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.

Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
Languages closely related to English
Afrikaans
Danish
Dutch
French
Italian
Norwegian
Portuguese
Romanian
Spanish
Swedish
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English
German  
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Indonesian
Malaysian
Swahili
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Albanian
Amharic
Armenian
Azerbaijani
Bengali
Bosnian
Bulgarian
Burmese
Croatian
Czech
*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
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Arabic
Cantonese (Chinese)
Mandarin (Chinese)
*Japanese
Korean
* Languages preceded by asterisks are usually more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.

44 thoughts on “Language Difficulty Ranking”

  1. Marcell :
    I am also from South Africa and I now live in Cambodia where I have learnt to speak khmer. I think any language is easy to learn if you are surrounded by it. If I had spent my whole life speaking English and tried to learn Afrikaans without hearing it it would be difficult. If I had llearnt Khmer in SA it would have been impossible. Hearing the language everyday and plunging into it is the way to go. I must say though that as South African we are quite adaptable to languages having grown up with 11 of them. I now speak English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and Khmer. If you want learn a language surround yourself with it
    \\\
    Hi, this list is very accurate, I live in South Africa, here are many languages, but Xhosa and Zulu should be under the Category 1, its really not that difficult, my mother toung is Afrikaans, very easy too!! At the moment im learning Tagalog, if anyone have any suggestions, i’ll gladly accept them.
    Ty

    Reply
  2. I have had formal instruction in Latin, classical Greek and German and tried to teach myself to read some of the others from books. Remember: the FSI rankings are based on the difficulties Americans who are primary English speakers have learning them. I agree with the list (including the placement of German and the Scandinavian languages, which are a snap to learn to read).
    I would think Irish belongs in category 3 (it’s far more difficult than German), but Welsh could be category 2 or even category 1, since the verb is easy and much of the modern vocabulary English respelled phonetically.

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  3. I think it’s quite lame and unsportsman-like (in dutch:flauw en onsportief) that you don’t mention Esperanto as category 0. Learning it takes a mere 150 hours/ 6 weeks.
    David (april 26), as far as I know the statistics are about native speakers of english that already speak one or more second languages

    Reply
  4. I found German fairly easy from locals I never went to a language school (not fluent) but, Russian, I find difficult, but I’m getting there

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  5. Well, I’m an Arabic native speaker, I would say Arabic is the most difficult language because even Arabs of nowadays have difficulty in learning it, why do the learn it? because in Arabic countries we simply don’t speak the standard Arabic and because, depending on the difference between dialects and formal dialect in other languages, dialects in Arabic are much different than standard Arabic.
    Also the most difficult thing that would face an Arabic learner, especially if his native language isn’t Semitic, is the pronunciation, Arabic has 28 different alphabets and all of them aren’t similar, also writing in Arabic would be a problem, too; In Arabic, every letter has a shape depending on two things, its place in the sentence, an whether the letter before it connects with the letter after it or not, in addition, writing the Hamza “glottal stop” would be a problem, too.

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    • Chinese is worse. Each dialect is basically like another language even though the writing system is universal. Not to mention you need to learn specific tones for each word or cluster of words. The writing system is literally rote memorization since there is no way to even guess pronunciation from the vast majority of characters.

      While standard Mandarin will get you around almost all of China, the local dialects will be very, very difficult to understand if you don’t study them.

      Reply
  6. I think Tagalog should be in category 2 because it isn’t too hard even though the grammar I’s difficult the speech is overly simplified.

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    • As a native speaker who also speaks a local language (or “dialect”), Tagalog is something hard to understand for me and the people I know. We do not know the translations of many words and we still commit many grammar mistakes despite speaking it for most of our lives and studying it in school. Sometimes it is quite tricky and I agree that it should be placed in category 4.

      Reply
  7. Hello everyone!
    Well, it’s quite rare to come across a “serious” yet very engaging thread. As a native speaker of Arabic who’s achieved near-native mastery of English and French and has given go to: Italian, Spanish, German, Turkish, Japanese, and Chinese, I must say I fully agree with list above.
    Romance languages are so easy for the English speaker. Chinese isn’t as hard as people think it is and although the writing system IS a nightmare, the grammar couldn’t be any simpler. Japanese is difficult in a “weird” kind of way. Every language has a certain essence of logic to it that you start to tap into as you progress gradually; didn’t happen to me with Japanese. Even long after encountering many language items that I thought I understood, that lingering question of “Why is that so?” kept bugging me. Not that that takes away any of its charm. As a speaker of French, Italian was joke. A very melodic one. German is hard. Even with backdoor access through English and French it is still hard. Turkish is so sweet! But it also has a fluid quality that’s extremely elegant. What’s really funny is that I was struggling with and sulking about the concept of agglutination (words that merge together to make a single entity i.e. what appears in English as a simple sentence very often looks like a single word in Turkish) only to realize that my mother tongue, Arabic, is itself agglutinative. That didn’t help much…
    Onto Arabic. (Taking a deep breath). For a host of reasons, Arabic – as beautiful as it is to the native speaker – is a complete NIGHTMARE to the language learner. The grammar is so complex: for starters, how about 12 pronouns – that are very often used but not seen – instead of 7 in English? -ed and auxiliaries to form tenses? How about “El-wazn”: a maze of prefixes, suffixes, infixes, all sprinkled with inflectional traps. Oh, and it’s everywhere – Inflection that is – along the case system! Pronunciation is a whole other issue with sounds like ح، خ، ع، غ، أ، ق… plus there are only about a hundred Arabic dialects, so you can either learn classical Arabic and never be able to communicate naturally with any Arabs, as ironic as that is, or learn a dialect that’s specific to a certain region and never watch TV or read a newspaper, classical Arabic being the official medium of communication in the Media, educational institutions, government departments etc. I’ve taught English to Arab, French, and Chinese nationals, French to Arabs and Indians, hell even some German to Arabs without any major difficulties, but the only time I had to teach Arabic to a foreigner, I was like: “Whaaaaaat…?” It was only then that I started to realize how tough this language I’m so proud of is. All this however doesn’t seem to prevent American ambassadors to Arab countries from speaking fluent classical Arabic along with a local dialect. Truly impressive. Whoever’s trying to learn Arabic should ask THEM about their secret because I – the native speaker – have no clue!!! LOL.

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  8. Ferenc Zopcsák :Why isn’t Hungarian in Column 3? Isn’t its absolutely flexible word order hard to acquire for native speakers of English? No matter what the order of the words in a sentence is, it still remains grammatically correct, but may well mean completely different things! Not to mention the vowels that are unique to Hungarian such as “á,é,ó,ö,ő,ú,ü,ű,í” and some consonants: “ty, gy, ny, sz, zs, dzs, dz, ly, cs” don’t tell me it’s as easy as Bulgarian or Icelandic… Vowel length is a distinctive feature, and should not be verlooked either.Can anyone tell us the reasons why it is in Column 2?

    Its in column 4 showing how hard it is to learn. Many linguistic studies have shown that Hungarian is in fact easier than Icelandic AND Bulgarian. Bulgarian involves a completely different alphabet and way of pronunciation, while Icelandic has an average word length of 8 letters. That combined with it’s challenging pronunciation is enough to put Hungarian in its place. Hungarian is in fact hard to learn, but it is in the right position, and it is no where as hard as Icelandic and Bulgarian

    Reply

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