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Everything your business needs to know about the Chinese language3 min read

Whilst English is the most widely used language in the world, Chinese has the largest number of speakers. It is therefore important for companies looking to market in China to have a strong grasp of the language and its variations.

Imagine if every single Chinese person contributed £1 to your business, you would become a billionaire. As the second largest economy by nominal gross domestic product, it is not surprising that China is the market that almost all businesses would like to explore.

However, this huge opportunity comes with hidden dangers as well. Aside from the cultural differences and conflicts of tradition, the language can be the first barrier for international companies.

Despite the fact that almost 20% of the world’s population regard Chinese as their native language, it is more complicated as a language than you might think. Mandarin only became the official legal language in China relatively recently, whilst the well-known Cantonese is just a dialect. Simplified Chinese is not Mandarin (although it is often confused as such), and Cantonese isn’t equivalent to traditional Chinese either.

what do you need to know if targeting the Greater China Region?

Well, like almost all languages, Chinese has both spoken and written versions.

Spoken Chinese

Mandarin, also known as standard Chinese, is a relatively ‘young’ language. I use the word ‘young’, not ‘new’, because Mandarin is actually based on a local dialect which originates not far from Beijing.

As the official spoken language, not only in mainland China but also in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, Mandarin has become increasingly widespread. It is worth mentioning that Mandarin in Taiwan and Singapore can actually be quite different from Mandarin in mainland China, due to differences with proper nouns. Despite the difference, most of the time people won’t find it too difficult to understand each other.

We need to thank pioneer migrants and Bruce Lee for the popularity of Cantonese. As the official spoken language in Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is also spoken in the Guangdong (Canton) province in mainland China. Cantonese can be considered as a dialect of Chinese rather than a separate language.

Written Chinese

People in mainland China started to write with simplified Chinese in 1956, as it had fewer strokes and was much easier to write, compared to traditional Chinese – see example below.

However, people in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan still use traditional Chinese as their written language. Due to simplified Chinese being based on traditional Chinese, these two languages have many similarities. Yet, if you combine the different uses of spoken and written languages, you need to be careful, as people across the Greater China region have formed different habits.

Motorcycles & Free Delivery

If you ask a New Yorker and a Londoner where the subway is, you may get two totally different answers. The same could also happen in the Greater China region, as if you use the wrong terms in the wrong place, people will have no idea what are you talking about.

For instance, ‘motorcycle’ has three names in the Greater China region: ‘mo tuo che’ in mainland China; ‘din daan ce’ in Hong Kong and ‘Ji che’ in Taiwan. To complicate matters further, both the pronunciation and written words are very different, as shown below.

If you are a retailer, the term ‘free delivery’ often draws a lot of customer attention. However, in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, ‘free delivery’ is expressed in different ways. If you target people who grew up in Taiwan and the Hong Kong region with the term ‘Bao You’, they may have no clue what you are talking about, as ‘Mian Yun Fei’ is the acceptable way to express ‘free delivery’ in these two areas.

Though people from mainland China are more familiar with ‘Bao You’, they can also understand the term ‘Mian Yun Fei’.

At Croud, we know the difference. If you want to find out more about marketing in China, download our handy Chinese marketing calendar or contact us.