There Is More than One Chinese

Chinese (Mandarin vs. Cantonese, Traditional vs. Simplified)

It seems that there is quite a bit of confusion regarding what exactly “Chinese” means in regards to both the spoken language and the written language.

Mandarin and Cantonese are the most widely spoken Chinese dialects, but they are by no means the only ones. For day-to-day conversation, many people still prefer to speak in the dialect of their respective regions. It is common to find that two people speaking two different dialects cannot communicate verbally; however, they can communicate in writing thanks to the standardization of the Traditional and Simplified writing systems.

The origin of the Chinese writing system is pictorial, dating back thousands of years. People drew pictures to express their thoughts – in short, to communicate. As you can imagine, this method of written communication was very cumbersome, making complex thoughts difficult to express. As a result, a number of reforms have been initiated to stylize and simplify the manner of writing Chinese. This has, in turn, resulted in a more uniform writing style.

The mid-twentieth century language reform simplified the characters used in the Traditional Chinese writing system by reducing the number of strokes needed to write a character. The end result was the Simplified Chinese writing system. The PRC and Singapore currently use the Simplified Chinese writing system. Hong Kong and Taiwan use the Traditional Chinese writing system. Since Hong Kong has been integrated into the PRC, we may see an increase in the use of Simplified Chinese there.

It is generally easier for a person who knows Traditional Chinese to understand Simplified Chinese characters than for a person who knows Simplified Chinese to understand Traditional Chinese characters, but this may not be the case for everybody. Moreover, using one of the standard writing systems is still not always sufficient for proper localization. Continuous efforts at language reform introduced the use of the Roman alphabet to “spell” the pronunciation of Chinese characters. The result was the standard Pin Yin spelling system that is widely used in China, Taiwan, and Singapore today.

Chinese is comprised of several major dialects and two major writing systems.

Country

Spoken
Language

Written Language

PRC

Mandarin Simplified Chinese

PRC Guangzhou Province

Cantonese Simplified Chinese

PRC Hong Kong

Cantonese Traditional Chinese

Singapore

Mandarin Simplified Chinese

Taiwan

Mandarin Traditional Chinese

The next time you need to localize into Chinese, be sure you know exactly what locales you are targeting.

For more information contact Dawni Jacobs at djacobs@ptiglobal.com

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About Beat Stauber

Beat (pronounced “BEH-awe-t”) Stauber is a Senior Localization Engineer with over 20 years of experience. He is an expert in all aspects of internationalization and localization on the technical and process side. His strengths include designing localization solutions that focus on up-front internationalization, which facilitates localization and reduces costly rework later in the product life cycle. He has broad experience working with more than 40 languages, of which he speaks several, and has a proven ability to provide internationalization consulting services to software and content development teams. He enjoys authoring papers about internationalization and localization best practices and is passionate about training others on those topics.
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