September 19, 2014  
 
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Doing Business in China

 

The Chinese Language Barrier

Written by Bobby Jan for Gaebler Ventures

Doing business in China comes with both great opportunities and great challenges. If you do not speak Chinese, overcoming the language barrier will be one of the biggest challenges you will face.

Doing business in China comes with both great opportunities and great challenges.
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If you do not speak Chinese, overcoming the language barrier will be one of the biggest challenges you will face.

For people accustomed only to Western languages, Chinese proves to be an exceptionally difficult language to learn. Even if you believe that you can learn a language quickly, you should be advised that the Chinese language is very different from English.

The most obvious difference is that Chinese words are not constructed with alphabets and character construction follows a completely different set of rules.

Chinese and English grammar is also very different. For example, if you directly translate the expression "I will go shopping tomorrow" from Chinese to English, you will get something like this: "I tomorrow go shopping." If you want to learn Chinese, find a good Chinese tutor or enroll in a program.

In the mean time, you must find a good interpreter. The problem is that it is very difficult to find really good interpreters in China since there aren't many Chinese nationals who are fluent in English.

China is a country with one office language, Chinese or "Han Yu", but with thousands of local dialects. If you randomly pick 100 people from 100 different parts of China and put them in a room, chances are that many of them will not understand each other's local dialect.

Historically, China has been held together by a common written system so that people from all over China can communicate through writing. The official dialect of China is Mandarin, or Po Tong Hua. When you are choosing an interpreter, you will probably want to pick somebody who is fluent in Mandarin and speaks workable English.

If, however, you are setting up your business in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, or some parts in southern China where Cantonese is widely spoken, you will probably need to hire an interpreter who is fluent in Cantonese too.

Find a good translator is essential to doing business in China. Given how often misunderstandings occur even between two people who speak the same language and share the same culture, an incompetent translator will cause needless misunderstandings and headaches. A competent translator should be able to convey ideas and help avoid misunderstandings instead of merely translating words.

One last tip on the language barrier is to be careful when telling jokes. Jokes are often lost in translation and cultural differences.

What is funny to one culture may turn out to be dull or, even worse, offensive in another. Also, don't expect your translator to be able to successfully translate jokes. If he could translate jokes, you probably couldn't afford him anyways.

Cheng Ming (Bobby) Jan is an Economics major at the University of Chicago who has a strong interest in entrepreneurship and investing.

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