Knowing which language to use when speaking to your Chinese audience

Author // Chris Barnard Categories // Language and Culture

Knowing which language to use when speaking to your Chinese audience

China is home to a multitude of languages and dialects, many of which are not mutually intelligible. Simply referring to the “Chinese language” is too vague but, helpfully, geography plays a major role in identifying the differences. To narrow things down, official languages are Standard Mandarin (Mainland China and Taiwan), Cantonese (Hong Kong and Macau), English (Hong Kong) and Portuguese (Macau). Chinese language is spoken in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore and other areas with historic immigration from China.

The good news is that one translation (into, for example, Standard Mandarin) could suit several target audiences. The downside is that Mandarin Chinese, currently the world leader in number of native speakers (1.051bn), is only one of a number of varieties of Chinese language that include Wu, Hui, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Yue and Ping. Within each of these there are also indigenous, regional and minority languages, with differences in their phonology, vocabulary and syntax. Think 1920s Italy but… more confusing.

To further complicate things, reports from China’s Education Ministry in 2013 claim that around 30% of the older population based in areas of China where Mandarin is the official language cannot understand or speak Mandarin, instead using only their local dialect.


What language do I use for communications in…

With that in mind, getting translations done for China can be a minefield in terms of location and language. Our Expert Linguists (their official title, of course!) take any nerve-wracking decisions out of your hands, and are always on hand to advise on the best linguistic or geographical approach. As a general rule of thumb, though, here is a geographic representation of the most populous towns and their respective languages:

China Map Language Distribution

Above: Map showing the Geographic Distribution of Chinese Language, courtesy of Quora (https://www.quora.com/How-different-is-the-language-spoken-in-Heilongjiang-from-standard-Mandarin-Putonghua)

China Map Detailed Distribution

Above: A more detailed geographic distribution explanation


Traditional or Simplified?

Not only do you have to navigate the different official languages in multiple countries AND the unofficial dialects spoken, but China also has two different forms of writing.

Traditional Chinese writing uses ‘traditional’ characters and is seen as a superior form of writing. In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China introduced ‘simplified’ characters, to make writing more accessible to the country’s vast masses. Simplified Chinese is therefore seen as the more common form of writing and is used by the majority of the population.

The exceptions to using Simplified Chinese in research come when communicating with natives from Taiwan or Hong Kong, where the Traditional form is preferred and widely used. Equally, well-educated or high-ranking Chinese natives are more likely to be flattered if you use the Traditional form, no matter their geographical location.


Chinese and the Machine Translation world

Given its character-based writing, geographical varieties and dramatically different grammatical constructs, even neural-based Translation Machines built by Google are far from able to produce useable Machine Translations.

Here is an explanation of when it goes wrong – and it was one of the more accurate examples of Machine Translation that we could find!

About the Author

Chris Barnard

Chris Barnard

A Chinese language enthusiast and one of Acuity’s most esteemed Document Engineers, Chris is fun at parties (no, really, he actually is!).

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