Learning any new language takes time, dedication and motivation. But some languages require more work (hours) to master than others do. Whether a language is harder or easier or you for you to learn depends on a few things:

1) What your native language is.
2) How much the language you want to learn differs from your native language.
3) Your motivation – the WHY (but we’ll get to that in the next blog)

This week, we’re talking about languages that are harder (but definitely not impossible!) for native English speakers to learn.

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin is the most widely used Chinese dialect group and one of the top languages in the world by number of speakers. It also consistently shows up on lists of the most useful languages to learn. If your company is sending you to Beijing, China’s capital, Mandarin is the language you’ll want to know. Standard Mandarin is also the state-mandated lingua franca for use in media and education.

Mandarin presents some major stumbling blocks for English speakers. First, Mandarin is all about tones. The same syllable can be pronounced different ways. And if you use the wrong tone, you can end up saying a very different word than the one you intended (“horse” instead of “mother,” for example). Check out this video with four tones that represent four different words. The best way to master speaking the different tones in Mandarin is to practice the language with a native speaker.

English speakers might also struggle with written Mandarin, which has lots of characters. But the good news is that if you focus on being able to read about 2,000 common characters, that’s enough to get you through most everyday situations.

Learning Mandarin and need some encouragement? Check out these two great resources: How Michael Learned Mandarin and How Amit Learned Mandarin.

Japanese

This one is personal. I’ve been taking Japanese for over four years. But the number of years you’ve studied a language doesn’t really matter. The hours you’ve spent speaking the language are the measure that counts when it comes to fluency. I’ve completed about 450 hours speaking Japanese with a native speaker online. You might be thinking, “Wow, you must be fluent!” Sadly, I’m not — yet. Becoming fluent takes about 2,000 hours.

So what’s difficult about learning Japanese as an English speaker? I don’t think the grammar is that difficult. But the vocabulary that sounds nothing like an English speaker’s native language can take hundreds of hours to get straight. This isn’t like learning a language such as Spanish, in which certain words echo their English counterparts (for example, “saints” and “santos,” or “pharmacy” and “farmacia.”)

And then there’s the syntax (the way words are arranged).

For example:

  • 毎日さめは日本語を学校でたくさん勉強します。
  • mainichi – same – wa – nihongo – o – gakkou de – takusan – benkyou shimasu.
  • every day – sharks – [topic marker] – Japanese – [object marker] – school at – a lot – study.
  • Sharks study a lot of Japanese every day at school.

So, the subject is still at the beginning. But the rest… well, it seems all over the place if you’re an English speaker. Japanese syntax causes me to pause — a lot! — when making sentences.

If your goal is to read Japanese, then memorizing about 2,000 of the most-used kanji will take a few years. The exact pace of your progress will depend on how many hours a day you can devote to study. But an hour a day for a year is a tremendous start. WaniKani is a great resource for learning to read Japanese.

Arabic

Like Mandarin and Japanese, Arabic is mentioned frequently on lists of languages that can enhance your career prospects. An important thing to know before you embark on learning Arabic is that there are a lot of dialects. So choose one and stick to it.

Donovan Nagel of Mezzofanti Guild, an online resource for language learners, has spent the past 13 years becoming fluent in Arabic. He believes that learning Modern Standard Arabic will be a waste of time at first, if your motivation is to speak the language spoken on a daily basis (for example, using Arabic for business or taking coworkers or clients out to dinner). Learning to read what’s written in newspapers is not what people are speaking like in real life. Also, the alphabet, spelling and pronunciation of Arabic can be challenging. But if you listen to and speak with native speakers, you’ll get ahead of the game.

Korean

The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute ranks Korean as one of the languages that are “exceptionally difficult” for native English speakers to learn. (By the way, the other languages mentioned in this article also earned this same distinction.)

What makes Korean such a challenge to master? As with Japanese, people who have learned Korean say the sentence structure takes some getting used to. Pronunciation can also be tricky. Korean language learners can rejoice in at least one thing, though: The Hangul alphabet is a lot simpler than the Chinese and Japanese writing systems.

You’ve probably noticed a common theme here: When you practice with a native speaker, you’ll learn language faster. And that’s especially true for languages like these that differ dramatically from English. This is why all of our instructors at Fluency Corp are native speakers of the languages they teach. They also help demystify any language by focusing on the daily vocabulary each student needs. To learn more, contact us for a free consultation: [email protected] or (800) 401-3159.