Chinese for the Common Man

Our "Common Man" blog series is committed to bringing you the most easy-to-digest information on translation industry topics and technologies. In previous editions of the series, we have looked at services such as DTP and transcreation, and technologies such as connectors. This week, we are looking at a more general translation industry topic: the Chinese language.

Specifically, we will be looking at the different varieties of Chinese, the difference between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and we'll give you a little tip on keeping track of all these written and spoken versions of Chinese.

varieties of chinese

With almost 2 billion speakers worldwide, Chinese is currently the most spoken language on Earth. There are hundreds of varieties of Chinese, and many are not mutually intelligible - meaning that a speaker of one variety may not be able to understand another. The varieties of Chinese have been grouped into the following dialect groups: Mandarin, Wu, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Yue, Jin, Huizhou, and Pinghua.

The two most common dialects of Chinese are Mandarin and Cantonese, which is a member of the Yue group.  Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore and is spoken in areas such as Beijing and Shanghai, whereas Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, and the Guangdong province. 

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, which means that one word can have many meaning depending on your tone and pronunciation of the word. Both dialects also use the same alphabet; however, Mandarin speakers tend to use Simplified Chinese, whereas Cantonese speakers tend to use Traditional Chinese (more on this later). Although similarities exist between the two, there are enough colloquial differences that speakers of the two languages may have trouble communicating.

simplified chinese vs. traditional chinese

You may have heard the terms "simplified" and "traditional" used in reference to Chinese; and, if you are anything like me, you may have been confused on exactly what the difference is between the two.

To put it simply (no pun intended), Simplified Chinese (SC) characters have fewer strokes and are easier to construct than Traditional Chinese (TC) characters. At first, SC was developed in order to make writing easier for mainland Chinese speakers. Over time, new SC characters have developed (just like new words like "fleek" develop in English), making it a bit harder to translate between SC and TC. Because many Mandarin speakers have adopted SC, it has skyrocketed in popularity. 


Ok, when looking at it in the most basic terms, it's easy to see the difference between spoken and written Chinese - I mean, one is spoken and the other is written, right?

Chinese is a little different because the written language employs pictorial characters. So, if you have no idea how to interpret Chinese characters, you're not going to be able to read Chinese, whereas as an English speaker I can at least phonetically pronounce Spanish words  (however badly I may butcher them). Make sense?

So, a little tip to help you keep all these types of Chinese in check: When you hear "Mandarin" and "Cantonese," think dialects of the language (remember - they are spoken in different areas of China!). When you hear  "Simplified Chinese" and "Traditional Chinese, " think written Chinese. Simplified and traditional are adjectives referring to the pictorial characters used in the writing (remember - one is simpler to write than the other!)

Lionbridge can assist with your translation needs in hundreds of languages, including Chinese. For more information, please visit our website. Please join us again next week for another informative article!


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