Top Five Tough Languages for English Speakers

By OptiLingo

You’ve probably heard of language families, and you may even know that the closer to your first language another language is, the easier it will be to learn.

Well, there is some truth to that. And that means that there are some languages that are so distinctly different they are incredibly difficult for you to learn as a native English speaker.

If you are up for a real challenge, this article tells you what makes a language difficult. Then it tells you which ones are considered the five most difficult languages for you, the English speaker, to learn.

Why They Are Considered Difficult

The first language you learn is learned literally over many years. However, it occurs in a very natural way, so that you learn it without having to consider things like grammar. When you work with languages that are similar to your own, you already understand the mechanics, even if you don’t realize what those mechanics are.

Then you have languages that are so dissimilar that you have to understand all of those mechanics just to be able to piece together a simple sentence. You can always learn to parrot those languages for simple greetings, but to actually get into the language to become fluent, it’s going to take a lot more work.

So why learn these languages?

Well, because you can. And if that isn’t enough of a benefit, consider the following:

  • You learn an entirely different perspective, which is far more compelling when you get down to it. Your brain will be forced to think in new ways that you never imagined existed. It’s quite thrilling in its own way.
  • It gives you a look into a culture that seems entirely unfamiliar. The way native speakers structure their languages speaks volumes about how they perceive the world.
  • Once you learn a really tough language, nearly all the rest of them don’t seem so hard. If you took Spanish and thought it was too difficult, learn one of these, and then see just how tough Spanish is in comparison.

If you are sold on the idea of taking up a real challenge, here are the languages the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center says are the toughest for you to learn, in no particular order.

Pashto – Pakistan and Afghanistan

One thing you will quickly find true about these languages – they all have a different alphabet from the one you know. The Pashto alphabet is similar to the second language listed here, so if you learn Pashto, Arabic won’t be quite as hard to learn. However, the different alphabet is hardly the only thing that makes this a difficult language.

Pashto is inflective, which means you have to understand all of the different parts of speech and how they affect each other so that you can properly conjugate and form subject/verb agreement. For example, you are familiar with prepositions. Pashto also has postpositions (words that you say after the noun), as well as ambiopositions, which are basically bookends for the nouns. What you are saying affects how you frame the nouns.


This language should come as no surprise. From the different alphabet to the unique sounds, there are very few similarities between English and Arabic.

While there are only 28 letters in its alphabet, vowels are not always written out, so you may have to figure them out as you read. It does take a bit of time to make this adjustment since you lack the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge necessary to determine the words meant.

Like Pashto, Arabic is an incredibly inflected language. Here are a few rules that have no equivalent to English.

  • The sentence structures have singulars, duals, and plurals. Yes, if you have two of something, the sentence is structured differently than if you have one or three of the same thing.
  • The verb is first, then the subject.
  • Not only are your nouns gendered, the verb must match the proper gender. The exception is inanimate plural nouns (an exception even before you fully grasp the concept).
  • The word is determined by the vowels added between the used consonants. This rule is really difficult to translate because there is nothing like it in English. Essentially, you can change the meaning of a word by adding a different vowel to the root of the word.


One of the most spoken languages on the planet, Chinese is rough for English speakers to learn, but Mandarin is the hardest. Of course, you have the completely unfamiliar characters. However, to make it even more interesting, they don’t have an alphabet. Each word is expressed by a character, and that is what makes learning to write in Mandarin feel nearly impossible. Instead of knowing how to combine letters, you have to know hundreds of different characters and thousands of ways of combining them to make other words.

You must learn literally thousands of characters to read Mandarin.

Then you have the somewhat similar sounds that work differently than English, which can be distracting when you get started. You are trying to link sounds to letters that aren’t there, which is an entirely challenging endeavor.

However, once you get through that, the grammatical structures are actually a lot friendlier than the previous two languages. Sentence structures are comparable to English (a huge relief given everything else you have to learn).

Mandarin doesn’t use gender for their nouns either, so you never have to worry about genders for articles, adjectives, or verbs as you learn. Nor do you need to learn plurals because Mandarin doesn’t use plural nouns (except for the universal pronouns). Before you get too excited about that though, the reason is because singular and plural are indicated by word order.


After the confusion of the Mandarin characters, you may be happy to learn that the Korean alphabet, call Hangul, does exist and consists of 24 letters. Of all the five hardest languages for an English speaker to learn, Korean will give you the easiest time when dealing with writing. Until you realize that they use Hanja, which is basically the Korean version of Japanese Kanji.

The grammar is also very similar to Japanese, where the verb comes at the end of the sentence. It also has numerous particles, which can act in a similar way to prepositions, but not always. They also have far more sounds that have no English equivalent, which can make Korean a particularly difficult language for an English speaker to speak.

Both Korean and Japanese (next on the list) are very socially conscious, so the way you speak will change considerably based on the person you are talking to.


Japanese is actually commonly named the most difficult for a native English speaker to learn for many reasons. While this is somewhat arbitrary, there are some pretty good grounds for the sentiment.

Starting with their writing, Japanese can seem to be even more intimidating than Mandarin. First, they use Kanji, which is the Japanese version of the Mandarin characters. Then you have Hiragana and Katakana (referred together as Kana), two different character systems that represent the same sounds, but indicate where the word originated. For example, sensei is spelled in Hiragana since the word is Japanese. Computer is spelled in Katakana because it is an imported word from English. And they both have a Kanji version.

Yes, nearly every word has at least two ways to spell it, one in Kana, and then the Kanji version.

And that’s not the only reason it is a challenge for English speakers.

Grammatically, it is quite different.

  • The verbs go at the end of the sentence.
  • If you want to express something in the negative (something did not happen), you have a different conjugation of the verb.
  • Instead of prepositions, Japanese uses postpositions, which are used after most nouns. Sometimes they function like prepositions, other times they have no English equivalent. The most
  • A verb is an acceptable full sentence, and you have to understand from the context of the conversation what the subject is. For example, you don’t have to say “I am a Canadian” – you would simply say “Kanadajin de su” or “Canadian am.”
  • There are three levels of speaking based on how close you are with the person you are conversing with. Very formal, formal, and informal.

Even if it is the most difficult language to learn, there are still plenty of English speakers who have learned Japanese.

That is actually true of all five languages. The languages may be a challenge to learn, but none of them are impossible to learn.