

        Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

        To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

        Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

        Meditate

        Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

        Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

        Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

        Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

        2. Focus on your goal

        One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

        Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

        Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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        Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

        If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

        3. Convert negativity to positivity

        There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

        ‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

        It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

        Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

        Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

        Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

        4. Understand your content

        Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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        However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

        “No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

        Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

        Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

        One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

        5. Practice makes perfect

        Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

        In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

        Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

        6. Be authentic

        There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

        Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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        Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

        To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

        With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

        Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

        7. Post speech evaluation

        Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

        Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

        We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

        You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

        Improve your next speech

        As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

        Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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        • How did I do?
        • Are there any areas for improvement?
        • Did I sound or look stressed?
        • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
        • Was I saying “um” too often?
        • How was the flow of the speech?

        Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

        If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

        Reference

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