So you’re ready to take on the challenge of learning a new language. Congratulations! It’s going to be a wonderful journey. Maybe you have to choose between Spanish and French for school. Maybe your boss needs you to brush up on your Russian for an upcoming business trip. But let’s say that you don’t have any constraints. You can tackle any language in the world. In today’s world, this is easier than ever with all of the resources available on the Internet. You don’t even have to leave your living room to become fluent! But just how easy is it to learn a new language?

Some people (like these polyglots we interviewed!) have an easier time picking up a language than others, yes. But some languages are objectively more difficult than others for native English speakers. What is the hardest language to learn, and is it worth doing so? Here’s what we think:

hardest language to learn

Easier Said in English than Done… What is the Hardest Language to Learn, and is it Worth Learning?

Lots of factors have to be taken into consideration when determining the hardest language to learn. We weighed these factors and came up with one language that stood out in terms of difficulty.

We believe that Japanese is the hardest language to learn.

In an opinion piece in Japan Today, one writer described the difficulty of Japanese like this: “On a scale of 1 to Hot-Tub-at-the-Playboy-Mansion, learning Japanese slots in somewhere between soldering together your own black-and-white TV and copying the Bible by hand while wearing a Medieval monk outfit.”

What about Japanese gives native English speakers so much trouble? Is it really worth the time and effort to study?

Time to get to work

The Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State evaluated some of the most common foreign languages for native English speakers to determine approximately how long it takes the average learner to achieve proficiency. (Click the link above for a handy infographic summarizing their findings.) Languages fairly close to English, such as Italian, Spanish, French, and a few Nordic languages fall into the “easy” category. These require between 23 and 24 weeks of study, or 575-600 classroom hours. Along with Japanese in the “hard” category are Arabic, Chinese, and Korean, which the FSI estimates need about 2,200 hours of work to become proficient. This comes out to 25 hours per week dedicated to language learning.

For those of us with full-time jobs, kids, and other obligations, 25 hours a week isn’t easy to find. The reality is that achieving proficiency will require years of work.

hardest language to learn

Back to basics

If you want to learn Japanese and are willing to put in the time, start by forgetting everything you know about English, down to the very foundations – the alphabet. This is probably the hardest thing about the Japanese language for English speakers to grasp.

Japanese uses three main writing systems, plus two secondary writing systems for numbers and words that need to be transcribed phonetically using the Latin alphabet. The three main writing systems serve different purposes. The first, kanji, borrows from the Chinese writing system, and there are over 2000 unique characters! We use the second, hiragana, for grammatical purposes. This is especially confusing because English does not have special words that denote the different parts of speech. The third, katakana, uses characters to transcribe foreign words. If you don’t know what a character means, even looking it up in a dictionary will be difficult! Sometimes a sentence can contain a blend of all three of these systems.

On top of all this, while Japanese is not technically a tonal language like Chinese, there are different pronunciations for the kanji. Different pronunciation completely changes the meaning of a word. You’ll have to use context clues to help you decide which pronunciation is appropriate.

Yes, Japanese can be written phonetically (rōmaji), but if you actually go to Japan, good luck finding any signs or restaurant menus written like this! You’re more likely to find things written in English, which brings us to our next point.

japanese architecture

Exposure to the hardest language to learn

Unlike languages like Portuguese or Spanish which are spoken in multiple countries around the world, Japanese is spoken pretty much exclusively in Japan. This means that there are only about 122 million native Japanese speakers. Compared this to 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers or 329 million native Spanish speakers. You may have a harder time finding resources or immersing yourself if a trip to Japan isn’t in your budget. Luckily today, with the Internet you can even get real conversation practice with websites like iTalki.

Even if you are fortunate enough to go to Japan, big cities like Tokyo are well-adapted for tourists. You can get by with very limited Japanese. But try not to fall into this trap if your goal is to work on your language skills! Use the signs in English to test your knowledge and see if you guessed the Japanese correctly.

Culture shock

Another thing that makes Japanese the hardest language to learn is the culture surrounding the language. More specifically, the different levels of formality. In English, we have vague notions of formal language vs. informal language, like things we should and shouldn’t say to our boss, for example. Japanese takes that to the next level. This formal language is called keigo. There are not just two registers, but five! Respectful language (sonkeigo 尊敬語), humble/modest language (kenjougo 謙譲語), polite language (teineigo 丁寧語), courteous language (teichougo 丁重語) and word beautification (bikago 美化語). Even some native speakers have trouble deciding when to use one form over another depending on the situation. Another hurdle to overcome? The fear of using the wrong register and coming off as rude.

hardest language to learn

There you have it, a few reasons why we think Japanese is the hardest language to learn. But while it may seem daunting, if you like the Japanese language and culture, don’t let this article hold you back from pursuing your passion and tackling the language!

*cover photo by David A Ellis