Most adults genuinely struggle to learn new things. That’s why your dad sucks at operating his iPhone. It’s also why you probably should have asked to learn to drive a stickshift when you were sixteen, instead of in your thirties.
The best way to keep your brain sharp, though? Learning a new language. Whether you’re itching to travel, to be able to call yourself bilingual or just looking for something new to help with quaran-boredom, learning a new skill or language might be just the thing you’re looking for. Don’t just take our word for it, let the experts do convincing. Studies show learning a second language could help improve brain function regardless of when you start your language journey. Assuming it’s not too hard, of course. These are the hardest languages to learn if you want to test your lingual chops.
This isn’t a complete list of hard languages, but we don’t want to discourage you entirely. Learning a new language is one of the most fun, self-esteem boosting things you can do… it just takes a lot of work. If you’re worried about struggling and getting turned off, try a language with Latin roots. They’re most similar to ours. (And that high school Spanish will come back to you as you work.) If you know that stumbling won’t stop you, one of these languages might be a fun challenge.
1. Mandarin Chinese
Did you know more people in our world speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language? While French and Spanish were staples in most high schools in the 90s, it’s fairly common to see the world’s most used language on class listings these days.
Learning Chinese fluently means picking up the meaning for thousands of symbols, as well as needing nearly constant practice manipulating your tone. Babbel points out that a single word, depending on how it’s pronounced or the tone used to say it, can have multiple meanings. They give the example of ma which could mean “mother,” “horse,” “rough” or “scold,” depending on your tone. Those kinds of mistakes could easily earn you a funny look in a foreign country.
Arabic offers its own unique challenges to English-speakers. Just like Mandarin Chinese, Arabic has a completely different sounding and looking alphabet — this time with 28 characters. They also don’t use many vowels.
To make matters even more difficult, in order to read Arabic, you must work from right to left, instead of left to right. You have to completely retrain your brain to move across the page. Think of it like learning to drive on the other side of the road. Except way more tedious. Arabic is also similar to Chinese in that it has several, widely varying dialects. It’ll be hard, but it’s a beautiful and poetic language to learn if you’re going to go for it.
Mosalingua, another language-learning site, recently built an app specifically to help users learn Russian. As with Chinese and Arabic, Russian has its own alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet not only contains 28 characters but, just like in english, many characters/letters hold more than one way to be pronounced. Russia Beyond even goes so far as to explain that many people lose hope in learning Russian when they realize just how arbitrary rules for emphasis seem to be. Are there even rules for emphasis? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
There is some good news for those among us who speak or have studied Greek. As the Greek alphabet is also Cyrillic, sounding out the letters might help Greek speakers sound out Russian words. You might not know what you’re saying, but you’ll at least be able to pronounce it.
Finally! A language that uses the Latin alphabet! You’re out of the woods now, right? Think, again, Mama. On the one hand, the Turkish language got an entire overhaul in 1928, when they switched to use Latin characters. However, many of their words still have Arabic roots. And, while you don’t have to do as much conjugating, the Turkish language adds prefixes and suffixes to their words to indicate where a word is going.
According to Babbel, they’re also known for adding unnecessary letters at the end of the word in order for it to flow better. Yikes. So, while Babbel is well within reason to place it on their list of hard languages, it’s important to know that resources are available to make learning Turkish much easier.
Okay. In the grand scheme of things and in comparison to the rest of this list, Polish is actually pretty easy. It works with a Latin alphabet, so you’re familiar with the letters. Where things get complicated, though, is the lack of vowel-use. Polish skimps on vowels and makes up for it with lots of zs. That’s great if you’re playing Polish Scrabble, but less great when you’re trying to learn a new language. Another hurdle: English has two declensions (singular and plural) and Polish has 14. We won’t even go into that list, but it makes sentence structuring a real bear.
Technically, spoken Japanese is not as difficult to master as other languages. According to Japan Times, the language only has five vowels and 13 consonants. Compared to English which has 12 vowels and 24 consonants, its level of complexity is not so bad.
It’s written Japanese that stumps so many non-natives because it combines five different writing systems — kanji, hiragana, katakana, Arabic numerals and the Roman alphabet. According to the National Institute for Japanese Language, a user need know nearly 10,000 words to be functional in Japanese. In comparison, that number is only 3,000 when it comes to English and Spanish, dropping down to 2,000 for French.
Many language learning sites claim they can help users reach conversational fluency in a few months of daily study, but ex-pats living in Japan claim it can take years of full immersion in the language to just reach “survival” mode. Now that sounds like a truly difficult language to master.