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The world’s 10 most difficult languages to learn

Learning a new language is a fun activity that promotes memory and flexible thinking. But it’s not easy. And it can get even harder if you want to master one of the world’s most complex languages.  Not only do you have to understand the way words and sentences work and function, but also the cultural habits of native speakers – check a link.

Here are the top 10 most difficult languages in the world which can make even an experienced linguist shudder. It is based on the study of specialized linguistic resources as well as language records from the Guinness Book of Records.

10. Polish

Spelling and grammar are two areas that will give the Polish language learner a lot of difficulty. Polish words are loaded with consonants, making them difficult to pronounce and write. For example, szczęście means “happiness” and bezwzględny means “ruthless”.

Polish grammar has seven cases in the declension system of nouns. Plus there is one more – vocative. As one linguist put it, “It’s like German on steroids.”

But the good news is that Polish uses the Latin alphabet, so the letters will be familiar to those who are familiar with English.

9. Finnish

Has a reputation as a difficult language to learn, and with good reason. Its nouns have 15 cases. Finnish is part of the Finno-Ugric language family, so it has no Latin or German influence to help you guess what a particular word means. In theory, the pronunciation of Finnish words is pretty straightforward, but it has long vowel and consonant sounds.

And if you’re intrigued by a place with such a complex language, we recommend a visit to Helsinki, recognized as one of the best cities of 2018-2019.

8. Navajo

This language is so obscure and unusual that during World War II, the U.S. Air Force recruited coders from the Navajo tribe. They used their native language to communicate by telephone and radio. If you are interested in the story of these coders, we recommend watching John Woo’s 2002 film “Talking to the Wind”.

The Navajo language has only four vowel sounds, but many consonants. And, in the same word, you can meet either only hissing consonants, or only whistling consonants. This is called “consonant harmony.

In addition to all the complications, the Navajo language has sounds that have no counterpart in European languages – my picture.

7. Thai

It is not the grammar that makes Thai so complex, but its pronunciation, which has five different tones as well as both long and short vowel sounds.

The Thai alphabet has a staggering 44 consonantal letters, 28 vowel forms and 4 diacritical marks to indicate tones. The Thai alphabet does not use the letters of the Latin alphabet. It is derived from the Khmer alphabet and has a peculiar rounded look. At the same time, unlike Cyrillic or Latin, the Thai language does not distinguish between lowercase and uppercase letters. Sentences are separated from each other by a space.

Still not impressed? Then here’s another fact: the Thai language has several speech registers.

  • Street or colloquial – spoken with friends.
  • Elegant or formal – spoken to strangers. 
  • Rhetorical – for public speaking.
  • Religious – used to address clergy.
  • Royal – to discuss actions or address the royal family.

The royal family in Thailand is held in the highest esteem, and there is a very big difference between the royal and the spoken styles of speech.

6. Eskimo

Eskimo language that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records probably refers to the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aleut languages.

Those who decide to learn the language of the “children of the frost” (as Jack London called the Eskimos), will have to learn sixty-three forms of the present tense. But this is only the flowers. And berries – are 252 endings (inflections) of common nouns.

Eskimo speakers think figuratively. The word “ikiaqqivik” vividly demonstrates this figurativeness. It translates as “travel through layers” and means internet.

5. Chippewa

Studying the language of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indian people living in the United States will be a real pleasure for the “verboten” lover. After all, it has about 6 thousand verb forms.

The Chippewa language has no unified standardization, as it exists as a chain of interconnected local varieties, usually called dialects. However, a couple of words are known to every fan of stories about cowboys and Indians – “wigwam” and “totem”.

Due to its complexity, the Chippewa language made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

4. Haida

This endangered language is spoken by the Haida people who live in America and Canada.

The complexity of this language (listed in the Guinness Book of World Records) is due to the fact that it has seventy prefixes. The Haida language once had more than 30 different dialects. Today only three of them remain. The tone system used depends on the dialect.

The Haida language is amazingly detailed and varied. For example, there are about 50 different ways to describe how someone falls, depending on how they landed and what caused the fall.

3. tabasaran

This is the most difficult of the state languages of Dagestan. A significant difficulty for those who choose to learn Tabasaran is the cases of nouns. According to various estimates, there are 44 to 52 of them. 

Add to this ten other parts of speech, among which there are no prepositions (their place is taken by postpositions) and three dialects, and one can see why Tabataran enters the Guinness Book of Records as one of the most difficult languages in the world.

2. Arabic

Second place in the rating of the most difficult languages of the world is occupied by Arabic which is also one of the top five most spoken languages of the world.

There are dozens of varieties of Arabic that are usually classified according to region or country. Moreover, these varieties can be radically different from each other. So the first step is to choose the dialect you want to learn, but that’s the easy part.

Arabic is a language with a non-Latin alphabet. Its 28 letters are easier to understand than thousands of Chinese characters, but you still have to get used to the new writing system, right to left.

What makes reading and writing Arabic especially difficult for beginners is the exclusion of most vowels in words. There are also features of spoken Arabic that make it difficult to learn.

1. Chinese Mandarin

The question of what is the most difficult language in the world and many linguists and the Guinness Book of Records give the answer: “Chinese”. It is a North Chinese language (aka Putonghua, aka Mandarin in Western literature), which includes closely related Chinese dialects. It is spoken by the people of most of Northern and Western China.

Mandarin Chinese is a real challenge for polyglots for a number of reasons:

  • First of all, China’s writing system is extremely difficult for people accustomed to the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. People learning Chinese have to memorize many characters that resemble complex drawings. Moreover, the characters are not words, but concepts.
  • A lighter writing system (pinyin) simplifies the writing of characters. But it is just another system that those who want to read and write Chinese will have to learn.
  • Writing is not the only difficult part of learning Mandarin Chinese. The tonal nature of the language is also very important. Mandarin Chinese has four tones, so one word can be pronounced in four different ways, and each pronunciation has a different meaning. For example, the word ma can mean “mother,” “horse,” a questioning particle, or “swear”-depending on which tone you say it in.

However, for many Chinese (and other foreigners) it is as difficult to learn Russian as it is for a Russian to learn Chinese.

When it comes to learning a foreign language, its difficulty mainly depends on how different it is from the languages you already speak fluently. However, any of the languages mentioned in this list can be learned without much difficulty. The main thing is to make a lesson plan and find a good teacher (ideally a native speaker). Moreover, in learning a language, as well as in any other case, motivation plays a huge role. Lack of interest will make any language incredibly difficult, and it does not depend on your native language and the differences between it and what you are learning.

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