Lost in Translation: The Foreign Words We Most Often Get Wrong

When travelling to foreign destinations, one of the best ways of fitting in is by trying to speak the local lingo. But do we always get it right? Or do we end up spouting gobbledygook that has the locals scratching their heads?

To answer these questions, and help travellers make the most of their trips, our team at Bolsover Cruise Club thought we’d look into the subject of mispronunciation.

Speaking in Tongues

To really delve into how Brits pronounce international words, we conducted a survey split into various categories, ranging from city names to common phrases. Some of the mispronunciations are completely understandable, while others are just plain funny. Read on to find out about the mistakes people make in foreign tongues without realising.

Don’t Try Pronounce This at Home

As you can see, us Brits struggle the most with Ptuj, a Slovenian place name that 92% of us get wrong. The correct pronunciation is ‘P-too-ee’, but the vast majority of us go for ‘Put-ooj’ – and a few of us simply try to get by with an embarrassed throat clearing sound.

Portugal’s Guimaraes (88%), Croatia’s Rijeka (84%) and Macedonia’s Skopje (80%) are other popular destinations that we get wrong in our droves, with pronunciation varying wildly depending on enthusiasm and language ability. As many as 76% of us also struggle with Oaxaca in Mexico, but this is admittedly a rather tricky word that is pronounced as ‘wah-haak-ah’.

Speaking of tricky words, we also struggle to wrap our tongues around South Africa’s Bloemfontein (73%), Slovenia’s Ljubljana (69%) and Switzerland’s ski resort Gstaad (66%). Wroclaw in Poland deserves a special mention, because to those who haven’t been there it is tempting to pronounce it as ‘Rock-claw’, while the true pronunciation is ‘Vrohts-wahf’.

Despite many of us Brits studying Romance languages at school, we also often struggle with words like Versailles and Park Güell. And when it comes to Phuket (pronounced ‘Poo-ket’) we’re really at sea, with some of the attempts to pronounce this word sounding like a phrase you wouldn’t want to repeat in polite company.

difficult places to pronounce

Mispronunciation Nation

As a nation we struggle the most with words from South Eastern Europe, Central Europe and Africa. This information isn’t shocking, considering that the languages in these regions are far from the West Germanic group that English is part of. For similar reasons, we also struggle with Asian languages in general.

But what might come as a surprise is that the specific country where we battle the most with mispronunciation is the South Western European nation of Greece. This is possibly because although this country is often frequented by tourists, its language is rarely studied at school level. ‘It’s all Greek to me’ makes perfect sense now.

We also battle with Slovenian, Croatian, Macedonian, Welsh and Hungarian because of their distance from English grammar and vocabulary. When it comes to Dutch, German and Afrikaans, we find pronunciation difficult not because of the languages themselves (which are closely related to English) but because of the rather complex sounds required – especially the guttural elements, which can grate the ears and the throats of English speakers.

Top 10 most difficult languages

A Landmark Study

When looking at landmarks, the one that really stands out is Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland, which 98% of us simply can’t say (not to mention locate on a map). The Chao Phraya River (74%), Park Güell (68%) and Khao San Road (57%) are also right up there. Surprisingly, we also struggle with Arc de Triomphe (46%), Louvre (37%) and Notre-Dame (30%), showing that many of us simply weren’t paying attention in our French lessons.

hardest landmarks to pronounce

Food for Thought

Dining out can also be a source of confusion for some, and we quite frequently have difficulty with the words bourguignon, prosciutto, quinoa and quesadilla. Other words which make us hide in shame behind our menus are bruschetta, chorizo, coq au vin, pain au chocolat and guacamole. Finally, the word jalapeno makes some of us simply burn with embarrassment when we try to say it.

Saying Hello

Simply saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ is a challenge in many languages, but some are harder than others. In our research we also found the countries in which tourists most often struggle to even use a phrasebook. How many of the following would you be comfortable pronouncing?

“Szia, hogy vagy?”Hungary
“Zivjo, Kako se imate?”Slovenia
“Hej, Hur ar det?”Sweden
“Hallo, hoe maakt u het?”Netherlands
” Bok, Kako ste?”Croatia
“Hallo, Wie geht es Ihnen?”Germany
“Ciao, Come stai?”Italy
“Olá, Como vai?”Portugal
“Bonjour, comment allez-vous?”France
“Hola, como estas?”Spain

A World of Words

While it can sometimes be a challenge to pronounce foreign words, this shouldn’t put anyone off travelling. In fact, this is often the beauty of visiting other countries. Why would you want to go to a place that’s exactly like home?

When abroad, it can be incredibly fulfilling to enrich your experience by learning a few new phrases. And when you try to speak in a foreign tongue – especially one that’s difficult to master – your efforts might be truly appreciated.

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