The benefits of bilingualism have been established time and time again. You’ll be better at everything! Your mind will never grow old! You’ll be able to pick up chicks! But have you ever tried learning another language? It’s not as easy as taking a class or two. It takes years of practice and immersion to really master a language, and that’s just for the languages similar to your own. These seven tongues are among the most difficult in the world for English speakers. Start with any of them now, andmaybe you’ll be able to do more than order food and ask where the bathroom is by the time you die.
Arabic is becoming an increasingly important language in our world, but it’s a hard one for English speakers to pick up. Besides the initial setbacks of learning the Arabic alphabet in which most letters have four different forms and getting used to reading from right to left, many Arabic writers leave out the vowels, making it hard for a beginner to get the hang of vocabulary and comprehension. Then try pronouncing Arabic sounds, which can be very different from sounds we’re used to making in English, and figuring out the order of words and genders that words take on. With all of these foreign concepts to sort out, an Arabic student will take about a year in the classroom full-time and a year in-country to become proficient.
You may not have even heard of this language spoken in Northern Spain and Southwest France, but we can bet you’d have a heck of a time learning it. Not even all of the Basque people speak this complicated language. Part of what makes it so difficult is that it is unrelated to any of the traditional European languages. In fact, linguists aren’t totally sure where it originated. In Basque, you can add suffixes, prefixes, and infixes to simple words, resulting in lots of long, complicated vocabulary. The grammar also differs enormously from Romance languages, from the way verbs are formed to how you use objects in sentences.
When learning a language related to English, you at least have the advantage of knowing the alphabet and pronouncing words based on this system. Even if the pronunciations are slightly different, you have a general idea. No such luck with Japanese. Because the language is composed largely of symbols, you have to learn written words and pronunciation separately. And since you can’t use mnemonic devices to help you remember, thousands of symbols must be memorized without using the techniques we typically use in English. The State Department gives students learning Japanese about three times as long to learn the language as they gives those studying Spanish or French.
With so many Chinese speakers in the world, Mandarin is growing as an important language in business and modern life in general. This Chinese dialect is hard in similar ways to Japanese, as each character has its own pronunciation without giving phonetic clues within the word. This requires a lot of memorization to be able to read the language. A particularly difficult task for English-speaking students to undertake is understanding the tonal differences between words. In English, we use different tones to convey the meaning of a sentence — questions, commands, exclamations. In Chinese, there are four tones that can make one word mean four different things. On top of this, there are many homophones, or words that sound exactly the same but have different meanings. Some have as many as 30 meanings.
To learn Korean, you’ll have to learn many characters, many of which come from Chinese, on top of learning a phonetic alphabet to build words and two sets of numbers. It also takes time to understand the difference in speech patterns used when talking to or about someone with a higher status than you, wrapping cultural lessons into the language-learning process. Many English speakers will find the pronunciation difficult, with tensed and aspirated consonant sounds that probably won’t sound different to your untrained ears.
The Navajo Nation stands in parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, and more than 170,000 people reportedly speak the Navajo language. But don’t expect it to be easy if you want to become one of these speakers. Besides a decreasing number of teachers, especially if you live away from the Navajo reservation, the structure of Navajo makes it pretty difficult for English speakers to pick up. It was even used during World War II to transmit messages because the Germans and Japanese couldn’t crack the code. Navajo uses prefixes on every verb, has up to 10 intonations on each vowel that can change the meaning of words, and many words can be very long. So if you want to learn Navajo, you’re going to have to work at it.
You know all those conjugations you had to memorize when you learned French or Spanish in high school (and then promptly forgot when you graduated)? In Hungarian, you’d have to learn twice as many; you can conjugate almost every verb in two different ways depending on the object of the sentence. The Hungarian word order also takes some getting used to since you can change around the words depending on what you want to emphasize. If this weren’t enough to make Hungarian confusing, many of the letter combinations make different sounds than we’re used to in English, such as “c” being pronounced like “ts” and “gy” pronounced as “di.”