Hong Kong and Taiwan Language differences

Hong Kong and Taiwan Language differences

It is a known fact that a language may vary, especially how it is spoken, depending on the region where the language is used. But have you ever heard of two languages that are written in a same way but have nothing in-common in terms pronunciation? Today we will look into some differences between Taiwanese Mandarin and Cantonese and see how it can influence communication and interpersonal relationships if one is looking to negotiate or do business in these 2 Chinese-speaking regions.

Effective communication is the key to success in today’s business world. Due to the increasing demand for native resources to help you successfully target the Chinese market, it is now crucial to be aware of the differences in how users of the two main Traditional Chinese character groups speak and write.

In Taiwan, people mostly speak and write in Taiwanese Mandarin (“台灣正體” / “國字” literally “Taiwanese Standard Mandarin”). It is a language spoken and written at different levels among the social classes based on the situation of the speakers. In formal situations, it is known by native speakers as “Guo-yu” (國語). This is Standard Mandarin, the official language used in both writing and speaking. Bilingual speakers often alternate between Mandarin and Taiwanese, even when writing.

Except for a few elderly people who were educated under Japanese rule, most people use Mandarin to communicate, especially in Taipei, where most residents are Mainlanders who cannot understand Taiwanese, a local dialect known as Taiwanese Hokkien. Note that apart from Simplified Chinese used in Mainland China, Taiwanese Mandarin is the well-preserved version of Standard Mandarin.

In Hong Kong however, people mostly speak Cantonese. Despite the fact that Cantonese shares some vocabulary with written Mandarin, the two languages are completely different when spoken due to differences in accent and vocabulary.

One observable difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is how the spoken word is written. Whilst a text may look almost the same, it’s pronounced quite differently, as you may discover in a business meeting with a Chinese-speaking negotiator representing the other party. Negotiations between Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen are sometimes made in English, since most of Hong Kong citizens can not speak Mandarin, and most Taiwanese people cannot speak Cantonese.

Vocabulary

Taiwanese: Did you get here by bus? 
Hong Kongese: No, I came here on my little lamb* (“綿羊仔”)

As you can see from the small talk, the “little lamb” actually means “a scooter” and is a popular word used among younger generations. It may sound natural to bilingual speakers in Taiwan because most young people have access to videos, YouTube or films made by Hong Kong companies. However, the larger populations from different social classes may feel awkward about hearing such a novel idea coming out of nowhere. Here are a few examples of the differences between the two languages in terms of word usage in formal business writing or marketing campaigns.

Term Taiwan Hong Kong
(be) at work shàng bān (上班), literally “go to work” fǎn gōng (返工) , literally “at work”
(be) off duty xià bān (下班) , literally “out of office” fàng gōng (放工) , literally “get off work”
boss shàng sī (上司), literally “boss” lǎosi (老細), literally “boss”
taxi jì chéng chē (計程車) or xiǎo huáng (小黃) , literally “taxi” de shì (的士), literally “taxi”

 

Grammar 

Grammar can affect the way people write business letters when two parties from different cultural backgrounds try to talk business and settle things clearly. During the early years of British colonization, the Hongkongese became much familiar with the English structure and therefore changed the original sentence structure of Mandarin, which is a paratactic language focusing on its meaning and deep structure in formal writing. For example, a “weak verb” is sometimes applied to a Chinese sentence or phrase and changes the way people write in formal letters. Here’s an example.

English Sentence: The expert carries out an experiment to study the formula.

  • In Mandarin, it can be structured as “專家做實驗來研究配方”.
  • In Cantonese, the sentence can be written as “專家藉由實驗對配方進行研究”.

Note that the two languages preserve and use the Traditional Chinese characters quite differently due to the historical background of a split Chinese language tree. The language system of Traditional Chinese in Taiwan adopts the mother system of Standard Chinese. This standard can now be spoken and written intelligibly by business people in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, because of its colonial and linguistic history, the sole language of education, the media, formal speech and everyday life remains the local Cantonese, with the use of the same Traditional Chinese characters.

However, the majority of Traditional Chinese users (Hong Kongese, older generation of Mainland China, Taiwanese) can read Taiwanese Mandarin. Therefore, if anyone wishes to create a website targeting the Traditional Chinese-speaking market, you can use Taiwanese Mandarin for the best search results to improve user experience.

Internet Language 

Another great idea to consider is to look into the network language commonly used by online users today. Since the internet now seems to prevail over older media, there’s no reason one should not be aware of the new burst of fashionable language spread across most networks for marketing use. Here are some examples of what you may find in advertising campaigns.

 

Term Taiwan Hong Kong
omg jiǒng (囧, or Orz), literally “oh my god” O zuǐ (O 嘴 ) , literally “oh my god”
God-like dá rén (達人) or shèng shǒu (聖手) , literally “god-like” shén jí (神級) , literally “god-like”
Service plan fāng àn (方案), literally “service plan” shàng tái (上台), literally “service plan”
Read But No Reply qián shuǐ (潛水 or 已讀不回), literally “Read But No Reply” CD-Rom (CD-Rom), literally “Read But No Reply”

When entering Chinese speaking markets, it is important to remember that Hong Kong and Taiwan are quite different when it comes to life habits as well as speaking habits. They understand the written languages of each other, yet do not fully agree with the choice of grammar used, and are completely lost in verbal communication, unless one side makes an effort and learns the language of the other (Mandarin is an optional second language in public schools in Hong Kong). And of course, other factors such as population, size of your target market and wage levels must be considered before translating your web site or marketing materials.

Do not hesitate to share this article with your friends or colleagues and stay tuned for the latest updates!

Kate CHERNAVINAHong Kong and Taiwan Language differences