Which Languages Are Hard for English Speakers to Learn? [Infographic]


Perhaps learning one or two new languages have huge payoffs later in life. A recent study was published in Annals of Neurology that learning a second language, even as an adult, could delay dementia and improve cognition. While past research had examined the effect of learning more than one language, ruling out “reverse causality” had been challenging for scientists. It was uncertain whether people improve their cognitive abilities by learning new languages or whether people with better existing cognitive abilities are more likely to be bilingual. However, this new study from the University of Edinburgh is the first to examine whether learning a second language affects cognitive performance while childhood intelligence is controlled. If English speakers want to become bilingual or a polyglot, which languages are easier or harder for them to learn?

According to Voxy, an online language learning website that is based in New York City, the difficulty level of a new language would depend on many factors. For example, languages that are easier to learn for English speakers in general include Spanish, French, Swedish, Afrikaans, Romanian, and Italian. Within 22 to 23 weeks — or about five to six months — of study with 575 to 600 classroom hours, most would be proficient in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. However, the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn are Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Voxy states in the infographic that Arabic is hard to learn because there are few words that resemble any European languages. The fewer number of vowels in written Arabic can be challenging to read. Japanese uses three writing systems: Kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (the main alphabet), and katagana (primarily used for foreign words and sounds), which make this language challenging for English speakers to learn. Although the Chinese language uses one writing system, it is a tonal language, which means that the meaning of the word changes with voice tone. For example, the sound “ma” could mean “mother” if it is said with a high pitch. If the sound is spoken like a question, the meaning changes to “horse.” The lack of an alphabet makes reading and writing Chinese astronomical tasks for most English speakers.

Even with its alphabet (called Hangul) and organized writing system, Korean can still be challenging because it has different syntax, sentence structures, and verb conjugations that most English speakers are not familiar with. According to Frankfurt International School’s English as a Second Language website, the Korean grammar follows a subject-object-verb structure rather than English’s subject-verb-object structure. In Korean, for example, “I like cats” would be “I cats like.” To become proficient in any of these four languages, English speakers need to dedicate almost two years — or about 88 weeks — with 2,200 classroom hours of study and practice.

For English speakers to learn “medium” languages, such as Russian, Thai, and Hebrew, these require about less than a year — 44 weeks — with 1,110 hours, according to Voxy. Even though these languages may be easier compared to the four “difficult” languages, there are still some factors that English speakers need to consider. Language expert Olya Sukhanova, M.A., who graduated from Moscow State Linguistic University in English and Linguistic and is the owner of Lingua-Net Language Services, explained that languages such as Russian and other Slavic languages have specific characteristics in the grammar that English speakers may have trouble learning.

“The Russian language has declensions and conjugations that English does not have much of,” Sukhanova said. “In the sentence ‘I buy a book,’ the noun “book” will have an extra ending in Russian, whereas it stay the same in English. In English, the verbs change their endings only in the first-person singular and third-person singular: ‘I go’, ‘he goes’. In Russian, verbs change their endings in every tense. Another example of a difficulty would be the word order in the Russian sentence. It is flexible; however, you still need to know how the changes affect the meanings you try to convey through that word order.”

The languages that English speakers choose to learn should have some practical use in their everyday life and environment, which do not need to be “hard.” For example, in an infographic on Slate.com, Spanish is the second most commonly spoken language in the U.S. since it has a high number of Mexican and Central American immigrants. However, English speakers who learn to speak and understand tertiary languages, such as Tagalog in California or French in Louisiana, can still benefit.

“English speakers should not concentrate on the difficulties another language presents. Instead, they should think of all the benefits that learning another language can provide,” Sukhanova suggests. “Being able to appreciate another culture, having more job opportunities, and catching things that are lost in translation for others are among my favorite ones.”

Aside from better cognitive performance, Forbes magazine stated last month that learning a new language can help solve problems across cultures and provide opportunities for business development and exploration. English speakers can use current technology to jump start their language immersion, such as changing the language setting on the phone or computer, listening to the GPS giving directions in a different language, and watching a foreign language film with “foreign” subtitles. This could make learning new languages less intimidating for most English speakers, which can make learning easier, not hard.


By Nick Ng

Annals of Neurology
Interview with Olya Sukhanova, M.A.
Frankfurt International School

8 Responses to "Which Languages Are Hard for English Speakers to Learn? [Infographic]"

  1. Maria   June 10, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    As an Spanish speaker I always thought Spanish was harder to learn because the grammar can be weird to a English speaker. The differences between genders and the conjugation of verbs (for example) are harder than those in French. Also the fact that we only use 5 vowels in Spanish can be tricky. Even the words and meanings are different from country to country (Ex: “bombilla” can mean either electrical bulb or straw, to say “T-shirt” you can say “polo” or “remera”).

    • Nick Ng   June 10, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Gracias, Maria. I think you and the other commentators may be on to something. Perhaps it is not the language that is hard, but the learners themselves. It really depends on the individual, not the language.

  2. Andrew Weiler   June 5, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    I agree with Louis. The issue is the way you learn. If you try to eat soup with a fork, chunky soups will be easier, however when you change to a spoon, all are!

    We ALL had a knack for learning languages when we set out. The ones who still do are by and large tones who are tapping into those powers. The ones who aren’t are using ways that just don’t work, like learning endless grammar and translating everything they don’t understand. There are of course other reasons, but once we fix these up so many more people will discover the knack!

    Here are some more pointers on what you need to do to get that knack! 🙂

    • Nick Ng   June 6, 2014 at 9:39 am

      “The ones who aren’t are using ways that just don’t work, like learning endless grammar and translating everything they don’t understand.”

      Thank you, Andrew. No wonder why my Spanish that I learned mostly from among friends and salsa dancing is better than 4 years of high school French.

  3. Louis Janus   June 5, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    so much depends on the learner, and not the language. (Motivation, native ability to learn anything native ability to learn any language, access to resources, teachers’ ability, and speakers, desired levels, which modality…..

    • Nick Ng   June 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      Thank you, Louis. Yes, that is true, too. It would depend on many factors, and do not let an infographic limit the belief that learning those 4 languages is the most difficult for English speakers. Maybe some of them have a knack for learning new languages.

      As a native English and Cantonese speaker, learning Japanese and Korean pose a similar challenge as learning Romance or Germanic languages. So it would depend on each person.

  4. Nick Ng   June 5, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Thank you, Michael.

  5. Michael Schultheiss   June 4, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Excellent article, Nick! This is very informative. Now I know which languages to learn first!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.