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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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

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