Categorised Language Difficulty Ranking for Native English Speakers


Learning any language is a lengthy process, but it seems that some languages take longer than others to learn.

Don’t just take my word for it – there’s actually a list from the Foreign Service Institute that has ranked all major languages by how difficult they are to learn for native English speakers.

It goes without saying that the timeframe given by the FSI for learning these languages is less than accurate. There are so many variables at play when it comes to language learning that it’s impossible to answer the question, “How long will it take to learn language X?”

However, in terms of difficulty, the categories created by the FSI actually make more sense.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the table.

And yes, lonely German is in its own category for one reason: German grammar is every-so-slightly complex.

Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
Languages closely related to English
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
AfrikaansGermanIndonesianAlbanianArabic
DanishMalaysianAmharicCantonese
DutchSwahiliArmenianKorean
FrenchAzerbaijaniJapanese
ItalianBengaliMandarin
NorweiganBosnian
PortugueseBulgarian
RomanianBurmese
SpanishCroatian
SwedishCzech
*Estonian
*Finnish
*Georgian
Greek
Hebrew
Hindi
*Hungarian
Icelandic
Khmer
Lao
Latvian
Lithuanian
Macedonian
*Mongolian
Nepali
Pashto
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Polish
Russian
Serbian
Sinhala
Slovak
Slovenian
Tagalog
*Thai
Turkish
Ukrainian
Urdu
Uzbek
*Vietnamese
Xhosa
Zulu
* Languages with an asterisk are considered by the FSI to be more difficult than the other languages in the same group.

Now let’s see how that looks on a colour coded map.

  1. Category 1 Languages: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours) – Languages closely related to English
    1Afrikaans, 2Danish, 3Dutch, 4French, 5Italian, 6Norwegian, 7Portuguese, 8Romanian, 9Spanish, 10Swedish.
  • Category 2 Languages: 30 weeks (750 hours) – Languages similar to English
    11German
  • Category 3 Languages: 36 weeks (900 hours) – Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
    12Indonesian, 13Malaysian, 14Swahili
  • Category 4 Languages: 44 weeks (1100 hours) – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
    15Albanian, 16Amharic, 17Armenian, 18Azerbaijani, 19Bengali, 20Bosnian, 21Bulgarian, 22Burmese, 23Croatian, 24Czech, 25*Estonian, 26*Finnish, 27*Georgian, 28Greek, 29Hebrew, 30Hindi, 31*Hungarian, 32Icelandic, 33Khmer, 34Lao, 35Latvian, 36Lithuanian, 37Macedonian, 38*Mongolian, 39Nepali, 40Pashto, 41Persian (Dari, Farsi, and Tajik), 42Polish, 43Russian, 44Serbian, 45Sinhala, 46Slovak, 47Slovenian, 48Tagalog, 49*Thai, 50Turkish, 51Ukrainian, 52Urdu, 53Uzbek, 54*Vietnamese, 55Xhosa, 56Zulu
  • Category 5 Categories: 88 weeks (2200 hours) – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
    57Arabic, 58Cantonese, 59Mandarin, 60*Japanese, 61Korean

What Makes a Language Difficult to Learn?

In general, the further away another language is from your own, the more time it will take to learn it. Let’s take a look at some aspects of languages that might make them more difficult to learn.

Tones

Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Thai, and Punjabi are tonal languages. Many words in these languages have similar phonemes but the meaning is changed depending on the tone.

For example, the sound ‘shi‘ in Mandarin has many different meanings depending on the tone.

ChinesePinyinEnglish
shìto be
shíten
shítime
shǐpoop
shīpoem
shīlion

Some tonal languages, such as Vietnamese, have tonal markings above words to signify tone. Chinese languages are pictographic, so there are no tonal markings. Japanese is a pictographic language, but it isn’t tonal.

Alphabet

Learning a new alphabet isn’t as difficult as it sounds in most cases, but it’s still something that has to be done for many category 4 language learners.

The Hindi alphabet, for example, has 45 letters and the script is rather intricate. It’s known as ‘abugida’, which means individual characters represent a consonant and vowel combination and not a single vowel or consonant. On top of that, there aren’t any phonetic markings in the Hindi alphabet so there are no pronunciation clues.

Despite many misconceptions, languages like Mandarin Chinese have no alphabet whatsoever as I explain in this article. This is another factor that makes Chinese languages more difficult to learn.

Learning Mandarin Chinese requires one to learn an entirely new writing system

Grammar

Although we’ve established that the difficulty of a language depends a lot on your mother tongue, grammar seems to be a bit of an outlier.

For example, although Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, and Basque all look very similar to English with the same romanised alphabet, many native English speakers talk of their incredibly challenging grammar. Despite Mandarin Chinese having many characteristics that make it difficult to learn for native English speakers, the grammar is relatively simple.

If you’re looking for the language with the most complicated grammar, many linguists agree that a few rare languages native to South America are insanely complex.

Tuyuca, a rare language found in the Amazon rainforest, is polysynthetic. This means that many word are created by connecting simpler words together. Some words in Tuyucan are hundreds of letters long, and it has 50 genders and up to 140 noun classes!

Learning Resources

As a learner of Mandarin Chinese, I’m lucky. With loads of apps, online courses, textbooks, and media, I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to accessible, level-appropriate learning materials.

If you’re learning some of the more popular languages like Spanish, French, and Japanese, you’ll be faced with the same wide variety.

However, if you feel like learning Tuyuca, you’ll have the opposite problem.

Granted, almost nobody on earth is going to be learning Tuyuca as a second language, but even smaller languages have much fewer learning materials.

How do I Overcome Language Difficulty?

The answer is simple, but not easy.

Desire.

I’ve written about this in other posts, but by far and away the best reason for learning a language successfully is because you want to. A genuine desire to spend thousands of hours reading, listening, watching, and just being with the language is what separates a ‘difficult’ language from an ‘easy’ one.

It doesn’t matter how naturally gifted you are at language learning, you’re still going to have to put in the time – and it really helps if you enjoy it. And once you’ve found out you really enjoy learning your target language, the concept of a difficult or easy language kind of falls away.

If you don’t enjoy engaging with a language on an almost daily basis, your progress in that language will be slow. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Spanish, Tuyuca, or Japanese. This is OK, and you don’t have to be insanely obsessed with a language (it helps) to progress, but if you spend 20 minutes on Duolingo every week, you’re not going to get that far.

What are the Most Difficult Languages for the Chinese to Learn?

Although the FSI has categorised languages by difficulty for native English speakers, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t an equivalent for the Chinese.

So, in a previous article titled Mandarin Chinese or English: Which is More Difficult to Learn? I tried to recreate the table above, but for native Mandarin speakers.

CategoryWeeksClass HoursLanguages
123 – 24575- 600Other Sino-Tibetan languages which share the same writing system but when spoken are mutually unintelligible to each other, such as Min (e.g Southern Min, Wu (e.g Shanghainese), Yue (e.g Cantonese)
2 & 3441,100Other tonal languages in the region (Vietnamese, Burmese) and languages that share similarities in grammar or writing (Japanese)
4661,600European Languages

The table above is probably even more inaccurate than the table published by the FSI in terms of ‘class hours’, but the most important point to drive home here is that the most difficult languages to learn tend to be the ones that are most different from your mother tongue.

As you can see from the table, I truly believe that learning English (and European languages in general) to proficiency level takes less time for Chinese natives. I explain why in this article.

Summary

A ‘difficult’ language is quite a relative concept, but it makes sense that the more different languages require more effort and time to learn.

Obviously, the time it takes to learn a language depends on a lot of factors, namely desire, so this post should be taken as a fairly loose guide to the difficulty of different languages.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, check out the links below for resource recommendations and study tips!

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