20th April marks UN Chinese Language Day – 1.2 billion people speak some form of Chinese as their first language. As one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, coupled with the growing Chinese economy, should we be paying more importance to the Chinese language?
Chinese Language Day was established by UNESCO in 2010 to”celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six of its official working languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) throughout the organisation“.
As more of the world comes online, and traditional geographical borders become a thing of the past, language becomes more of a focus in the business world, as companies look to expand into new markets, and engage with international customers.
Chinese has 2 standard character sets: Simplified and Traditional.
Whether you use Simplified or Traditional Chinese will largely depend on the location area – Simplified Chinese is largely used in Mainland China and Singapore, whilst Traditional Chinese is common in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Simplified Chinese was actively promoted in the 1950s and 1960s in an attempt to increase literacy as Simplified characters were created by decreasing the amount of strokes in a character and applying general rules to replace character components. Traditional Chinese can generally be understood by Simplified Chinese readers.
First things first, Mandarin and Chinese are not mutually intelligible and it’s not the same as UK and US English. Whilst both dialects share some vocabulary, there are large differences in grammar, sentence structure and pronunciation. Generally speaking, Mandarin dialects are spoken in Northern China, whilst Cantonese is more dominant across Southern China, including the Guangdong Province, and other South Eastern parts of Asia, such as Hong Kong and Macau.
In order to successfully do business in China, it’s important to understand the culture. After all, how can you engage with Chinese consumers if you don’t understand their behaviours, characteristics and preferences? Colours play a big part in Chinese culture, and can signify certain emotions, as well as the five Chinese elements. In Western cultures, red is used to symbolise danger or warning, whereas in Chinese culture, red is used in conjunction with luck and good fortune.
Chinese internet usage is quite different to what we’re used to in the UK, not just because of censorship laws, but the use of search engines, social media and online interaction too.
For example, 25% of all internet users are Chinese, but only 16% of Chinese internet users do their web searching via Google, with the vast majority opting instead for Baidu.
Optimising your SEO for China could form a large part of your international strategy.
There are some challenges to foreign companies wanting to do business in China – not only the language barrier, but strong competition from domestic businesses, as well as the importance of building personal networks. However, China is the 2nd largest economy in the world (after the US) and is a key player in a number of industries (luxury goods, manufacturing, energy, retail and financial services) – so it might be a tough nut to crack, but businesses successfully establishing themselves in China could well see lucrative and beneficial rewards.