7 Most Difficult Asian Languages for English Speakers

For speakers of Western European languages like English, some of the most daunting foreign languages are those from Asia. Drastically different writing systems, difficult pronunciation, and confusing grammar structures are features that many of them share.

However, it’s also true that there is an enormous range of variation between Asian languages, and some are far more challenging than others.

In this post, we’ll explore the most difficult Asian languages out there. Read on to learn what makes them so challenging.

So, What are the Most Difficult Asian Languages, Really?

1. Mandarin – A Highly Complex Script and Some Pesky Tones

Mandarin Chinese probably deserves to be first on this list. Not only is it notoriously difficult to learn for English speakers, but it also has the most native speakers of any language on the planet. There are roughly 1 billion people that speak Mandarin as their mother tongue, making it a very useful language to learn.

Being the official dialect of such an economically powerful county adds to the global importance of the language. Speakers of Mandarin Chinese have greater access to many business opportunities. Unfortunately, learning Mandarin is no easy task.

Two of the most difficult aspects of Mandarin are pronunciation and the writing system. Pronunciation is difficult for two main reasons: there are sounds that don’t exist in English, and Mandarin is a tonal language. The writing system is difficult because it shares no similarities with the Latin alphabet and because it takes an exceptionally long time to learn.

Correct pronunciation of Mandarin is difficult for English speakers to learn. There are three sounds represented in Pinyin as “j,” “q,” and “x” that are particularly difficult because they have no phonetic counterparts in English. They can be found in words such as jing 经, qiu 求, and xiang 想.

The other aspect of Mandarin pronunciation that makes it so difficult is that it makes use of tones. In English and other non-tonal languages, rising and falling inflections are used to express a feeling, emphasize, or indicate a question. In Mandarin, the tone you use changes the meaning of the word completely. There are five different tones in Mandarin. See the table below for an example of how tones change a word.

妈 (mā)mom
麻 (má)hemp
马 (mǎ)horse
骂 (mà) to scold
吗 (ma)a question particle

Finally, the writing system sets Mandarin apart from many other languages. Chinese characters, or hanzi, differ from alphabets in that they are logosyllabic, meaning each character roughly corresponds to one syllable of spoken language. These characters are also either a word on their own or part of a polysyllabic word.

It takes a great deal of practice for the untrained eye to get accustomed to reading and writing these characters, and there are over 50,000 of them. Around 3,000 of these are used in daily conversation, and college-educated Mandarin speakers typically know around 4,000 or more. 

2. Japanese – 3 Writing Systems and an Unusual Word Order

Japanese is a popular language to learn. While, just like with Mandarin, there are economic possibilities afforded to those that can speak Japanese, many people also learn Japanese to be able to interact with Japanese culture. Cultural exports like J-Pop, sushi, and anime have won the world over.

The Japanese writing system is certainly an obstacle for anyone learning the language — it makes use of three different systems: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries used to represent sounds in Japanese, and kanji are characters that have been borrowed from Chinese.

While Hiragana will look totally foreign to anyone used to the Latin alphabet, it won’t take forever to learn; there are 46 different basic characters. Hiragana is used to spell words that are native to Japanese and for grammatical aspects. Katakana is similar to hiragana in that it is a syllabary with 46 basic characters. It is used to spell foreign words and names as well as loanwords.

Japanese kanji is made of characters borrowed from Chinese and is the most time-consuming to learn. It’s usually recommended to learn both hiragana and katakana before taking on kanji.

The way grammar works in Japanese is another big roadblock for anyone trying to learn the language, especially native English speakers. Whereas English uses a subject + verb + object word order, Japanese sentences are formed in the pattern of subject + object + verb. This feels very unnatural for English speakers and can be seen in the following example:

  • English word order: The man walked to the store.
  • Japanese word order: The man (to the) store walked.

In terms of pronunciation, Japanese isn’t the most difficult language to learn. It’s highly phonetic, meaning words sound just like they’re spelled, with the exception of words in kanji. It also isn’t a tonal language, which significantly reduces difficulty for speakers of non-tonal languages.

3. Cantonese – Traditional Chinese Characters and 9 Tones

This is another Chinese language that certainly deserves a spot amongst the most difficult Asian languages. Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong and in areas of mainland China like the Guangdong and southern Guanxi provinces. 

It shares most of its written form with Mandarin Chinese — speakers of one language can read the other — but the two are not mutually intelligible when spoken.

One of the biggest differences between Mandarin and Cantonese is that it uses as many as nine different tones. Compared to the five used in Mandarin, this is also a reason it’s so difficult. Add to this a lack of many English loanwords and traditional Chinese characters, and it’s clear that Cantonese can pose major challenges even for dedicated language learners.

4. Malayalam – Tricky Pronunciation and an Overly Large Alphabet

In India, there are 22 different languages listed in the constitution, and there are hundreds spoken in the country. Of all of these, there’s one that’s considered to be a step-up in difficulty from the rest: Malayalam. 

Why is Malayam widely regarded as extremely difficult? For one, it’s got a large alphabet. There are 42 consonant letters and 15 vowel letters as well as some extra symbols. The characters don’t bear any resemblance to Latin letters, which makes the language less accessible to English speakers.

What probably stands out most about Malayalam in terms of difficulty is pronunciation. There are some exceptionally tricky sounds in the language, such as the zha in mazha and Alappuzha. In addition to these sounds, there are words with many syllables and consonant patterns just waiting to trip speakers up.

Malayalam shares some characteristics with other Indian languages like Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, which are all Dravidian languages, but it also has some grammatical features that these languages don’t share.  

5. Arabic – Disorienting, yet Beautiful, Script and Guttural Sounds

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) lists Arabic as a Category V language, which is the highest difficulty they assign. FSI suggests that it takes about 2200 hours of study in order to become proficient in these languages. 

The Arabic script is one of the first things non-Arabic speakers notice about the language. The letters are joined together, which is disorienting at first, and reading and writing happen from right to left. This is definitely a hurdle for the beginning Arabic learner, but the 28 letters of the alphabet don’t take forever to memorize.

Pronunciation of Arabic can be difficult for learners, especially if they aren’t used to speaking a language with guttural sounds (those that happen in the back of your throat). There are also emphatic versions of consonants, which change the sound of vowels around them, and dual forms of nouns, two things that take some serious getting used to.

Another important consideration when talking about Arabic is how the language varies by region. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the version of the language that’s used in politics and in the academic world, but it isn’t actually spoken as a native dialect or commonly used in daily life. The Arabic student will have to decide whether to study a country or even city-specific dialect or MSA.

6. Korean – Verbs at the End of a Sentence and Few English Loanwords

This is another language that makes FSI’s Category V list. The Korean alphabet has only 24 letters and is fairly easy to learn, and it isn’t a tonal language, so why is it considered so difficult?

Although you won’t have to learn to differentiate between tones in order to understand or communicate in Korean, that doesn’t make learning pronunciation an easy task. There are many words that sound very similar to each other, and it can be difficult to distinguish between them. There are also very few English loanwords in Korean.

Grammar is another area in which Korean is a difficult language, particularly with word order. Verbs often come at the end of a sentence, and verbs require special endings that simply don’t exist in English. Add on the proper use of honorifics to make sure you’re communicating appropriately, and you’ve got a difficult language.

7. Thai – 5 Tones and a Confusingly Large Alphabet

A first look at the Thai alphabet is enough to make any language learner wince. It contains 44 consonants and 16 vowel symbols in what looks like very similar loopy figures. Thai is also a tonal language, making use of one of five distinct tones for every word. These hurdles among others make Thai a difficult language to learn.

While the alphabet is intimidating, it’s far from impossible to learn, and some dedicated practice is all it takes for learners to become comfortable with it. Some might even find the apparent difficulty of the alphabet appealing — the ability to read such a script is something worth showing off!

Pronunciation isn’t easy in Thai. Learning the five different tones is essential for speaking well and listening comprehension. There are also some unaspirated consonants in Thai that can be difficult to grasp because they don’t exist in many other languages.

Fortunately, Thai grammar is not difficult. Verbs don’t require any conjugation in Thai, and you won’t need to change a noun to express the singular or plural version of it. In both cases, you’ll simply add details such as the subject of the verb or the number of objects to avoid ambiguity.

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