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Chinese Language and Dialects

The official language of the PRC is Mandarin (or Putonghua). It is broadly spoken around the country and used for business, government and other official purposes. However, other languages are widespread. The local population will largely speak the language native to the area. Many of the local population will speak their local language, Mandarin and frequently know English.

Many of the languages (all 206 of them) are very different from each other. One of the most common is Cantonese. There are also a countless number of dialects.

How to communicate:

English is unofficially the language of the business world when communicating on an international basis. China is no exception to this rule. Almost anyone you meet in business will be able to speak enough English to communicate with you.

I recall language concerns in my early personal experiences in China. We did not know whether we would be able to communicate effectively on a deal we were working on. We wondered over the need for an interpreter. We even assumed into an early business case the need to hire interpreters for our Expats and for visitors. We were quite naive.

English is also broadly found in most parts of the country. I have had experiences deep in country and found English spoken and written (often with a British influence, spelling). The opposite can occur even in the big cities. For example, when walking around, by taking a few wrong turns, you could find yourself in an area without a person who understands your language.

English is commonly taught in the schools. School children will frequently greet foreigners on the street. With a big, shiny smile on their face, they will say "Hello", practicing a word or two of English. Try using a few words of Mandarin back to them and watch the results!

Should I learn a Chinese language?

If you do elect to learn a language and you are learning for business purposes, Mandarin, is the official language in the PRC. Therefore, it is most likely the language to learn. The basics of Mandarin require the learning of four basic voice tones or inflections. Once this is mastered, the true learning begins. If you are in the southern part of China or in Hong Kong, you may opt for Cantonese.

It is healthy to learn some key words which you can apply in your business and casual acquaintance. A short list of a few dozen words and phrases goes a long way in your relationship with your local contacts. It will also help you on the street, in shops and restaurants. I learned early on how to tell a taxi driver to turn left or right, go straight, or stop.

During negotiations and at the bargaining table, you will hear a strong flow of Mandarin(or another Chinese language). If the party you are negotiating with knows or suspects you know a few words, this flow dissipates. It is something to consider.

If you are from the U.S. or Europe, your language or knowledge of another language does not help much in the learning process as Chinese languages are so much different from western languages. Perhaps your knowledge of another language suggests an aptitude for learning them, that is about all.

If you do desire to learn the language, courses are offered at many of your local universities, including evening hours.

The Typed Word:

Yes, the Chinese characters are something of a wonder, or a bewilderment depending upon your perspective and knowledge. In most international business dealings, you will not need to worry over the typed word. English prevails in speech and in working out meetings and proposals, they will largely be done in english. As the need arises for documents written in Chinese, there is always someone eager to translate for a cost.

There are many areas where the use of Chinese characters is necessary. Examples include government documents and legal papers. You will also find Mandarin common in contracts, invoices, Purchase Orders and other formal documents. Your local staff will be able to help with the translation. If you are just beginning to venture into China and do not have someone to translate documents for you, your corporation may have people with these capabilities in the home office. You can also hire someone from your home country or locally in China(I recommend the former). Whoever you procure for the task, make sure they are reputable and qualified. Once your operation is up and running, your local staff can handle this task.

Sales staff(sales presentations) and product packaging will also require Chinese character type. If you plan on importing to China or selling some of the output of your factory into the domestic marke t(assuming approval), you will need to to write in Chinese character in the local language. You will need to take this into consideration. Dropping product into the market with packaging and labeling in the language of your home country will not find a mass customer base.

Getting Around Town in English:

In major cities, you will be abe to get around without knowing the language. Here are some things which will help you in your fist trip:

  • Assume the taxi cab driver does not know a single word of your language.

  • Business cards are written in English on one side and Chinese on the other. Use them to get to your destinations.

  • Always carry a business card from your hotel. With it, you can always get back to "square one".

  • Porters at your hotel can instruct the taxi. Make sure the porter understands you.

  • Forget the street signs. Although, sometimes they are in English and Chinese.

  • Stay in hotels frequented by business and tourist people. They will have more restaurants near by and those restaurants will more likely have english menus.

By all means, get out and get around. Getting lost is some of the fun of learning your way around. Safety is not as much of a concern as it is in many other cities around the world(The PRC is much less tolerant of Crime than many countries).

Ping Ying:

Chinese characters are different from alphabetical characters used in the west. "Ping Ying" is using alphabetical characters to phonetically spell out chinese words. They are subject to much interpretation. Put a Westerner and a Chinese together and ask them to spell a Chinese word in Ping Ying and you will get three different spellings. To the Westerner however, it is a valuable tool to help to read and pronounce Mandarin words. If you are using Ping Ying, write it down as you hear it phonetically You are the one who will reference it in the future when the need to pronounce it again occurs. Besides, that is what your Chinese friend is doing when you ask them to spell in Ping Ying. There is no true Ping Ying dictionary.

Books and Resources:

There are a number of small pocket sized books you can use, just like any language. It is much more difficult to pronounce the word translations as they are in Ping Ying and phonetically printed. The Asian languages do not phonetically translate as well as you would like. The ones I have seen are of little help, often even mis-guiding you in the pronunciations. However, you may find that something is better than nothing. And, if you find yourself lost on the street, you can point to words or phrases in the book when seeking directions.


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