Striking skyline of China

Languages in China – the basics you need to know

Written by on 28th November 2011
Category: Business travel and relocation

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 United State’s, which it’s 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. Although most countries worldwide have a majority of English speaking inhabitants, speaking Chinese – or a basic understanding of the languages in China – will go along way in enhancing the success of your business trip to the country.

Languages in China are varied and vast
China is a vital international business hub with a strategic economic position

A recent article in Relocate Magazine 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 languages in China and various cultural barriers they might face whilst 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.

China is a fast-paced city brimming with culture
To fully experience this exciting Asian country, learning the basics of the languages is imperative

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.

Opulent living area in serviced apartments
Décor is notoriously grand and opulent in Chinese apartments

Oakwood Gold Arch Residence Guangzhou offer two and three-bedroom apartments – ideal if you’re relocating with your family or a group of colleagues. With an on-site gym, tennis court, swimming pool and steam room, as well as a restaurant, café and bar, this property is well-equipped for a luxurious stay where you needn’t compromise on your normal routine.


Matthew advises that before doing business in the country, it’s vital to understand the many different languages in China and 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.”

Bright and modern living area Base Suhe Apartments
Bright, modern and open-plan, these apartments in Shanghai are the epitome of style

Stylish and sophisticated, Base Suhe Apartments are located in central Shanghai with studio, one and two-bedroom apartments on offer. Business professionals can work with ease at this property with an on-site meeting room and business centre and the open-plan fully equipped kitchen and living area offers a bright space in which to prepare for an important meeting or invite colleagues to work collaboratively.


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.”

With views of the city, these chic apartments are spectacular
Spectacular views of the city are only part of the charm of these Hong Kong apartments

Waterfront Suites Apartments are contemporary in design and timeless in their stunning views of the city. Live a life of luxury with access to an on-site gym, pool and gardens and live and work with ease in your private kitchen facilities and living space. These are apartments you can be proud to invite colleagues and friends to visit.

The differences

Chinese is so different from any western language
China is famously a culture shock for somebody from the UK or other western countries, language is one of those major differences

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.

How does it feed into the business landscape?

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 the languages in China 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.

Languages in China may seem too difficult to learn, but start with a few key phrases
Learning the languages in China may seem like an impossible task, but start with the basics

Key phrases you might need

Hello: Nǐhǎo (Nee how)

How are you?: Nǐ hǎo ma? (Nee-haoww-mah?)

What is your name?: Nín guì xìng (neen gway shing)

Goodbye: Zàijiàn (Zhai-jian)

Thank you: Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh)

You’re welcome – response to Xièxiè: Bù kèqì (Boo kuh-chi)

Where is the bathroom?: Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ? (See-sow-jian zai na-lee?)

How much?: Duō shǎo? (Dwuh shauw?)

Cheque, please: Măi dān (My dahn)

I don’t understand: Wǒ bù dǒng (Wuh boo dong)

Where is the business class check-in counter?: Gōng wù cāng guì taí zaì nǎ ér?

How long do I have until departure time?: Wǒ xiàn zài dào qǐ fēi de shí jiān hái yǒu duō jiǔ?

Where can I buy a (public transport) ticket?: Zài nǎ lǐ mǎi piào?

Xiexie ni de yuedu!