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Dissecting the Chinese Language

By: Don Shin, CEO - 1-StopAsia

11 October 2016

It is said that 30 percent of the Chinese population does not speak the country’s national language. Additionally, there are millions that cannot converse in native fluency. Combining those two factors, only 10 percent can speak the national language fluently. These staggering statistics are attributed to the fact that many people rely solely on the language specified to their region, where dialects are developed organically over time with geographical and cultural influences.

Classifying the Dialects

Conventionally, there are seven linguistic classifications in Chinese. Comprised of Gan (Jiangzinese), Guan (Mandarin), Kejia (Hakka), Min (Hokkien), Wu (Shanghainese), Xiang (Hunanese) and Yue (Cantonese), each of these major categories further branch into its own dialect and sub dialects, leading to thousands of spoken languages across the country.

Among the abundance of dialects, Mandarin Chinese is recognized as the most common language with 1.3 billion speakers worldwide; while Cantonese and the Min language come in a close second and third. Under the term “Putonghua” (literal translation of “common speech”), Mandarin Chinese was adopted as the official language for the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This lingua franca also serves as the official language of Taiwan. In Taiwan “Mandarin Chinese is known as “Guoyu” (literal translation of “national language”), while in Singapore, where it is one of the four official languages, it is known as “Huayu” (literal translation of “Chinese language”).

Cantonese, on the other hand, is the lingua franca of the Guangdong Province in China and is also spoken by the majority of the population in Hong Kong and Macau, both of which are special administrative regions of the People’s Republic of China. However, Mandarin remains to be the designated language for communication between China and the two administrative regions.

Lastly, southeastern provinces of China are home to the Min languages. Hokkien (a variant of Min dialects), with greater dialectal diversity than any other linguistic classification, is also considered a native language to Taiwan.

Although all three dialects share common vocabularies, they are mutually incomprehensible due to drastic differences in phonology, grammatical structure and, to a lesser extent, in syntax.

Speaking the Language

Unlike most languages that use alphabets to indicate pronunciation, Chinese is not a phonetic language. Thus, the written characters do not always give hints to pronunciation. Instead, a romanization system named Pinyin was created for pronouncing Mandarin. Although the writing of Pinyin is very similar to the English alphabet, the pronunciation of Pinyin letters does not actually correspond to the sounds of the respective English letters.

On the other hand, Cantonese does not have an official romanization system. Since Cantonese is primarily a spoken language and does not carry its own writing system, it is unnecessary for native speakers to adopt such a system. Consequently, the majority of Cantonese speakers are unfamiliar with any form of romanization despite the government’s effort to standardize the system.

Additionally, all Chinese dialects are considered tonal languages. Depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced, each syllable of the language takes on a distinctive lexical meaning. Take for example Mandarin Chinese which has 4 phonetic tones while Cantonese has a system of 6 tones which are differentiated by their “contours”. These contrastive tones are assigned with numeral values, with each tone having a different internal pattern of rising and falling pitch.

Chinese Writing 101

With over six thousand years of history, Hanzi (written Chinese characters) is the oldest written language that is still in use in the world. Composed of logograms where a written character represents a word or phrase, the Chinese writing system is drastically different from Latin alphabets, where individual characters represent sounds and phonemes rather than concepts.

At approximately 56,000 characters, Hanzi is comprised of 12 basic strokes that create various characters. Some Chinese characters contain just under three strokes while others are made up of as many as 58 strokes. With a vast number of dialects spoken across the country, Chinese logograms became a common medium of communication as it can be read by everyone despite speaking mutually unintelligible languages. Later on, Simplified Chinese was introduced to increase the nation’s literacy levels.

Originally proposed as early as 1904, Simplified Chinese was not adopted until the 1950s, under the ruling of Mao Zedong. Decades after introduction, the effect of simplification on the language remains controversial. Simplified Chinese persists as the official writing system in China, whereas Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to practice traditional writing.  Although many intellectuals maintain that less complex characters have a profound impact on improving literacy levels, critics argue that simplified characters greatly reduce the aesthetics of Chinese writing.

Besides the Chinese language, Hanzi has also been adapted and incorporated into the Korean and Japanese language with their own pronunciation.  In Korean, they are known as Hanja; whereas in Japanese, they are known as Kanji. Collectively, these three languages are known as CJK, all of which utilize Chinese characters and derivatives in their writing system.

Identifying Target Subgroups

Essentially each dialect is a separate language in Chinese. What might pass for fluent Mandarin in Beijing might not be as comprehensible in the southern parts of China and even more ambiguous in rural areas where local dialects are still prevalent.

In order to effectively communicate when tapping into Chinese enterprise, it is vital to evaluate the specific target market prior to determining the appropriate language of choice. Given that China has recently claimed the title of the World’s second largest economy, having a basic grasp of the Chinese language would no doubt improve the effectiveness and flexibility of business expansion in this emerging market.

Although it is likely that English would remain the preferred language of business, Chinese has become its major contender for universal business lingua franca. Thus, those companies that take the time to comprehend the different variants of Chinese will gain a sizeable advantage for themselves when entering the Chinese market. 

Don Shin

Founder and CEO of 1-StopAsia.