Asian languages can be hard for English speakers, since they tend to have different grammar, writing systems, and pronunciation. However, some some may be a lot more harder. What are the hardest Asian languages to learn, for English speakers?
For English speakers, the 12 hardest Asian languages to learn are:
In this article, I share my opinion as a linguist on why these Asian languages are exceptionally hard for English speakers, especially native ones.
READ MORE: How To Tell If A Language Is Hard To Learn?
Mandarin is the language of the Han Chinese. The Chinese diaspora worldwide speaks it too. It also has a rapidly growing number of foreign speakers who learned it for economic, academic, or cultural reasons.
If you are a native or first English user, you may find it difficult to pick up Mandarin. It has a radically different writing system, using logographs. This means you cannot ‘spell’ Mandarin; you either remember how to write the Chinese characters out or don’t.
Mandarin has very different pronunciation from English, since it is a tonal language. Use the wrong tone to pronounce a word; the meaning changes differently. English is not tonal, so you will struggle to hear, pick up, and correctly sound the tones.
Cantonese comes from Southern China, particularly in Guangdong, Guangxi, and parts of Fujian. It is also popular in Hong Kong and amongst the Chinese diaspora worldwide.
Cantonese has a writing system more difficult than Mandarin. It also has more tones than Mandarin. People commonly write Cantonese in Traditional Chinese script, which is harder than simplified Chinese. Mandarin comes in five tones, while Cantonese actually has nine.
I may personally rank Cantonese as the hardest Asian language to learn if you are an English speaker. However, if you are to try to pick it up, you should be able to find someone to practice with. If you can find one old Chinese man or lady hanging out in the park, they probably speak Cantonese.
Japanese is among the most popular foreign languages, taught in many schools and universities worldwide. Many people learn Japanese for economic or cultural reasons. It is nicer to watch anime in Japanese without subtitles, yeah?
Japanese may be easier than Mandarin or Cantonese because it is not tonal but mora-timed. Since English is a stress-timed language, it may be easier to adapt to Japanese pronunciation. You can also ‘spell’ Japanese using the Kana writing system.
The issue is you need to learn three writing systems. First, you have the Hiragana and the Katakana, a character-based writing system linguists group as syllabic-type. Japanese also use some Mandarin writing, which they call Kanji.
With the rise of K-pop music and K-dramas, many people are starting to learn the Korean language. It is becoming taught in increasingly more schools, universities, and courses worldwide.
Korean may be the easiest East Asian language to learn, as it has the simplest writing system. Hangul only has 24 characters instead of Mandarin’s 5,000. However, Korean grammar operates in a subject-object-verb structure, which differs from English.
In Hangul, you write and arrange these characters in a specific formation to form a syllable. Put a few of them together, and you get a word. Korean is also syllable-timed, meaning English speakers can adapt to it more easily.
Arabic is spoken mainly in the Arab world, which spreads from northwest Africa, all the way to central Asia. It is one of the major languages in the world and is widely learned by many.
For English speakers, Arabic may also be one of the hardest Asian languages to learn, since they are from different language families. Arabic is also known for its complex grammar, which may be challenging.
People write Arabic using an Abjad-style writing system. The language and is written from left to right. These may be very foreign to English speakers, adding to the difficulty.
The Mongol people speak Mongolian, native to the steppe north of China and south of Russia. Mongolian may also be a challenging language, as its pronunciation structures differ from English.
Mongolian may also be difficult to learn because they are written differently. You either learn traditional Mongolian or try to write Mongolian using the Cyrillic alphabet. People also write traditional Mongolian from top to bottom, which can be hard to read.
Khmer is the national language of Cambodia, and the Khmer people. It is a very ancient language, and you can actually trace it back to Pallava, an ancient language in India.
It may be easier to learn Khmer than other Indo-Chinese languages, such as Thai or Lao because it is not tonal. This means it may be easier for English speakers to speak the language right.
The challenge is to get the writing system right. Khmer is written from left to right, and you write the language by writing down symbols, each representing a sound. The symbols may alienate English speakers, especially in the beginning.
Thai is one of the most popular Asian languages many English speakers try to learn. Many learn Thai to travel there, and many English speakers also see fit to stay there long term.
The challenge for native or first English speakers in learning Thai is to get the pronunciation right. It is tonal, similar to Mandarin and Cantonese, which means using the wrong tone could give the word a different meaning.
The good thing about Thai is that the script is alphasyllabary, which means you can spell them out. The challenge is to learn all 44 letters in the Thai abugida/alphabet and to get the symbols written out well.
Lao is spoken in the country of Laos. Since it is a neighbor to Thailand, these two countries share many things, including the language. To those without a keen ear, Lao may sound just like Thai.
Lao generally presents similar challenges to first or native English speakers in pronunciation and writing. However, Lao may be easier to write as it has fewer characters than Thai.
Burmese is the official language of Myanmar and may, at times, be called Myanmarese. If you have never heard of Burmese, you may think it is a dialect of Hindi. This is because it has some lilt and tonal changes similar to Hindi or Bengali.
The challenge with learning Burmese is its tonal and stressed-syllable nature. This means pronouncing the language right will be hard. The writing may also be difficult to pick up, as it is alphasyllabary or in Abugida.
Although you can ‘spell’ out Burmese, the way you do it is slightly different from English.
This language is one of the widest spoken languages in India and is the language you commonly hear in Bollywood films. Hindi is also part of the Indo-European language family, making it slightly easier for English speakers to pick up.
Asian languages are generally a challenge for English speakers, as these languages do not belong in the same family as English. However, it is a challenge worth taking, especially if you appreciate the culture of the language.
However, suppose you just prefer a simpler language to learn. In that case, have you checked out our post on the easiest Asian language for English speakers to learn?
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