Learning a language is never an easy task. Those languages that are closest in similarity to English take an average of 23 to 34 weeks or between 575 and 600 hours in a classroom to achieve proficiency, but some languages are even more difficult to master. A few can take over a year – or 2,200 class hours – to learn! But with the right attitude and strategy, it is possible to master even the hardest languages in less than that time.
So, which languages are the hardest for native English speakers, and why those particular languages?
Arabic – There are incredibly few words in Arabic that resemble those in English, which means you’re starting from scratch. Also, when it is written, the language doesn’t use as many vowels.
Chinese – To master written Chinese, you’ll have to learn a complex writing system involving thousands of different characters. Unfortunately, speaking Chinese isn’t any easier. It’s a tonal language, which means that even a small change in the tone of the word can change its meaning.
Japanese – Just like with Chinese, you’ll need to master a new writing system and thousands of characters. In fact, to further complicate matters, Japanese actually has three different writing systems and two syllabary systems.
Korean – When written, Korean uses many Chinese characters, so you’ll have to learn those. Additionally, they use a sentence structure, syntax, and verb conjugation that is very different from our own, which makes it difficult for English speakers to understand.
Basque – A study by the British Foreign Office found this language to be the hardest for English-speakers to learn. It has no syntactic parallels to English, and regional dialects vary widely. Words are formed and modified with prefixes and suffixes, which adds to its complexity. (On the positive side, it does use the Roman alphabet, although there are also a few new consonant sounds such as tx or tz.)
So what do you do if you want to learn one of these languages? Don’t give up on the idea just because you’ve discovered it’s hard to do. There are many ways that you can make it easier and speed the process of language mastery.
Go overseas. In order to learn any skill, it’s valuable to surround yourself with the people who do it best. Unfortunately, a classroom setting doesn’t provide you with that experience, since you’re instead around people who are beginners like you. So where do you go to find the people who speak the language best? Straight to the source. Of course, it’s best to be armed with some basic language skills before you go, because you want to put yourself in a situation where you do not have the opportunity to speak your mother tongue with anyone.
Find another immersion setting. If you can’t afford the trip out of the country, look for opportunities closer to home to immerse yourself in the language. There are many available immersion classes and camps, but you can also join groups or take up hobbies where people will be primarily speaking the language. Also, you can take advantage of radio, TV, films, music, and even podcasts to increase your exposure.
Expect mastery. Your attitude is important. You need to have a drive and passion for accomplishing mastery of a language, or you won’t succeed. Find the purpose behind the endeavor to motivate yourself to work harder.
Practice, practice, and more practice. You will make mistakes, and you will be laughed at. But that’s not a reason to keep your mouth shut until you know you won’t be making an error. This will just prevent you from learning. Keep gabbing! Use hand gestures to get your point across when your words don’t do the job.
Get over your embarrassment. Instead, have a sense of humor about your situation. Remind yourself that you are taking on a momentous task – how many of the people laughing at you have done that? And if they do know another language, you can be sure that they were laughed at again and again when they were first learning.
Keep a dictionary on you at all times. Along with a pencil or pen. You can use the dictionary when you just can’t find the word you need, but also use it as a place to record words to look up later. Often, you are able to understand what someone is saying to you due to the entire context of the conversation, but you’re still not sure what a specific word or phrase meant. Instead of taking the time to look it up then and there, jot it down in the back of that dictionary to look up at the end of the day.
Learning a language can be exhausting, but the more effort and time you put in during the beginning, the easier it will be in the long run. Once it’s over with, you may find that your ability to understand and communicate in another language is one of the things you are most proud of accomplishing, adding new richness and appreciation to all aspects of your life.
Patrick Del Rosario is part of the team behind Open Colleges. It is one of Australia’s pioneer and leading providers of online TAFE courses and language courses. When not working, Patrick enjoys blogging about career, business, and culture. Patrick is also a photography enthusiast and is currently running a photography studio in the Philippines.