Part 3 – Language
In the final extract of our three-part series on effective communication with businesses in China, we tackle the crucial issue of language.
The official language of China is Mandarin Chinese (also known as Putonghua). Although there are many, many dialects across China (including the popular Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and surrounding areas), Mandarin is taught and used in schools and universities.
There are two types of written Chinese characters: simplified and traditional. In general, simplified Chinese should be employed for communication with a mainland Chinese audience.
Since there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters whose written form gives little indication of pronunciation, a phonetic spelling system using the Latin alphabet (called pinyin) is increasingly used nowadays to help Chinese children and foreigners alike to improve their spoken language skills. Pinyin is helpful to Westerners since it translates Chinese characters into a recognisable form and also indicates which of the four ‘tones’ of Mandarin should be used. You should note that pinyin is generally not used as a form of written communication.
One exception to this rule is that in major mainland Chinese cities you can often find street names and subway signs shown in pinyin as well as in Chinese characters. English speakers will also be relieved to know that translations into English are increasingly common, especially in tourist areas. This is likely to become even more prevalent in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Similarly, the frequency and standard of English spoken in hotels and taxis, etc. will only increase in the future.
As with any foreign language, it will help considerably if you are willing and able to speak Mandarin, even if it’s a case of just learning a few basic phrases. In addition to helping you when you encounter people who simply don’t speak a word of English, there is no doubt that people will appreciate that you have made an effort and it will go some way to breaking the ice for those business negotiations.
Further useful information on conducting business in China can be found in B2B International’s white papers: