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A Basic Overview of the Chinese Language and How to Avoid Miscommunication

One of the great things about importing from China is getting to deal with a rich and fascinating culture like Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the existence of the infamous Chinglish is not one of these things! The Chinese have apparently developed a system in which anyone studying English has the permission to rewrite the English dictionary. One of my favorite pieces of Chinglish I see as an importer regularly is the word manufactory – a combination of both a manufacturer and factory.

Language challenges are more than just a funny nuance when doing business with Chinese Suppliers – often it can result in misunderstandings and mistakes with orders. So while part of this post is written by the Chinese language geek in me, this article is relevant to all importers. Having some basic understanding of how the Chinese Language works may help you to communicate just a bit easier with your Supplier next time.

A Basic Overview of the Chinese Language

All language is culture, but in China, the Chinese written language has a lot more significance than in many cultures, if for no other reason than the fact that written and spoken language are two very different things.

The fact that a written language has no bearing on the spoken language can be difficult to understand. In English, written words are simply a pronunciation guide for the spoken words. Written Chinese has absolutely no connection to the spoken language. People joke about Chinese writing just being a bunch of pictures, but it really is just a bunch of pictures. A fully literate person in China is expected to memorize thousands of Chinese characters (ever wondered why the stereotype of Chinese being good at memorization-heavy school subject like math often seems to be true?) Oddly, two people speaking entirely different languages (China has over 200 of them) will not be able to understand a word spoken to the other, but they can communicate perfectly in writing (this is also why nearly every TV Show in China has subtitles)

The Chinese written language has thousands of characters, but these characters are limited and only represent very basic objects and ideas. Moreover, almost all of these characters were devised thousands of years ago. And thousands of years ago they didn’t have things like refrigerators and trains. So somehow a Chinese person needs a way to write a word like “train” using characters from thousands of years ago. How do they do this? Simple. They simply combine multiple characters that sort of (very strong emphasis on sort of) describe that object.

chinese-train

Take for example the word of train. The Chinese simply take the character for fire and the word for vehicle and put them together (the rationale being that steam trains in the old days used to have small fires powering them). Anyone who reads Chinese knows that a Fire Vehicle is a train.

How this Affects the Language

Chinese characters are absolutely critical to the Chinese language.

And Why This all Matters to Importers

If you’re communicating with your Supplier about basic things like money and shipping times, your Supplier will either understand you or be able to look up your words in a dictionary and have that dictionary reliably translate what you said.

Where things become slightly more precarious is if you’re describing anything that is the slightest bit obscure or technical. Imagine if you were speaking to a Supplier about importing Hockey Sticks. If the Supplier had no recognition of the word Hockey Stick he would look it up in a dictionary and be returned a definition of something along the lines of Ice Ball Baton. Maybe the Supplier recognizes what these words mean together; maybe he doesn’t (especially if it’s a relatively new word- think about a product like drones). Translating words between most languages, i.e. English and Arabic, can be done relatively reliably with a dictionary. When translating something into Chinese it is incredibly unreliable. It’s not that Chinese people and Suppliers are dumb- the Chinese language is just vastly different from nearly any other language. It’s like trying to shove a DVD into a VHS Player and expecting it to work because they both play movies.

This is why when you’re communicating with your Supplier, use pictures as often as possible. Pictures are universal. A word can very often be translated incorrectly; a picture has no possibility to be incorrectly translated.Hockey Stick

If you’re describing anything technical and subject to confusion, make sure you have your Supplier reiterate what you said. Do not just simply accept a one-word “yes” from them and have UPS show up to your doorstep with your products and a nasty surprise as a result of miscommunication.

Conclusion

Language barriers are definitely one for the “Frustrating things about doing business in China” category. However, just this basic understanding of how the Chinese language works and why it is vastly different than English or most other languages removes a lot of the danger of miscommunication between you and your Supplier.

What has your experience been when communicating with Suppliers in emails? Have you ever had any horrific fails in miscommunication? Or do you have any strategies for improving clarity between Buyer and Supplier? If so, please comment below.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    John
    November 4, 2016 at 5:48 am

    Great point here David – I think it needs emphasis. It’s not just the language, Chinese are not detail oriented. I think you must introduce the concept of CHA-BU-DUO. Every one of my visitors over the past several years has commented on the use of this word … in social talk or business, it comes up often. It means: ‘approximately’, or ‘close enough’. it is not a stretch to tell a supplier that a pair of shoes are not the same color red, and the supplier says: CHA BU DUO. Adding to your informative piece on language, I would tell people to use specific color codes, and inspect & authorize a color after it’s manufactured. And I want to mention another reason to be very sure, and comfortable before you make payments to Chinese suppliers. There’s another word thrown around alot: MEI BAN-FA. Which essential means: “There’s nothing you can do about it”. Not what you want to hear about a poorly produced product that you’ve already paid for.

    • Reply
      David Bryant
      November 6, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Yes, the infamous chabaduo. The biggest cultural mistake westerners make when dealing with Chinese is making assumptions. Like you say, don’t use a subjective term like “red”, use an actual color code and any other 100% objective criteria when you can.

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