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The Five Most Difficult Languages for Expats

Only 13% of expats worldwide don’t speak the local language in their country of residence at all. Acquiring the required language skills isn’t always easy, though. If you are looking for a challenge, here are five languages rated as serious tongue twisters by the respondents of our Expat Insider 2017 survey.

Odd Languages Out: Hungarian and Finnish

The two languages scaring expats the most are … Hungarian and Finnish. Between 50% and 60% of expats consider them extremely difficult to learn.

No wonder: These languages are among the “odd ones out” across Europe. Neither Hungarian nor Finnish is an Indo-European language. Linguistically, they have less in common with English than, for example, Russian or Hindi do.

Finnish and Hungarian are traditionally grouped together in the Finno-Ugric subdivision of the Uralic languages; they have probably originated in Western Siberia, near the Ural Mountains.

However, speaking Hungarian won’t help you much in Finland, or vice versa. Unlike, for instance, Spanish and Portuguese, which are very closely related, Hungarian and Finnish are very distant cousins. 

Talo, Talon, Talolla, Talolta, Ta-what?

Finnish and Hungarian share several features that make them so complicated. English speakers will be happy to hear that both languages have no grammatical gender. Compare that to German, where a table is masculine, a lamp is feminine, and a sofa is neutral! Nonetheless, studying Hungarian or Finnish makes German look like child’s play. 

Cases are grammatical categories to describe the function of certain words — especially nouns — within a sentence. English only uses the genitive case (“Jane’s book”) to show to whom something belongs. German has four of these pesky categories, and they drive some language students crazy.

Guess how many noun cases Hungarian or Finnish has? If you think “a dozen”, you’re close. It’s 15 and 18, respectively.

In English, a lot of them would just involve a preposition instead of noun endings. “House” is “talo” in Finnish and “ház” in Hungarian; but if you say “from the house” (e.g. “I walked away from the house”), these words turn into “háztol” and talolta. Well, there’s only 17 more endings to remember — including when to use which! 

Don’t Be Rude — Or Don’t Talk Bookish!?

Both languages also have different ways of expressing politeness or formality. Native speakers of languages like French might think “hey, I got this!” There’s already a distinction between “tu” (informal “you”) and “vous” (polite “you”) in French. It can’t be worse, can it? Yes, it can.

In Hungarian, there are four levels of politeness and four corresponding pronouns. In the past couple of decades, the informal “te” has become more common, probably due to the influence of English, so you may get away with that one. But if you try it on an older person in a position of authority, you might still come across as abominably rude.

Finnish has two entirely different registers: standard and spoken Finnish. They vary in terms of complexity and vocabulary, as well as pronunciation and grammar. Would you have thought that “he menerát” and “ne menee” are the same phrase? Me neither, but both mean “they go”.

Standard Finnish is the slightly old-fashioned language of literature; spoken Finnish is what you hear on the streets of Helsinki. If you tried talking in formal Finnish, you’d be just accused of “speaking bookish”. 

Not for All the Tea in China: Mandarin and Cantonese

In terms of difficulty, Chinese is the runner-up. Up to one in five people on this planet speak Chinese as their mother tongue. Unfortunately, most Expat Insider 2017 respondents don’t. In Hong Kong, nearly one in two expats (49%) describe the local language as very complicated; in mainland China, it’s 46%.

In Need of a Common Tongue

Many expats use a word of Chinese origin on a regular basis. “Tea” is the most famous loan word in English. Tě was imported by Dutch traders from a dialect of Hokkien Chinese spoken on the southeastern coast. In northern Mandarin Chinese, however, the word for “tea” is chá. You may recognize it from the Indian chai: tea came to India via the Silk Road from northern China.

This example shows that strictly speaking, there’s not one Chinese language, but all kinds of Chinese. Some linguists consider Chinese a macrolanguage with different varieties, such as Mandarin.

Mandarin Chinese includes a wide range of dialects from the wide plains of northern China. With 70% of native speakers, it is the largest dialect group by far — including the Beijing dialect that Standard Chinese (pŭtōnghuà) is modelled on.

Pŭtōnghuà means “common tongue”. While this sounds a bit like a phrase from your standard fantasy novel, it points out some very real difficulties of life in China. Most Chinese dialect speakers couldn’t understand one another, which makes a standardized language necessary. Pŭtōnghuà is also the variety expats learn most frequently. However, standardized doesn’t equal easy. 

Several Tones, Thousands of Characters

On the one hand, Chinese has shed many characteristics that could potentially confuse language learners. It doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural, and there are no noun cases. Verbs have neither tense (past, present, future) nor voice (active or passive). On the other hand, both spoken and written Chinese pose some major challenges.

Pronunciation relies on the tonal system: the meaning of a word will change if the tone is rising or falling, low or high. Standard Mandarin features five tones (including a neutral one), and you’d better get them right. Otherwise, “wŏ xiăng wèn” (“I want to ask you”) might turn into “wŏ xiăng wěn” (“I want to kiss you”), and you’ll be in trouble.

In written Chinese, it’s the many characters that cause many a language student many a headache. To be considered functionally literate, you need to know a mere 2,000. Scholars can read and write 10,000 or more.

Cantonese versus Mandarin

To make matters worse for expats in Hong Kong, the former British colony is an extreme example of diglossia: most residents of mainland China speak two versions of Chinese, their local dialect and Standard Mandarin. However, since Hong Kong didn’t join the PRC until 1997, its de facto official language is still (Standard) Cantonese (Gwóngdūng wá).

Cantonese and Mandarin only have about 25% of their vocabulary in common; moreover, Cantonese features six tones whereas Standard Mandarin has five. Theoretically, you can use the same characters to write both. However, colonial Hong Kong didn’t take part in the PRC’s major language reforms. Therefore, traditional Chinese script — instead of simplified characters — is still widespread. 

Where Have All the Vowels Gone: Polish

Last but not least, the fifth-most difficult language brings us back to Europe. In Poland, nearly four out of five expats (78%) think the local language is not easy to learn. Why is this Slavic language considered so intimidating by many non-native speakers?

Anything but Five by Five: Polish Inflections

Firstly, Polish is a heavily inflected language. Like in Hungarian and Finnish, the endings of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and other words change according to a case system.

The function of a word in a Polish sentence mostly depends on cases rather than word order; words can sometimes move fairly freely within the sentence structure. You need to recognize the case endings to figure out the meaning.

Polish case endings differ according to various factors: the seven cases themselves, singular versus plural, and three grammatical genders. Moreover, masculine nouns can be further subdivided into personal, animate, and inanimate nouns.

Oh, nouns and adjectives have different sorts of inflections, but it’s numerals — words for counting — that take the cake. Not only do they have a very special declension system, but the nouns following them sometimes behave weirdly.

For example, after pięć (five), the noun it refers to needs to be in the genitive plural form. “Five cats” are literally “five of the cats”. The resulting noun phrase, however, doesn’t count as plural. It is considered a singular form, and the verb gets adjusted accordingly.

So, “pięć kotów siedzi na sofie” means “five of the cats is sitting on the sofa”! Maybe Polish cats are a different species somehow…  

Hissing, Humming, Rustling: Polish Pronunciation

Secondly, once you have mastered the complex grammar, you need to pronounce the intricate sentences correctly. Imagine uttering them in a language that features 23 written consonants, but about 30 spoken consonant sounds — including twelve variations on sh- and ch-.

Polish words may also contain massive consonant clusters. For example, a popular Polish tongue twister is “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.” (“In the town of Szczebrzeszyn, a beetle buzzes in the reeds.”) I’d like to buy a vowel for 250, please!

If you feel like tackling a new language right now, how about giving Babbel a try? The world’s #1 language learning app helps you get conversational fast in over a dozen languages — including Polish. Dużo szczęścia, yīqīè shùnlì, and good luck! 

Margit Grobbel works as a Senior Content and Communications Manager at the InterNations office in Munich, Germany. She loves languages and wishes she could be fluent in all those described above. 

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