10 Most Difficult Spoken Languages: What Are They?

Learning to speak in another language can be one of the most exciting parts of learning a new tongue. More than with listening, reading, or writing, it’s often the first way we think to measure someone’s proficiency in a language.

This skill is easier in some languages than others, however, and in some it is exceptionally difficult.

Read on to discover some of the most difficult languages to speak as we explore the reasons they’re so challenging.

The Most Difficult Spoken Languages in the World

1. Mandarin

This language makes the number one spot on a lot of different lists, in part because it’s the second most spoken language in the world. Mandarin is not only notable because it’s spoken by more people on the planet than any other language, it’s also famous for its immensely difficult writing system and for being especially difficult to pronounce for speakers of English.

Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that the inflection applied to each word has as much influence over the word’s meaning as its consonant and vowel sounds. A popular method of illustrating this concept is to explain that the Mandarin word ma can mean either “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold” depending on the tone it is pronounced with.

The dramatic difference in the roles of tone in English and Mandarin is one of the primary reasons Mandarin is so difficult to learn to speak for English speakers. Another reason it’s so difficult is the use of sounds that simply don’t exist in English. In particular, the sounds represented by the Pinyin “q,” “x,” and “j” can be difficult for English speakers to master.

While learning proper grammar in Mandarin isn’t especially difficult, it’s the pronunciation of new sounds and tones that make Mandarin one of the most difficult languages for foreigners to speak.

2. Cantonese

This language is at least as difficult to speak as Mandarin, if not more so. Cantonese is spoken mostly in Hong Kong and the Guandong and Guanxi provinces in China, and it’s known for being a difficult language because it uses even more distinct tones than Mandarin.

Depending on the definition you use to describe a tone, there are four or five standard tones in Mandarin and six or seven in Cantonese. The added tones make Cantonese pronunciation a bit more challenging to learn, and it’s one of the reasons these languages aren’t mutually intelligible.

Like Mandarin, Cantonese makes use of a variety of sounds that simply don’t exist in the English language or many other Latin and Germanic languages. The fact that there are fewer speakers of Cantonese worldwide could also make it harder to get quality speaking practice.

3. Finnish

This is the first non-Asian language on this list, and it’s difficult for reasons that the others aren’t. Finnish isn’t a tonal language, which can make it a little less daunting than those that are, but that doesn’t necessarily make pronunciation a walk in the park. Particularly difficult are the consonant clusters and sounds that don’t have exact equivalents in other languages.

If you manage to conquer the pronunciation rules necessary to speak Finnish well, you’ll still have to grapple with some tricky grammar rules that make speaking the language fluenty a serious challenge. 

Finnish uses 15 different grammatical cases, and it’s an agglutinative language. If you haven’t learned an agglutinative language before — one that tacks on suffixes to words to change their meaning — it can take some getting used to. Speaking well in Finnish requires learners to think at top speed while formulating sentences, something that only gets easier with tons of practice.

4. Arabic

It’s more than just speaking that’s difficult in Arabic. The language uses its own alphabet, is written from right to left, and there are a ton of different dialects. The reason it’s difficult to speak is largely the pronunciation requirements that aren’t prevalent in other languages. The guttural sounds used in Arabic are those that provide the most difficulty, and they’re also one of the most recognizable aspects of the spoken language.

In addition to the challenges presented by its unique pronunciation, Arabic grammar can make fluent speech hard to reach. For those whose native language follows a subject + verb + object sentence structure, it can be difficult to get used to the fact that the verb often comes last in Arabic constructions.

5. Navajo

If you have any doubt that Navajo is an exceptionally hard language to learn, consider that it was used by the USA to encrypt messages during World War II. The strategy worked well, and the code was never broken by Japanese intelligence, who had previously cracked all US encryption attempts.

Why is Navajo so difficult? There are a few reasons. For starters, sentences in Navajo often place the verb at the end of the sentence, which is tricky for speakers of languages that don’t use this construction. Another challenging aspect of Navajo is the absence of adverbs. Instead, verbs are used much more extensively in this languages, and it’s one of the reasons that direct translations between Navajo and English are often unsuccessful. 

On top of these factors that make Navajo one of the most difficult languages to speak well, it’s far from being easy to pronounce. Like Mandarin and Cantonese, Navajo is a tonal language, and it uses some sounds that can be especially hard for speakers of Latin languages. One of these sounds is the Ł sound, which doesn’t have a good transliteration in English.

6. Basque

Spoken in Basque Country in Northeastern Spain and Southwestern France, Basque is a very difficult language to learn to speak. One of the things that makes this language stand out from others is that it’s an isolate. This means it has very little relation to any other world language. No matter your native language, you’ll likely get little help from it in your Basque studies.

Fortunately, the language is written using the Latin alphabet, but that’s about the only “easy” quality it has for speakers of Latin languages. The grammar used in Basque is one of the main reasons it takes so long to speak fluently. Like many other difficult languages to speak, it’s an agglutinative language, and learning how to properly use suffixes and prefixes is a mountain of a task.

Basque also makes use of 11 different cases, each of which can take four different forms. This makes speaking this language accurately a real challenge for someone who hasn’t been doing it their whole life. 

To make things even more complicated, there are a number of dialects of Basque that all have significant variations from each other. The fact that there aren’t a ton of speakers of this language also make it potentially difficult to get quality practice or find reliable resources for learning. Fortunately, there is a standardized version of the language that is used in news broadcasts and academic contexts.

8. Hungarian

Consonant clusters and vowel sounds, oh my! Don’t let the fact that Hungarian is written with the Latin alphabet fool you, it’s not an easy language to learn to speak. 

One of the trickiest things to get your tongue used to is pronouncing groups of consonants like “sz,” “zs,” and “dzs,” just to name a few. When consonants aren’t tripping up learners, it’s the vowels that cause trouble. There are a bunch of different vowel sounds to learn in Hungarian, and getting them just right is important if you want to be understood and sound natural.

This is also another language with a complicated grammar system. Verbs take on different conjugations to indicate definite and indefinite objects instead of articles, and numerous cases to wrap your head around make fluent speech anything but easy to achieve.

9. Korean

This is another language that is deceptively difficult to learn to speak. When compared to other Asian languages, Korean might come off as one that would be significantly easier to learn. It isn’t a tonal language like Mandarin or Vietnamese, and its writing system is actually pretty straightforward. What keeps this language from being an easy one to learn, however, is its grammar.

Especially for native English speakers, Korean grammar is difficult to learn. There aren’t many similarities between the two, and word order can be particularly confusing for learners. Add to this a seemingly endless variety of ways in which verbs can be conjugated, and you’ll probably find it difficult to complete long, accurate utterances in this language. 

Another difficulty of speaking this language fluently is that some cultural awareness is necessary in order to speak like a native. Depending on who you’re speaking to, you’ll need to decide between three different ways of formulating your sentences. This is something that’s foreign to native English speakers that only ever have to make minor changes to speech to indicate levels of formality.

10. Vietnamese

The last language on this list isn’t spoken fluenty as a foreign language by many. Part of the reason for this is that there isn’t a huge number of Vietnamese speakers outside of Vietnam, potentially making it a less desirable language to learn. Another reason is that it’s just difficult.

Like some of the other languages on this list, Vietnamese is a tonal language, which adds significantly to its difficulty. It also uses some sounds that are very difficult for speakers of Latin and Germanic languages to produce. Some of these are the “ng” sound at the beginning of words and the vowel sounds that differ from other languages.

Another aspect of Vietnamese that makes speaking it so difficult is that native speakers generally have little experience speaking with learners of the language. Making yourself understood in Vietnamese can be a surprisingly difficult task when in Vietnam, even if your pronunciation is very close to accurate. 

Fortunately, since so few foreigners make a serious attempt at learning the language, any effort is often received with congratulations and excitement.

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