What’s The Hardest Language For Expats To Learn?

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Written By Mohsen Salami

Speaking a foreign language is often a high hurdle for many expats to leap – but what are the world’s most difficult languages to learn?

Expats and human resources managers at multinationals were posed the question and it seems wherever they are based in the world, they all have a similar answer.

Expats from the USA, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Asia Pacific all responded that Mandarin Chinese was the hardest language to get to grips with for non-speaking expats.

Almost 40% of expats and their managers felt Mandarin Chinese was a tough option.

In a tie for second place were Japanese and Arabic, both scoring 18% in the poll by relocation firm Cartus.

Meaning with meaning

Spokesman Patrice Heinzer explained that successful expats need to master foreign languages to make life easier for them and their colleagues.

“Mandarin Chinese is really hard to learn for Westerner because the language has thousands of subtle tones, inflections and characters that subtly change the meaning of words in a way that is unfamiliar to someone from Europe or North America,” he said.

Heinzer also argued that expats needed to go beyond conversational language for their jobs.

“Expats need to understand meaning within meaning like a natural speaker of a language,” he said.

“To become an effective negotiator you have to understand and imply the right meaning to your words in everyday business situations.”

Cartus also asked expats which language they felt most comfortable learning – with Spanish topping the list.

Tongue twisting languages

Looking at the question from the Chinese perspective, the list of tongue-twisting languages is not much different.

The Chinese People’s Daily published this list of difficult languages. Top was Chinese – the others were (in degree of difficulty with the hardest last):

  • French
  • Danish
  • Norwegian
  • German
  • Finnish
  • Japanese
  • Icelandic
  • Arabic
  • Greek

The list was published by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) along with explanations of why they were considered tough to speak.

The UN considered many languages were hard to learn because their written form gave no clues to how to pronounce words.

“Where you come from does influence the way you learn and speak a language, but the hardest to learn seem to involve a written form that does not reflect the spoken word,” said a UNESCO spokesman.