Language Difficulty Ranking

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has created a list to show the approximate time you need to learn a specific language as an English speaker. After this particular study time you will reach “Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3)” and “Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3)”

Please keep in mind that this ranking only shows the view of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and some language students or experts may disagree with the ranking.

If there is a language in this list you would like to learn and it is in a high difficult category, don’t let this stop you from learning it. Even if they are ranked as difficult, it does not mean that they are impossible to learn and maybe it is not hard for you at all. We offer many tips on how to best learn a language that will surely help you to tackle even the most difficult language on this list.

Additionally, we also offer free language lessons for the most popular languages and a Top 10 language app overview with all currently available professional language products on the market with reviews by us and our readers.

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
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Cantonese (Chinese)
Mandarin (Chinese)
* Languages preceded by asterisks are usually more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.

47 thoughts on “Language Difficulty Ranking”

  1. Georgian, like the other Caucasian languages, is one of the most difficult languages in the world. It has a different alphabet, pronunciation is really tough and the Georgian verb is a nightmare:
    “The Georgian verb is relatively complex. If we compare it to that of many of the more familiar languages – such as English, Spanish, French, and the like – we notice a number of significant differences. These including the following:
    • the average number of morphemes (that is, basic grammatical units) per word is higher due to the process of agglutination (that is, word formation through combining sequences of elements, each with a distinctive role)
    • verbs fall into a number of contrasting classes, based on their grammatical behavior and roles
    • the familiar tenses (past, present, future, etc.) are replaced by what are known as ‘screeves’, which are characterized by more than just differences in the time reference
    • the verb can include references to the subject and the direct and indirect objects, a characteristic known as polypersonalism as, for example, in the translation of ‘I sent it to him’, which is a single word in Georgian
    • indirect objects can be marked as benefactors, possessors, and the like; this is known as ‘version’
    • subjects and objects are indicated in a more complex way through case marking
    • there is a more precise distinction of direction with verbs of motion than in many of the more familiar languages, using verb prefixes known as directional preverbs.
    As there are many exceptions to the general rules, one may sometimes encounter Georgian verbs which, in their detailed analysis, do not conform fully to models described here.”
    Japanese is not difficult, mainly because it has few irregularities and it’s easy to pronounce. As soon as you know the sentence patterns, you can put them to use easily. And learning hiragana, katakana and kanji is just a matter of drilling, which is not difficult, just time consuming and possibly boring.
    So, I would suggest Georgian for category III and Japanese for category II.
    Polish is very difficult to pronounce and grammar isn’t so easy either. I’d say category III.
    The Baltic languages, Finnish, Estonian, Armenian, Portuguese and Romanian should also move up a category.
    And finally, I think German should be in category I.

  2. for what its worth, as an English speaker I’ve put significant hours studying Japanese and Chinese, and here is my perspective:
    Japanese is a nightmare for many reasons…one of which is when you learn a Kanji, you must learn it’s onyomi and its kunyomi (Chinese and Japanese reading). One Kanji can have 2, 3, 4, 5 or more readings, and you just have to memorize which reading applies where (therefore you’re not just learning the character in and of itself).
    Japanese Keigo (honorific language) is also a tough nut to crack, so you really have to understand a lot of cultural nuances to get it right. At least it doesn’t have a rich case system, and one doesn’t have to worry about agreement with this-and-that, which eases the burden a little.
    That’s not saying much though. Japanese intermediate grammar is very difficult, and unfortunately Japanese Kanji are long-form Chinese characters…very tedious to write.
    Chinese (Mandarin) is horrific in that it has a paltry work-to-results ratio: you have to worry about tones of course. If your tone if off, many Chinese speakers simply won’t understand you. Dialects are troublesome (I don’t mean Cantonese, MinNan, etc, which are their own languages, but rather northern, southern, Taiwan, central etc. dialects of Mandarin, which can differ significantly in pronunciation & impede listening comp).
    People say you need to learn the 2,000 basic characters to read a newspaper. That is not fully true.
    Just knowing these characters doesn’t really help, because almost all Chinese words are made up of 2 characters. These 2,000 characters have formed in seemingly infinite combinations over thousands of years. Its daunting. I regularly find words in the dictionary that educated Chinese have never seen, but these still show up in books etc.
    Chinese also has an amazing array of Idioms…4 character phrases that are not intuitive in meaning without historical background knowledge. Chinese has even more 4-character set phrases, which are often called idioms as well. There are endless amounts of them…more than the student could ever memorize, let alone use in conversation. The problem is in that these idioms and set phrases are common in conversation, news, etc. Chinese start learning these at an early age and they are essential to Chinese vocab. If you want to go anywhere in the language (eg progress into intermediate), you can’t escape these little nightmares. they have a fixed expression for everything, and its a source for much frustration.
    Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world. I’m convinced of that. There is no alphabet to fall back on (an alphabet makes things so much easier). And Chinese is unique as you may be able hear a word but not necessarily be able read it, and vice-versa. If I had started with a romance language in the 1st place, I could have already progressed into one or more other romance languages by now, and be fluent in all of them. Not so in Chinese. Any intermediate and advanced student of this language (I am around a lot of them) truly feels like they’re getting nowhere.

  3. I’m a native chinese speaker and it gives me a lot of advantages to because I listen to chinese (cantonese) since birth. I would advice learners to first learn the pinyin and then the characters. Hope u guys have fun with it.

  4. Hi Steve,
    Thanks for recommending David Moser’s article. I’m debating whether to shoot myself or just give up Chinese altogether. All right, I can see that the writing system is hard (but kind of fun), but the grammar is easy, isn’t it?

  5. Navajo is not on this list, nor are Hopi or any of the Puebloan languages. I would be interested in where they rank in difficulty.

  6. I did French and Latin O level at school requiring 3-5 years study but I learnt and passed Afrikaans O level in a month. Swahili and Japanese must be among the easiest languages to pronounce and it is a pity Japanese does not solely adopt romaji writing. Korean pronunciation is much more difficult than Japanese but the writing system is great.
    A lot depends on course material and the culture of the target language. Esperanto is about world understanding and peaceful cooperation but more people relate to Klingon, which is concerned with intergalactic mayhem and blood oaths.

  7. If China adopted widespread use of pinyin Chinese would quickly become a world language.

  8. Bernard:
    “it is a pity Japanese does not solely adopt romaji writing”
    How ethnocentric of you. Albeit being one of the most tedious and meticulous alphabets known to man, the mix of Kanji and Hiragana and Katakana in a given sentence in Japanese is a beautiful gem!
    I think this report from the FSI is a comprehensive and large-scale and unbiased report from an institute carefully documenting how much time is required on average for native English speakers to reach proficiency in the most common languages. Their results shows that Japanese is the most difficult for native English speakers (followed by Chinese, Arabic, and Korean in similar level).
    This was a large-scale and objective study, and so I will trust their results more than the opinions of some of these comments from people who have only studied one or two languages sporadically, and then possess a desire to claim that their target language should be placed in a more difficult level.
    To that end, I have to agree with the comments from Steve on April 15. It just will be a challenge (or in his words a “nightmare”) for English native speakers to master the language of Japan. But it could be a rewarding one.
    It does not mean, however, that the Japanese should have to change their language to make it easier for you to learn, and relegate it to one of the lower levels of difficulty.


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