Is English the Hardest Language to Learn?

Is English the hardest language?
When we try to decide which language is the hardest to learn, we have a problem. Everything, but everything, is subjective. There are a lot of factors that contribute to language learning difficulties. Broadly, we could sum these up as:

  • The language(s) you grew up speaking
  • Your attitude
  • Your personal context

If you grew up speaking English, learning to speak English is something you’ve been doing since you were tiny, and English seems easy. Because it’s related to the Latin languages, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese shouldn’t be all that difficult to also learn, and even French makes some kind of sense. However, in all these languages, you’ll have to get around some tenses and pronunciations that come naturally to native speakers, but which will seem awkward to you.

You’ll probably struggle with languages like Mandarin and Arabic because they are completely unrelated to any language you already know, and the same must be true for non-native speakers trying to learn English.

So, is English the hardest language to learn? No. English can be difficult, but if you didn’t grow up speaking them, these languages are harder:

Mandarin: That tone system is difficult to master if your language doesn’t have something similar. As for the alphabet, you’re going to take quite a lot of time just learning enough of it to get by.

Finnish: There are cases and cases within cases, it can be really tricky to navigate.

Arabic: There are four variations of each of the letters, and where you use them depends on where in the word they belong.

Japanese: Just try that alphabet – there are 2,000 to 3,000 characters you must learn to have basic reading skills.

Why Is English Often Said to Be a Difficult Language?

English is packed with linguistic quirks that might even make you think they were deliberately put there just to make the language difficult to learn. Don’t take it personally. It just happened, we promise! Here’s what makes English so hard:

English Rules Are Hard with Multiple Exceptions

Just think of these inconsistencies:

  • The teacher taught. But the preacher never praught.
  • One goose, two geese. One moose, two mooses (not meece)
  • Look” and “see” have similar meanings, but “overlook” and “oversee” mean completely different things.
  • One mouse, two mice. One house, two houses.
  • Vegetarians eat vegetables, but humanitarians do not live on a diet of people!

I’m sure you could come up with a few more of these if you thought about it. There are rules, there are exceptions to rules, and there are exceptions to the exceptions!

The Correct Word Order Can Be Hard to Explain

Example: “It’s a little fierce cat,” versus “It’s a fierce little cat.” The second one just sounds right if you’re an English speaker, and if there’s a rule somewhere, I don’t know it. If you were to say “It’s a big fierce cat,” it wouldn’t sound wrong at all.

I sometimes collaborate with a Dutch lady who is an excellent researcher, but I always have to change her wording. If I know why, I add a comment so that she can learn, but quite often, I can’t explain why I made certain changes.

Weird spelling

English has its roots in many languages, and some spellings seem to have little to do with the way you pronounce a word. Just think of “yacht.” It’s pronounced “yot,” but that’s not what the letters tell us! Other weird ones include:

  • Through
  • Bough
  • Rough

All three end in “ough” but they are pronounced as “Thru,” “Bow,” and “Ruff” — are we crazy?

Then there are silent letters like the “h” in “Ghost” and the “b” in “Debt.” And as for the letter “c,” it can’t decide whether it should be pronounced as an “s” or like a “k.” While we’re at it, by what logic did we decide some words end in “ck?”

Inflection Changes Meaning – at Least a Bit

Am I kidding? No, I am not! The words you place emphasis on can change the meaning of a sentence, even if it’s only slightly. Let’s look at an example

“I know I got that letter.” Easy peasy. It’s a simple statement of fact.

I know I got that letter.” Place emphasis on the I, and suddenly you’re implying that someone else might not believe you or doesn’t know what you know.

“I know I got that letter.” Now you’re wondering what happened to the letter, because despite the fact that you know you got it, you can’t seem to find it.

“I know I got that letter.” Here you’re saying you received a letter, but another one didn’t turn up.

Regional Accents

I’m sure this is true of other widely spoken languages too, but pity the person who has to learn English. English speakers from around the world might often sound like they’re speaking completely different languages! We even have difficulty talking to each other sometimes.

When I was at school, we were very excited and interested when an Australian girl joined our class. There was just one problem: none of us could understand a word she said! Closer to home, the US has many regional accents, and we can have difficulty communicating with our own countrymen and women.

English May Not Be the Hardest Language, but…

If you’re an English speaker, don’t mock others who struggle with your language. Who knows? One day, you might find yourself in a position where you must learn theirs. Struggling with the complexities of English (and there are plenty) doesn’t mean someone is stupid, and you should always encourage people to study new languages.

  • Everyone who has studied English knows it’s the hardest language. I don’t even know why this is a question?

    • You have obviously never tried to learn Japanese or Chinese. The alphabets of these two are so much more complex than English. 26 letters versus thousands of characters.

    • No, that’s a common excuse for people. I’ve been speaking Spanish my entire life and English for the lesser portion, and I am fluent in English but still have many errors in Spanish. I’ve also been learning Japanese, and it’s clear that, seriously, English is one of the easier languages and it gets a lot of flack because so many people who are bilingual and only speak their native language and English Can’t adjust, even though it’s like that with literally every other language. Stop shitting on other languages and making excuses.

        • And of course Lemons has to come in here with their qualifications of being fluent and how English is so easy but, coming in here making errors and making it clear as day they are not a native. No need to declare it when you can’t even type a paragraph without making mistakes.

  • What about these things? Th, Ph, Ch, etc. I still can’t pronounce ”Ch”, everyone in my class laughs at me 🙁

    • That’s not English, that’s the alphabet. Spanish, french and other Latin languages have it as well, so it’s not an English only thing. That’s probably why he didn’t mention it.

  • English is one of the easiest I would say.

    Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Chinese, Japanese and many other languages are much more difficult.

  • From a near-native fluency standpoint, I would say English is the hardest language to learn in the world. However, there is just something cool about English that permits speakers even at low levels to communicate with relative ease, despite a limited vocabulary and often incorrect grammar. Chinese and Japanese are tough, Japanese moreso, but only the writing system is complicated. Speaking is generally considered a breeze.

    Source: Native English, fluent Japanese, fluent Chinese.

  • bonjour, le français est bien plus dur que n’importe quelle autre langue sanglante. Je suis français mais j’adore apprendre l’anglais.

    • French is actually really easy but english on the other hand is…..well trying to teach people it is hard because the get mad at words for example because and cause when i am teaching people english that is the two words that they get confused about because they think that since because sounds similar to cause they think that cause is Becus but french is just hard to pronounce

      • that is actually not true. English is much more simpler to process than french. English has no accented characters, nouns are gender neutral, they don’t change spelling based on gender, has 2 articles (the and a/an) french has 7 (le, la, les, un, une, des, de). French is much more complex and precise than english

  • I have fun with the word “bologna” why is it pronounced “bolonie, bolony” instead of “bologna.” Go figure.

    • That’s the American pronunciation; it’s not representative for the rest of the world. Here in Australia, Bologna is pronounced:

      Although, you may be referencing the Bologna sausage’s colloquial name baloney which is just a bastardisation of the word’s origin. I think it’s safe to say that this aspect of western culture (bastardisation) and specifically English speaking western culture is an affront to the people of these cultures. English is a language that was formed in a cultural melting pot involving the whole world, and I think we should follow these roots. Instead of disregarding the origins of loan words, we should instead be celebrating them and promoting discourse between our cultures.

      • yeah but in reality there are several words and phrases like that in a lot of languages that can be watered down to their roots. Thats what it means to have a different language. If bologna was said as “Meat Pancakes” in the US and you went to the US and wanted Bologna then you would ask for Meat Pancakes. Otherwise no one would know what you mean. Same as if you ask for fish and chips you are not going to get what you want in most places. You will get crisps instead of chips. When in Rome do as the Romans. You are not going to change the language by fighting it. Words change over time and even definitions change. Look at the definition for Decimate. If you have a 10 slice pizza and you eat 1 slice you decimated that pizza.(removed 1/10th) Yet in most places Decimate has been come to mean destroyed almost completely. So much that the definition has changed. And there is no reason fighting it because people know what you mean when you say it.

        The same way that you would change most other words to converse in English you should also change the way you say Bologna

      • “English is a language that was formed in a cultural melting pot involving the whole world” Um…no it’s not. That’s not how languages are formed.

  • My first language is English, I also speak French and am presently learning Persian. My Persian friends say learning English was relatively easy for them. I can confirm that Persian, with it’s Arabic alphabet, is difficult for me, though I am enjoying the experience. Is English the language people should learn? I quote the publication Asiaweek: “In a central Asian country where Western tongues are rarely spoken,” an eight-year-old tells his father that he has to learn English. The father asks why. “Because, father, the computer speaks English.” That story, notes Asiaweek, “illustrates what many consider to be an insidious side-effect of the information superhighway . . . , the potential to hasten an already rapid shift toward a dominant global language—English.” The magazine adds: “This does not spring from any pull toward universal brotherhood. It is merely practical. If we are going to engage in digital discourse and commerce across the Internet, a common currency is required for easy exchange.” Why English? Because “the PC business was born in the U.S., as was the Internet. Some 80% of the online content today is Anglophonic.” Use of other languages is slowed in some cases because of the difficulty of adapting them to the English-based keyboard. “There will be a price to pay,” says Asiaweek. “Linguists predict that half of some 6,000 languages spoken today will fall into disuse by the end of the next century, possibly within the next 20 years.” Food for thought.

    • It’d be a lot more accurate to say that ARPAnet was created in America. But that’s not what most people think of when they think of the internet. They’re thinking of the application layer protocols like HTTP and the technologies like markup etc. put through those protocols. Almost all the concrete and conceptual work on that level was done by Europeans, and particularly Britons. Tim Berners-Lee, being the obvious example, is British, and he was a major protocol designer, including oF HTTP. And then there’s a bunch of people from UCL, among other institutions, who created, proposed, or standardised many parts of today’s “internet” stacks and topographies.

      The reason they were working in English – even the Europeans – was more likely that English had long since become the standard in science and engineering discourse/communication (plus most non-STEM academia but that’s irrelevant here). The domination of the UK-USA axis in computer science, going right back to the British titans who established it as a discipline like Babbage, Lovelace, Boole etc., resulted in the well-known ASCII character set (and related variants) becoming the only way of interacting with computers, necessitating English or at least knowledge of a suitable Latin script (though, of course, the creation of ISAs, C, FORTRAN etc., by Americans and Britons still mandated the use of English keywords).

      QWERTY was not strictly computer-related but likewise came about through the British-Italian-American invention and then expansion of the typewriter market in the 18th and 19th century (Henry Mill’s invention of the Britain goes all the way back to the beginning of the 18th century, but it was only popularised by suitably advanced mass market American models much later). QWERTY also clearly favoured Latin alphabets, especially the English 26 without diacritics, which was another big deal. Outside of European plain-ish alphabetic orthographies, some countries/languages suffered problems, through no real fault of anyone in particular. Oriental and other languages with logographic, ideographic, or syllabary orthographies translated especially poorly to human-computer interfaces. And still do. It’s a not-completely-solved problem. Some Chinese and Japanese keyboards look absolutely wild by comparison to QWERTY.

      The only reason the internet and computing more broadly didn’t remain the sole domain of Europeans and Anglosphere dwellers was that some very smart people in those places strove to make it more accessible through internationalisation, localisation, and, most importantly, the elegant work of genius that is unicode (some languages didn’t even have their own code pages pre-unicode). So it’s not like there was any intentional elitism or isolationism involved; it was simply the natural progression of a new branch of science and engineering that emerged out of a specific area of the world. In fact, for a long time now, the kid in the story has been wrong about “the computer speak[ing] English” (at least for the vast majority of use cases concerning a young child on a computer). I can’t help wondering how old that story is, and if it’s real or apocryphal. The sort of resentment it expresses is strange to me: if computer science had been developed in the East, computers would’ve been speaking some variety of Eastern languages (insofar as they favour any language), and a byte would be 2-4 times the size it is now. (That would’ve actually been a somewhat unfortunate event; but maybe it would’ve hastened the development of variable width character sets or even 64/128-bit computing — who knows?)

  • There was a cute t-shirt I saw one day and it was referring to using commas. It read, “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma”
    Then underneath that it read,
    Commas save lives!
    LOL LOL😉😆
    The first time I saw that, I couldn’t stop laughing! I thought it was so witty.

  • I think it’s worth mentioning that English is a very modern language. The fact that it defends from German, Old English, Middle English and then all of the borrowed/shared words from Greek, Latin and many other sources, make it an almost conglomeration of languages. It’s ever evolving and with the added slang that is ever increasing in usage make it an evolving mess. Just learning to speak the language in different capacities is difficult, for example, writing scientifically vs writing prose or literature. It’s maddening for even native, well-educated English speakers.

    • And then you have the slang from different parts of the world. I’m still wondering what a numpty is. X-D

      • A ‘numpty’ is an idiot but meant in a jocular sense, its not particularly harsh. Popular in Australia.

  • English is the only major modern European language that uses the basic Latin alphabet, without any additional letters formed by adding diacritical marks(examples …ā,ē,ī,ō,ä,í,ə,ḉ,è,ô,ü etc) or completely new symbols. Secondly, most conjugated english verbs are plural specific but not gender specific except for very rare occasions. Which makes conjugating english verbs a 1/3 simpler from other latin languages. Example the verb ‘acting’ is a rare exception… he is an act(or)/she is an act(ress). They(she(s)/he(s) does not exist in english…just (they)) are act(ors)/act(resses). You have to deal with these plural/gender specific conjugations with every verbs in other latin langs. English has 2 articles…(the) and (a/an) other latin langs have like seven or more (le, la, les, un, une, de, des). Nouns are gendered in other latin languages of course not in english. No english in reality is much, much, easier to learn than other latin languages. Only Americans that only know english will try to convince you that its the hardest language in the world. Its ridiculously laughable, and a poor excuse for laziness because its one of the most basic languages. its incredible to think that there are actually people out there who think english is the hardest language

    • You can’t even write with basic grammar, you should probably quite running your mouth about the laziness of others.

  • I never learned English, but I can speak it. You can already speak it after watching American films and reading English-language media. I could do it when I was six, but I never learned it. English is not a difficult language at all. (English isn’t my native language if you’re wondering.)

  • I’ve taught English for many years. It has so many irregularities and is changing everyday. “Set” has over 400 definitions.

  • This is great and is really helpful as I explain to my elementary English speaking students who are learning Spanish, French, German and Mandarin Chinese, why English is also difficult (but not as difficult as Mandarin).

  • A common example of English being annoying that I see is on an everyday road sign! “Slow children at play” but ah, ah, ah!… you’re missing a very important comma, there, bud. Mmm, yes, slow children. XD

  • In no way do I believe that English Is the most difficult language in the world, and as a Native English speaker [whose French, Spanish and German are just passable] I’m not the best judge, but I do think that it is UNBELIEVABLY annoying sometimes.I think that it is reasonably easy to learn the basics of, but If you want to be able to write and speak beautifully in English, It takes a lot of work because there are thousands of words and a lot of them have individual rules.It is also worth noting that English is an unusual and rich language to be able to speak because it is an interesting mix of French, Latin,Anglo-Saxon as well as fundamentally being mostly a Peasant’s tongue, because the English peasant’s were to stubborn to speak French.
    So,in conclusion, I think that English is a lot easier than many other languages around the globe,but is uniquely difficult in a way that all languages are, And as someone who went to School in England,English spelling Tests are a Nightmare.

  • American English is my mother tongue. Consequently, I haven’t had too many significant obstacles in advancing my English skills (American English, at least!). Aside from that, I happen to love studying languages – particularly etymology (the study of a word’s history by tracing its origins). While studying etymology, I have noticed something distinct about American English that I believe is a major factor in people’s struggle to master it. American-English, in particular, seems to be an ever-growing melting pot compiled of words from numerous languages. If “we” don’t have an adequate word for something, or encounter a foreign word or term that we simply like, we tend to assimilate it into our own language for use – often “borrowing” without change in spelling or pronunciation. This can make quite a mess of our vocabulary and structure! Since there are certain languages from which American English has “borrowed” in bulk, such as Latin, native speakers of those languages may have an easier time in some areas. Nonetheless, there are so many languages peppered in this “melting pot” that it can get complicated for anyone. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve even made a few mistakes in this post! Ironically, this little fact about American English is what I love most about it. I think it honors many languages and cultures in this way and makes American English all the more fascinating. Yet, I understand it can be frustrating, too. Still, I have learned a lot about world culture through digging into etymology alone. Another great thing I’ve encountered with many speakers of American English is that many of us agree the language is rather whacky! Trying to help my friends find the best way to convey their meaning has often been a source of mutual humor and bonding. I hope others can learn to appreciate these albeit quirky but unique aspects of American English as they develop their skills and enjoy the journey! For anyone learning, I honestly want them to have the time of their lives and take it one step at a time. I’m currently learning other languages myself and one of the best keys is enjoying the process.

  • As a Norwegian who learned English, German and French , English is – by far – the easiest of which to get a workable knowledge. The teach/taught etc. is not very hard to handle. A few irregular words; no big deal.

  • Homonyms throw non-English speakers all the time. Like P, pea, pee. I dated a guy from France. I told him (hem) peas would (wood) go good with chicken. He said, “Oh you are so nasty.”

  • Sorry, I meant, homophones in my example, than homonyms. “Homonyms throw non-English speakers all the time. Like P, pea, pee. I dated a guy from France. I told him (hem) peas would (wood) go good with chicken. He said, “Oh you are so nasty.”

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