Languages come in an almost endless variety. Some are more difficult to learn than others for reasons like having complicated grammar, unusual pronunciation, or a complex writing system.
Of the different language proficiency skills, reading and writing are possibly the ones most closely related to academia and access to knowledge. They’re also certainly more difficult to acquire in some languages than others.
In this post, we’ll look at some of the most difficult languages to read and write. Read on to learn what makes them so challenging.
The Most Difficult Written Languages in the World
日本語 ひらがな カタカナ
This language tops the list for most difficult writing system because you’ll need to learn not one but two different syllabaries in a addition to a vast array of Chinese characters. This is a far cry from Latin languages that only require learning one alphabet of around 26 letters, and it can cause some real difficulties for learners that are new to the language.
The first step most learners take when embarking on a journey to learn Japanese is to learn hiragana, one of the syllabaries needed to write and read Japanese. Although it could intimidate some learners for consisting of 46 different shapes, there are some patterns that make learning them far from impossible.
After tackling hiragana, it’s normal to progress to learning katakana. This syllabary also includes 46 characters and looks slightly different than hiragana. Both are used to depict individual syllable sounds and can be used to reliably indicate the correct pronunciation of words. Whereas hiragana is used to write native Japanese words, katakana is employed when writing foreign loan words or proper nouns.
While it will undoubtedly take some time to learn both of these syllabaries, the fact that they both use strict and regular pronunciation rules make them easier to handle. Learners of English will need to learn the multiple sounds that letters can make in different situations, for example, when learners of Japanese can stick to memorizing one sound per letter.
Finally, once learners have mastered both hiragana and katakana, it becomes necessary to start learning kanji, which are characters from Chinese. Unlike the syllabaries, these characters each carry a specific meaning instead of the sound of a syllable. This means that there are many, many more to learn. In fact, memorizing all kanji isn’t a realistic goal. It takes a knowledge of roughly 3,000 kanji to understand a Japanese newspaper.
Why is the Japanese writing system so complicated? The answer to this question isn’t a simple one, but it has to do with the fact that being literate in Japan once meant being literate in Chinese, and the slow transition to using a Japan-specific writing system has created the interesting mix we see today.
There’s no question: Chinese is hard to read and write. Where most languages use alphabets or syllabaries to record language in written form, Chinese characters are logographic. This means that individual characters represent their own word meanings. It also means that there are a lot to learn!
The sheer number of characters one needs to learn in order to be able to read and write Chinese fluently is one of the main reasons literacy is so hard to achieve in this language. If you want to fully understand the average Chinese-language newspaper, you’ll need to know around 2-3,000 characters. An educated Chinese speaker will generally know up to 8,000 characters.
Not only can Chinese be difficult to learn to write because of the number of characters, the number of specific strokes that each character requires can quickly take the journey to Chinese literacy from challenging to frustrating. There’s a reason Chinese calligraphy takes so long to master: it’s hard.
Many characters in Chinese include around ten strokes, and the character with the most strokes has 56! Compare this to the English alphabet, which doesn’t even require specific stroke orders. Many English letters can be written with a single pen stroke, especially in cursive.
This is the first language on this list that’s written from right to left. It’s also one that’s well known for having a difficult-looking script. The fluid curves and lines link together in a way that is beautiful but also makes it difficult for the uninitiated to know where one letter ends and another begins.
In addition to flowing from right to left and an alphabet that is totally new to learners, most letters in Arabic can take on one of four forms depending on their location in a word. This immediately increases the difficulty of learning to read and write in the language.
What’s more, written Arabic doesn’t include vowels. This makes reading comprehension a massively difficult task for anyone that isn’t very proficient in the language. It means that unless you’re already familiar with a word, you won’t necessarily know how it is pronounced just by reading it. There are some diacritical marks that indicate vowel location for learners of the language, but they aren’t normally used.
This is another language that is written from right to left. Getting used to a language that is written in a different direction that any you’re used to can be a major roadblock when you’re making the first efforts in learning to read and write, and it’s a reason many shy away from such a mission.
There are more reasons than the direction it’s written in that make Hebrew a difficult language to read and write. For one, the symbols used in hebrew don’t bear any resemblance to letters in other modern languages, making it totally foreign in appearance.
Another reason Hebrew is a difficult one to master is that the written form of the language doesn’t include vowels. Instead, Hebrew speakers are required to memorize the location of vowels in words and recognize vowel location and type based on surrounding consonants. This means that you can’t simply look at Hebrew and sound out the words!
Just one look at the Thai alphabet is enough to inspire feelings of inadequacy in even experienced language learners. The endless loops and turns of the letters can have a dizzying effect on those that aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking at. To make matters even worse for the aspiring learner, there are 72 characters in the Thai alphabet. That’s almost three times as many as are found in English!
Unfortunately, mastering the Thai alphabet requires more than simply memorizing all of these different characters. The role of each letter in Thai is more complicated than one might hope. For example, each consonant in the Thai alphabet has three different classes: middle, high, and low. The classes are used along with the accompanying vowel sounds in order to determine the pronunciation of a given consonant. It’s a lot of information to take in while reading or writing.
One of the reasons Thai is so hard to write is the influence that Old Thai, Pali, and Sanskrit continue to have on the language. Even though some sounds from Old Thai are no longer used in the language, rules for writing the different letters have carried over to modern usage.
Add to the above complications the fact that there are also four characters used to represent specific consonant-vowel combinations, and you’ve got a tricky alphabet. It’s a good thing it’s also one of the more beautiful alphabets in the world.
There are actually several languages that could be tied for this position, but Hindi is the most widely spoken. The reason these languages all have a similar level of difficulty when it comes to reading and writing is that they use the same script: Devanagari.
The Devanagari script has been in use in its modern, standardized form since around 1,000 CE and comes from the Brahmi script of the 4rd century BCE. Today, it’s used in a large number of languages, including Nepali, Kashmiri, Marathi, and Sanskrit.
This script is immediately recognizable for the round shapes found in its characters and for the straight horizontal line that tops them. Reading and writing in this script happen from left to right.
One of the reasons writing in Hindi and the other languages that use this script is so difficult is that Devanagari is an abugida. This means that each character represents the combination of a vowel and a consonant. Getting used to this can take some time for those used to languages that use an alphabet.
Apart from getting used to the concept of an abugida, actually learning to form the characters correctly can be a challenge at first. Another aspect of written Hindi that can be difficult to deal with is the fact that it’s not an especially phonetic language. Hindi writing lacks clear markings to indicate the exact correct pronunciation of the language, which makes it a challenge to know how to write or to pronounce what you’re reading.
The last language on this list is Mongolian. One thing you’ll need to consider when looking at the language is whether you’re writing in the traditional script or in the modern Cyrillic alphabet.
Even at the quickest look at traditional Mongolian script is enough to see that it isn’t an easy one to master. Writing happens vertically, from top to bottom and left to right, which already sets it apart from most other writing systems. This was the primary method for writing in Mongolian until the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in 1946.
The characters in traditional Mongolian are exceptionally beautiful. There’s a reason that traditional Mongolian calligraphy is a highly respected skill that is very difficult to master.
The modern learner of Mongolian won’t have to trouble themselves with learning this script and will most likely focus on the language as its represented by the Cyrillic alphabet instead. The Cyrillic alphabet, used in languages like Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Belarussian, and more, isn’t too difficult to master. It will look foreign to native English speakers, but picking it up is far from impossible.