As noted above, language issues play a major role when American people are conducting business with Chinese people. Whether an American company is sending people to China or a Chinese company is sending people to the US, language will be an issue. Of course, cultural expectations and norms are different, as pointed out in the previous section, but many language issues exist outside the cultural context. Both the written and spoken forms of Chinese present the average American with many difficulties. Similarly, English presents a number of difficulties for the average Chinese person.
Most of the time, a Chinese delegation traveling to the US will be accompanied by an interpreter or the Chinese hosts will provide an interpreter for their guests in China. Likewise, documents will frequently be translated to and from English by someone who has learned Chinese as a first language; not by someone who has started out with English. At one time, the Chinese government strongly discouraged the study of English, but that is certainly not true today. English is now studied by most primary school students as their second language. These studies continue through middle school and on into college. Even those not majoring in English at college must pass an English proficiency examination. In the US, unfortunately, young children are not normally presented with the opportunity to study foreign languages in primary school, least of all Chinese. As a result, it is very difficult to find Americans who can interpret Chinese. Even if Chinese language courses are offered in the community or during university studies, most American students will choose an easier language.
Chinese and English share the distinctions of being considered the two most difficult languages to learn. Chinese for its written forms and variations in pronunciation; English for it’s irregularities in both grammar and spelling. As pointed out in the introduction to this section, English is not a single language. American English and British English are not the same although they share many similarities. Likewise, Australian English and Canadian English are different from each other. They also differ from both American and British English. Can an American from Omaha understand a Londoner? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The written forms of the Chinese language have developed over the more than four thousand year history of China, changing from basic drawings that represented simple ideas to compound characters that convey complex meanings in a single word. Written Chinese uses ideographs (also called characters) to represent the ideas and meaning to be conveyed, so it is quite different than the alphabet-based system used with Western languages. To make this more complex, many characters which are written in exactly the same way may have different meanings in different contexts because the meaning may change when two or more characters are combined. A character may have one meaning when used alone and another, completely different meaning when used in combination with other characters. Mulitple combinations are possible. And, there is the distinction between “fanti” the complex, original forms of the characters and “jianti,” the simplified forms currently used in the People’s Republic of China. Further, words which are written differently may have exactly the same pronunciation. This also exists in English with homonyms.
Chinese writing is composed of ten basic strokes or lines which are combined to form characters. These bear some similarity to the English alphabet but are used quite differently. If you want to look up a word in an English dictionary, you would use the spelling (or an approximate spelling) of the word to find it. If the word starts with an ‘a’ sound, you would look in the ‘A’ section of the dictionary. If you want to look up a word in a Chinese dictionary, you need to know the radical and you have to count the number of strokes. The radical is similar to root words in English. It, combined with the remaining strokes used and the number of strokes used will allow me to find the character. If all this seems a bit daunting, it is, even to Chinese people. While there are clues for pronunciation given by the characters, these must also be memorized.
In English, once we learn basic phonics and the sounds that accompany the 26 letters of the English alphabet and their standard combinations, we can usually sound-out new words by looking at the letters. The difficulty is that English spelling is irregular. When is the ‘e’ silent and the ‘o’ long? Should there be two ‘l’s or just one? And the same problem exists with usage. In English, word order represents not only the grammatical structure but also the intended emphasis of the speaker. The same sentence can be written or spoken several different ways, depending on what the speaker or the writer wishes to emphasize. All are correct; it’s a question of emphasis.