The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State categorized a number of languages from easiest to hardest to learn for native English speakers. The most difficult languages to learn included Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. It was estimated that people require at least 88 weeks or 2200 class hours to be able to speak and read these languages proficiently.
Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic Semitic language that has about 221 million native speakers. Arabic is most commonly spoken in Egypt but is also spoken in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Arabic requires more time to learn because it has very few words that relate to European or English languages. Arabic also has a very a unique and challenging writing script. Letters in the Arabic writing system have four different forms and vowels are disregarded when writing. As opposed to English, Arabic is a VSO language; this means that verbs come before the subject and object. Arabic also has thirteen present tense verbs, three noun cases, and two genders.
Chinese is a Sino-Tibetan language that has around 1.2 billion native speakers. Chinese is predominantly spoken in China and in places where large Chinese communities are present. Chinese is one of the more difficult language to learn because it is a tonal language meaning that different tones need to be learned in order to speak words correctly. For example, the sound “ma” can represent five different words depending on how the sound of the tone is created. In addition, Chinese has a very unique and seemingly complex writing system that contains over thousands of characters that need to be memorized in order to write out words, phrases, and texts.
Korean is an East Asian language most commonly spoken in North and South Korea. Korean has about 66.3 million speakers world-wide. What makes Korean a difficult language to learn is its sentence structure, syntax, and verb conjugation. Unlike Chinese, Korean is a phonetic language meaning that a word can be easily pronounced by examining how it is written. The challenge in learning Korean lies in learning how to read and write with their writing system, Hangul. The Korean writing system was heavily influenced from the difficult Chinese writing system and therefore is dependent among many Chinese characters.
Japanese, the national language of Japan, is an East Asian language that has about 122 million native speakers world-wide. Like Chinese and Korean, Japanese is a language that requires a lot of time to learn because of its heavily complex writing system. Japanese has three different writing systems: kanji, katakana, and hiragana. The Kanji system, influenced by the Chinese writing system, has over 2000 to 3000 characters that needs to be memorized. The Katakana system is used for loan words and emphasis and the Hiragana system is used for spelling suffixes and grammatical particles. Knowledge of all three system is required in order to efficiently write Japanese.
Though these four languages are difficult to learn and require more studying time than other languages, getting a grip on these languages is not impossible. Before you travel, utilize free learning tools and resources online. For travelling, you are going to want to learn basic pronunciations and how common words and phrases look in each language’s specific writing system. This way you will be able to find your way around, communicate with locals, and get the best out of your travelling experience.
Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski