Diversity vs unity
When we talk about language communication in EU and in China, the main distinction is that the linguistic diversity of the EU on one hand is opposed to the unity of Chinese linguistic situation on the other.
Indeed, there are so many native languages in the EU since there are 28 member states, while in China Mandarin is the official language, even though there are many dialects and pronunciation of the same character may vary considerably. Frequently when people say “Chinese”, they actually mean “Mandarine”. It is a common simplification. There are, of course, other languages, still spoken by ethnic minorities in a few Chinese areas, such as Mongolian and Tibetan, which have their script different from Mandarin. Moreover, when the written language is concerned, Chinese characters adopted in the mainland China are simplified, while in HK and Taiwan (Singapor as well), people are used to traditional characters which are more complex to write. For example, have a look to “zhè – this:
- Traditional: 這
- Simplified: 这
The united writing style allows speakers of different dialects to communicate with each other simply through writing.
According to the European Commission’s language report (http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf), there are currently sixty or more spoken languages in the EU zone; and 23 languages among these are recognized as EU official languages.
Since the EU was founded by West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, at the very beginning the working language of EU was French, with English and German added later, together with the expansion of the European Union.
In China it is simpler. Chinese is both the official language and the working language; Mandarin Chinese, the dialect from the Chinese Capital Beijing and its greater area has been recognized since 1949 as the official speaking language of the country. Because of this, right now Mandarin Chinese is the language commonly used in compulsory nine-year education and higher education, governmental official speeches, television and radio channels in the entire mainland China.
Foreign languages for Europeans are completely depended on the cultural, geographical and historical contexts. In general, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the 28 Member States where it is not an official language (i.e. excluding the UK and Ireland).1 In China, as one nation, the majority of Chinese also consider English as the first foreign language. Generally speaking, Europeans are more exposed to foreign languages, even though the Chinese are widening their horizons too. Nowadays more and more Chinese learn a foreign language other than English, such as Japanese, Korean, Arabic, and even some of major EU official languages, like Spanish, French, German or Portuguese.
The EU’s multilingualism is a part of its own official motto: “United in diversity”. On the contrary, the Chinese always contemplate the unity of the language as the unity of a nation.
The linguistic specificity of Chinese languages
The most evident difference of Chinese languages in comparison to Indoeuropean ones is that it does not have an alphabet but characters called logograms (ideograms). It is not possible to define the exact number of Chinese characters which have been used as the written script for the Chinese language for thousands of years. Roughly speaking, the number ranges from fifty to eighty thousand, but it can reach up to 140,000 characters if we include the obsolete ones. It is reasonable to assume that an educated person knows around eight thousands characters, and that an average of three to four thousand is already enough to be able to read a newspaper.
A little help in learning Chinese comes from Pinyin, the international standard romanization scheme for the pronunciation of Chinese characters, which is useful for learning the Mandarin pronunciation. However, the complexity of the language remains, since there are five tones possible in the pronunciation of each pinyin syllable, (fourth-first, second, third and fourth tone, plus the light – neutral - tone), where each tone has a totally different meaning, and a lot of pinyin syllables even with the same tone has multiple meanings anyway.
There are so many dialects in China! The total number of dialects is around three hundred. They include ethnic minority languages. After all, when the founders of the People’s Republic of China chose to extend the-Standard Mandarin dialect (a variety of Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect) to the rest of the country as an official national language, it was not a bad idea at all. The aim was to simplify the oral communication among different Chinese regions that today numbers 33 (22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 direct-controlled municipalities and 2 self-governing cities) and among people of different linguistic backgrounds (speakers of different dialects and different ethnics).
Another important aspect of Chinese cultural characteristics is their pictographic language, because in Chinese written language it is pictures rather than sequences of words that form the writing. Please note that the Chinese calligraphy, which is more than 3000 years old, is a vehicle of traditional culture. It still means a lot to the older generations today, and the older people are trying their best to pass on such writing traditions to the younger generations. Additionally, the Chinese communist government has also been active in preserving Chinese calligraphy.
This codified language which foreigners cannot easily comprehend is also a way for the Chinese to protect themselves from the “outsiders”.
Discover the different ways of thinking
The Chinese thinking focuses more on holistic processing of information.
In fact, it has been observed even with children that the Chinese are better at seeing the big picture while the westerners are more at ease when describing details, which proves that the Chinese tend to think holistically, while Westerns think sequentially by parts.
Different business negotiation techniques for the Westerners and the Chinese are a good example. The Westerners like breaking up complex negotiation tasks into series of small issues: price, delivery, quantity, product details and so forth, while Chinese negotiators tend to skip the details, talk about these issues as a whole for orientation purposes, and leaving details to be settled during operational routines.
In conclusion, the bottom line is that as a foreigner, the more you know about the Chinese language, the more Chinese will treat you as an “insider”, and such practice will bring great benefit to your business in the long run.
DG COMM “Research and Speechwriting” Unit, “Europeans and their Languages report” –Special Eurobarometer 386/Wave EB77.1 Special Eurobarometer, Fieldwork -March 2012, Publication-June 2012.
WONG Fai, MAO Yuhang, DONG QingFu, QI YiHong, “Automatic Translation: Overcome Barriers between European And Chinese Languages”, Tsinghua University (China).
- Automatic Translation: Overcome Barriers between European And Chinese Languages http://www.unl.fi.upm.es/consorcio/archivos/publicaciones/china/paper-China1.pdf
- Celebration of linguistic diversity: http://edl.ecml.at/Home/Thecelebrationoflinguisticdiversity/tabid/2972/language/en-GB/Default.aspx
- Is English or Chinese the language of the future?: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17105569