Languages in China

Written by on 28th November 2011
Category: SilverDoor news

At a time when economies across the world are struggling, China has maintained strong growth. Its economy has surpassed Japan’s to become the second largest in the world, behind the USA’s, which it is set to outgrow in a decade. It’s hardly surprising that countries and corporations across the world are striving to be a part of the action.

A recent article in Re:locatemagazine stated that China’s strong growth has led many companies to reassign employees there, for stays which generally last between four and twelve months. It is often the case that when outsourcing production to China a member of staff will co-develop – or at a minimum oversee – the processes that are taking place and for projects of this magnitude the benefits of in-person communication are huge.

To make the most out of their visit it is vital that business travellers are aware of the language and cultural barriers they will face when they’re there. Language and cultural barriers may at first seem intimidating, but international business travellers need to understand them to get the most out of their trip.

In order to provide the best possible service to our clients we have recently appointed a China and east Asia specialist: Matthew He, our new Client Account Support. Matthew was born in Guangzhou and lived there until moving to England in 1999. He visits China on a regular basis and still has family there. His language skills and local knowledge mean that he can more effectively advise our clients on where they should stay and negotiate the best possible rates for serviced apartments in China.

Matthew advises that before doing business in China, it’s vital to understand the language differences between its borders. He explains: “The main language in China is Mandarin, but there are many regional dialects (known as the Sinitic languages), such as Shanghai and Sichuan which all sound very different.” The map of the Sinitic languages above shows their distribution within China.

Meanwhile, Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong Province and a few other areas. “Most of the time a Mandarin-speaking person will not be able to understand anything in Cantonese,” Matthew explains. “However, a Cantonese-speaking individual will be able to understand Mandarin even though they might not be able to speak it.”

One of the main ways in which Cantonese and Mandarin differ from English is that they use tone to express meaning instead of using it to convey emotion. This makes it difficult for English speakers to learn either language. Writing is another challenge, as Matthew explains: “In terms of writing, there is Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese is the one which is being taught at schools in China, and Traditional Chinese is used in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong.” Both the simplified and traditional Chinese writing systems are logographic, which means that each word is constructed from a unique image, so there is no alphabet. This makes learning to write in Chinese even more challenging than learning to speak it.

From a business point of view, Matthew believes that Mandarin is the most useful language as it is more widely spoken. But wherever you’re going, don’t get bewildered: once you immerse yourself in Chinese culture, and begin to understand the rules of the language it is relatively easy to pick up a few simple phrases. If you’re worried about learning to write Chinese, Matthew recommends Pinyin: “Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet to translate the pronunciation of the language, and transcribes directly into written simplified Chinese through a computer programme.”

Learning Chinese isn’t going to happen overnight, but can be developed gradually. A good way to do this is to learn a set of phrases that you will use frequently on your trip and take opportunities to start basic conversation with the intent of picking up other phrases along the way.

Xiexie ni de yuedu!