Learning any new language is hard work. It takes serious determination and unwavering motivation to make real progress. Do some languages require more effort to learn than others? Absolutely. Within Europe, a continent where over 200 languages are spoken, the range of difficulty between languages is massive.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the most difficult European languages to learn from the perspective of an English speaker. Read on to learn about Europe’s most daunting tongues.
So, What are the Most Difficult European Languages to Learn?
A prevailing theme with many of the languages on this list is that they have very little in common with other languages. Most world languages share at least some similarities with other languages, and any amount of shared vocabulary can prove extremely helpful in the learning process.
When learners can’t rely on any familiar vocabulary, the path to fluency is much longer. Basque is a language that shares very little with any other language, and that’s one of the reasons it’s considered by some to be the most difficult language in the world.
Basque is the language spoken in the Basque Country, a region of northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Its roots link back to a pre-Indo-European language spoken in prehistoric Europe, which is one of the reasons it isn’t related to the languages that surround it geographically. It’s tempting to think that Spanish or French proficiency would help you learn Basque, but that’s not the case.
Another area in which Basque is likely to prove difficult for English speakers is grammar. In fact, Basque grammar is difficult for speakers of just about any language. It’s agglutinative, which means a seemingly endless number of suffixes can be appended to words to add grammatical information, and it’s also an ergative language. This means there is a relationship between intransitive subjects and transitive objects in sentences. It’s complicated.
Fortunately, although the completely foreign vocabulary and tricky grammar are obstacles, the pronunciation of Basque isn’t especially hard for English speakers, and it uses the Latin alphabet. Not needing to learn a new script and the ability to pronounce the sounds in the language without too much difficulty is a serious advantage.
This is another language that’s often mentioned when speaking of difficult languages, usually in reference to its grammar and pronunciation. Hungarian is a Uralic language, meaning it doesn’t have much in common with English or many other European language. This lack of common origins makes it a difficult one to master.
Like Basque, Hungarian is an agglutinative language, and getting used to words with strings of suffixes can take some hard work. These suffixes represent noun cases, of which there are around 18 in the language. This is a big number for anyone used to English! Many of these suffixes function just like prepositions do in English, which can be a helpful way to think about the grammar.
The correct pronunciation of Hungarian words is another aspect of the language that requires some practice to get just right, but it isn’t impossible. Luckily, the language is highly phonetic, meaning that once you learn the sounds that each letter makes, you should be able to pronounce most words just by looking at them. The language also uses the Latin script, which makes for a slightly better starting point.
This is another language with a reputation for being difficult to learn. One of the reasons for this is that it’s a Uralic language, just like Hungarian, meaning it doesn’t share much with other European languages. It doesn’t even share that much with Hungarian, even though they share some of their origins.
The main culprits that make this language a difficult one are grammar and pronunciation. Like the other languages here, Finnish is agglutinative and therefore involves some exceptionally lengthy words that carry a lot of grammatical information.
Finnish pronunciation can be difficult to conquer. The impressive stream of letters in words like lyijytäytekynä (mechanical pencil) is intimidating to the uninitiated. Fortunately, Finnish is highly phonetic. Unfortunately, some of the sounds in Finnish take some time for English speakers to learn to produce correctly.
An example of these sounds is the difference between long and short vowel and consonant sounds. The words taka (rear), takka (fireplace), and taaka (burden) are all pronounced slightly differently.
The third and final Uralic language on this list is Estonian. It’s difficult for English speakers for the same reasons as Hungarian and Finnish: a lack of shared vocabulary with English, tricky grammar, and unnatural pronunciation. The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the United States places Estonian in the second-highest category of difficulty, right next to its Uralic relatives.
There are 14 different noun cases in Estonian, which is quite a few when compared to the three you’ll find in English. However, this is still less than the 15 Finnish and 18 Hungarian noun cases.
The pronunciation of Estonian contains some elements not present in English, such as the difference between short, long, and extra-long vowel and consonant sounds. The differences in these sounds will alter the meaning of the word, so they’re important to master. There are also a whopping 28 diphthongs, compared to the 8 major diphthongs found in English.
Another relevant consideration when looking at the difficulty of Estonian is how many resources are available for someone learning the language. For European languages that are more commonly studied, like French, Spanish, Italian, and German, there are many more resources available. It can be more difficult to find learning materials that fit your style and needs when there is a smaller variety.
Polish is the first Slavic language on this list, but it shares some features of the difficult languages we’ve already seen: there are some grammar concepts that English speakers will be unfamiliar with, and the pronunciation can cause some headaches. Unlike the others on this list, there is actually some shared vocabulary between English and Polish, and that makes it slightly easier.
Noun cases are again a reason this language is often considered so difficult to learn. It’s just not something English speakers are used to, and it will take some practice to get right. Another aspect of Polish grammar that English speakers will find foreign is noun gender, though this is something that exists in many languages. In Polish, each noun is assigned a masculine, neutral, or feminine gender, and the articles used with these nouns must match the grammatical gender.
Polish is a fairly phonetic language, which does make pronunciation a little bit more straightforward, but some sounds will likely be difficult for English speakers to distinguish between. The difference between the “ś” and “sz” sounds, for example, can be difficult to distinguish, and it can have an impact on word meaning.
There are some aspects of Polish that are on the learner’s side, however, and these make learning the language far from impossible. One of these is that Polish contains several hundred words that are derived from Latin, and these words are generally recognizable to English speakers. Polish is also written with the Latin alphabet (with some extra letters like Ę, Ł, and Ż).
Finally, verb tenses in Polish are actually much more simple than in English. There are only three verb tenses used in modern Polish, and they refer to the past, present, and future. In English, there are 16 tenses one must learn!
Is it any wonder that the language spoken in “The Land of Fire and Ice” is a difficult one? Icelandic is a Scandinavian language and has a reputation for being one of the harder ones to learn. This is largely due to difficult pronunciation, a lot of unique vocabulary, hard verb conjugations, and relatively few speakers.
Just a glance at written Icelandic could cause some learners to panic. The words can be staggeringly long, the longest of which is said to be Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúrslyklakippuhringurinn.
Luckily, you’ll almost certainly never need to use this word, as it refers to “a keyring of a key to a road works tool shed on the mountain road called Vaðlaheiði” (it is quite random).
You’ll also notice a handful of letters that don’t exist in the English alphabet, such as ð, æ, and þ. Lengthy words and new letters are part of what makes learning to properly pronounce Icelandic a challenge. On the plus side, learners can trust that the stress is always placed on a word’s first syllable, and the language is very phonetic.
Verb conjugations can be a particularly tricky aspect of learning Icelandic as well. You’ll have to get used to the idea of strong and weak verbs, each with its own specific conjugation rules.
The relatively small number of speakers and the even smaller number of people who learn Icelandic as a foreign language add to the roadblocks a learner will face. Unless you’re in Iceland, finding a language partner or tutor may prove difficult. There are apps you can use to connect with native speakers online, but you’ll have a smaller group to choose from than with other languages.
Similar to Basque, Albanian doesn’t have much in common with any other language. In fact, it occupies its own branch of the Indo-European language tree. Some scholars have linked it to Greek and Armenian, but these relationships won’t be of much help to the English speaker making an attempt at learning Albanian.
Other than the fact that Albanian is fairly isolated from other European languages, it also requires becoming comfortable with some grammar concepts that we don’t use in English. Nouns have case and gender, for example, which isn’t something that English speakers will be accustomed to.
This is also another language with a serious lack of quality resources for the aspiring Albanian speaker. Many of the apps and courses that offer instruction in Albanian rely on machine translation and aren’t reliable in terms of accuracy or accounting for nuances in the language. A learner’s best bet is probably finding native speakers that can help with the learning process.
A couple of things that make Albanian easier than other languages are the presence of some borrowed words from Latin (though not many), and Latin script.