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October 2017

How Difficult is the Language You’re Learning?

Discover how long it takes to learn your language

Do you know the difficulty of the language you’re studying? While it’s commonly known that languages like Hungarian and Finnish are complex, and that languages like Mandarin have characters that can boggle the mind, it’s difficult to know exactly how hard each language really is. Ultimately it depends on the student, however it’s also generally true that some languages take more time to learn than others.

The Foreign Service Institute has an interesting table that breaks down the difficulty of many of the world’s languages for English-speaking students. The languages were placed into categories based on how long it takes to gain speaking and reading proficiency. We’ll take a look at them today, and you can decide if you agree with the findings or not.

Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)

The first category of languages are the easiest to learn for English-speaking students. This is because they are languages closely related to English. Romance languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are similar in their own right, and those who have mastery of one can find it very easy to learn the others. The languages in these groups utilise alphabets similar to that of English, albeit with variations in pronunciation and format.

The languages in Category I are Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)

There is only one language in Category II — German — and its difficulty is based on its similarity to English. To reach proficiency in reading and speaking, however, the study concludes that students require more time than those in Category I.

Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)

As we rise higher in the hierarchy of difficulty, we leave the realm of languages similar to English, and we must face cultural and linguistic variances. The languages in Category III differ enough from English in familiarity that students will require an average of 900 hours of study.

The languages in Category III are Indonesian, Malaysian, and Swahili.

Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)


This category features the greatest collection of languages, those fundamentally different linguistically and culturally from English. Some of these languages are yet even more difficult than the rest, and any scholar of these can attest to their complexities. The more difficult languages are Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian, Mongolian, Thai, and Vietnamese.

The languages in Category IV are Armenian, 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, and Zulu.

Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)

The fifth category of languages is the final and most difficult of languages. These languages are exceptionally hard for English speakers, whether for their pronunciation challenges, their characters, and/or for the cultural differences. These are also highly desired languages for foreign work, making them incredibly popular. Of the languages below, Japanese was identified as slightly more challenging than the rest, making Japanese the most difficult language for English-speaking language learners according to the study.

The languages in Category V are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.

Want to learn more? A declassified document from the United States government looks into the difficulty of languages for English-speaking students: “Foreign Language Learning: A Comparative Analysis of Relative Difficulty”. And let us know on the TELC English Facebook Page whether you agree with the study described above. Be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language learning!

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