Relocation Managers Weigh In on World’s Most Difficult Languages!
Global Relocation Managers Agree: Mandarin Leads the List
Relocation managers know firsthand that without a working familiarity with the language of the host location, assignees can face obstacles far beyond simply getting by in day to day situations. Yet, in one of the most important assignment locations today, gaining that language competency won’t be easy. In a survey distributed at industry events in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Asia-Pacific, Cartus asked several hundred relocation professionals “Which language do you think would be most difficult to learn?” The consensus was universal: respondents in all regions ranked Mandarin Chinese as the most difficult language to master.
Mandarin has several characteristics that render it particularly challenging to learn, especially for native English speakers. It uses a very high number of pictographic-based characters: more than 50, 000 exist in the written language, although only approximately 1,000-3,000 of the most common need to be learned, depending on how fluent an individual would like to become. Additionally, “tone” changes the meaning of words, but is difficult for native English speakers to discern, as tone is not used in the English language. To read more about learning Mandarin, please visit our blog post Start Chinese Learning By Listening: Advice for International Assignees.
Japanese and Arabic tied for the second most difficult languages to learn. Japanese has up to 1,000 pictographic symbols that must be memorized. Arabic’s alphabet is comprised of 28 letters, each of which has one basic sound but four different shapes depending on where it is placed within a word. This makes it difficult to recognize both the letter and the word, and essentially requires learners to identify 112 letter shapes in order to master reading and writing.
Adding to the complexity is the fact that every language has cultural nuances that must be understood to go “beyond fluency” to true communication. Patrice Heinzer, vice president of Cartus’ Intercultural & Language Solutions, weighed in on that aspect in a recent article in OPP where she is quoted: “It’s the ability to understand the ‘meaning behind the meaning’ that enables people living and working abroad to become truly effective not just in negotiating and influencing, but even in the simplest business and everyday interactions.”
Tips for Mastering Language Gaps
The OPP article taps into Heinzer’s expertise with a number of tips for assignees living and working in foreign countries. If you’re using English, she says “Adjust (it) to be easily understood.” Understanding cultural expectations for events like meetings, dinners, etc. is also critical; even if you can speak the language, not understanding correct social behavior can really undermine your success.
The good news is that mastering the essential elements of communication, even in the most difficult languages, can be accomplished with the right approach and the extra boost of motivation. That’s certainly something assignees, who understand the need for relationships and respect, not to mention basic survival – well understand.