Mandarin Chinese gives expats the worst headaches

Published:  30 Mar at 6 PM
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One of the least considered aspects of any decision to emigrate is the chosen country’s language, but not being able to speak the local lingo can turn your dream into a nightmare.

For the modern-day expat, the entire world is now his or her oyster due to air travel and the ease of research via the internet. Deciding where to hang one’s hat for a few years or even for the rest of one‘s life is a more easily informed decision than ever before. However, there’s one aspect which is rarely given the importance it deserves – the language.

The fact that English is considered the world’s international language doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s spoken everywhere expats gather. If you’re relocating to a first world country on business, it’s likely your new colleagues will be able to speak English, but for those retiring or simply reinventing their lives, it’s often a different matter, especially as the local language is inextricably linked to the culture of the country.

A recent survey undertaken with the help of human resources managers and expats based worldwide came up with the unsurprising result that Mandarin Chinese is the planet’s most tricky language to master. Japanese and Arabic took second and third places, but the 18 per cent of respondents on both these languages were far behind the 40 per cent vote for Mandarin.

The cultural aspect of Mandarin shows up in endless tone variations, characters and inflections, all of which change the meanings of words and the intention behind sentences. Add to that the not-so-subtle cultural differences between the West and the East, and you have a perfect storm of misunderstanding. If you’re in business in China, meanings within meanings need to be understood, and conversational Mandarin simply isn’t enough.

Japanese and Arabic give similar problems, as the correct use of each language is closely tied in with its background of centuries of culture. However, it has to be said that the Japanese are more forgiving and more appreciative of the efforts needed to learn their language than are the Chinese. Interestingly, respondents to the survey rated Spanish as the easiest language in which to become fluent, and expats may be pleased to know that Chinese expats found Greek the hardest language to learn, closely followed by Icelandic!
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