Breaking down the language barrier

A ‘language barrier’ is a metaphor that comes up a lot but those barriers aren’t all the same strength. A while ago we looked at a study which examined the ten hardest languages for English speakers to learn, but today, we’re going to consider what makes a language seem challenging to translate into from a non-native’s perspective.

There’s more to translation than words

A language is made up of its vocabulary – the words in that language, an ever-changing and growing mass – and its grammar – the rules that govern how you combine those words. Most people know this intellectually, but unless you’ve reached full fluency in a second language, you’re unlikely to completely understand the extent to which the grammar of your mother tongue isn’t universal across languages.

The end result of this is that people often forget that translation can’t be as simple as going along, word for word, finding the corresponding word in the target language. Sometimes there won’t be a directly equivalent word – but more importantly, you’ll almost never find that the directly equivalent sentence is word-for-word the same.

Things to look for

Many languages apply gender to nouns, which among other things means that the definite and indefinite articles (‘the’ and ‘a’ respectively, in English), if present in the language, have more variations – one or more per gender.

However, languages like Chinese and Polish, among others, don’t use separate words for these articles. Polish instead ‘encodes’ the same information by adjusting the noun itself, as does Turkish.

Danish, meanwhile, very roughly adds the indefinite article to the end of words in the singular to create the same word with its definite article, for example ‘en bil’ (a car) becomes ‘bilen’ (the car).

Many languages where the noun changes according to grammatical rules also alter any adjectives connected to it.

In theory this means that even if the word order was altered in these languages, you could tell that it was the fox who was quick and brown and the dog who was lazy in the famous English saying – but don’t make the mistake of assuming that means word order doesn’t matter in these languages! German follows this practice but its rules on sentence structure are quite rigid.

Compounding words

Of course, German (and Russian, the Scandinavian language family, and Turkish, to varying extents and among others) have another way of making sure that connected words are read as connected; it’s common to combine two or more words together into a much longer word. A great example of this is the German word ‘rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften’ which the Guinness book of world Records recognises as the longest German word in everyday use. It means ‘insurance companies providing legal protection’.

In this way you can create words expressing relatively complex concepts which can be understood by anyone who understands the basic words that have been combined. This practice has made Dutch so different in sentence structure from English that the relatively new practice of splitting those words back up is known as ‘the English disease’.

However, splitting these words up wouldn’t work in all languages. In Swedish, for example, choosing to use the compound word or the component words separately, allows you to convey different ideas.

These grammatical differences can be traps for both the inexperienced translator or non-native – important meaning and subject specific context can be lost. To make sure your business documents or consumer surveys don’t fall into any of these traps, ask The Language Factory for a mother tongue translator. You can fill out our online form, email us at, or call on +44 1727 862 722.


As always, the team did their utmost to turn around this task in no time at all. Also when I had an additional sentence they did not flinch, which is such a help when you are already up against it.

Market Research Company Head of Global Project Services

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