Around 1.2 billion people speak a form of Chinese. That’s an estimated 16% of the world’s population. It’s no wonder that many companies plan on translating their text into Chinese and entering the market.

The problem? Chinese doesn’t exist as a language.

Chinese is a language group that consists of different dialects and two written forms: Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Understanding the correct form to use and when is an essential part of Chinese localization.

This article breaks down the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese and how to choose the correct one for your translation.

How many languages does China have?

China is estimated to have over 300 living languages. Some of these languages are specific to a region and only spoken by a few thousand people who live there. Others, like Mandarin, are spoken by millions of people across the country.

These languages have been grouped into eight to 10 primary spoken dialects, with each language group having different dialects that relate to it.

While other language groups (for example, Latin-based languages like French, Italian and Spanish) share a number of basic words, the primary dialects in China are mostly unintelligible to each other. It means that people in one area of China might not understand someone else when they’re speaking their regional dialect.

What are the most common languages in China?

  • Mandarin

    If you’ve heard a Chinese language before, there’s a good chance it’s Mandarin. There are around 955 million speakers in China alone, making it the world’s most spoken language.

  • Standard Chinese

    The official language of China is Standard Chinese, which is one of the many sub-dialects of Mandarin. It’s based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin and is also the official language of Taiwan.

  • Cantonese

    Cantonese is primarily spoken in Guangdong, Macau and Hong Kong, although each region has their own dialect. The number of Cantonese speakers has decreased, due to China’s push to make Mandarin more widespread. However, it’s still spoken by around 60 million people.

  • Gan

    Gan is spoken in the western parts of China, near the Jiangxi province.

  • Hakka

    The Hakka dialect is closest to Gan and is spoken by an estimated 47 million people. The most well-known version of Hakka has similarities to Cantonese and Standard Chinese.

  • Min

    Min has a wide variety of dialects and is primarily spoken in the Fujian province.

  • Wu

    Wu is also known as Shanghainese. Unsurprisingly, it’s spoken in eastern China near Shanghai. There are around 80 million Wu speakers in China.

  • Xiang

    Xiang is also known as Hunanese. The languages come from Hunan province and have some similarities to Wu.

What writing systems do Chinese people use?

Despite the vast number of dialects, all Chinese speakers use either Traditional Chinese or Simplified Chinese for writing.

This works because of the use of symbols. Rather than the symbol representing a sound like in the English language, it represents a word. Two people from different provinces might have different ways of saying “noodles” for example, but they will both understand 面 (miàn), a symbol designed to look like noodles hanging up to dry.

This means that even though people might not be able to communicate verbally, they will both understand a word’s meaning when it’s written down.

What’s the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese?

The Chinese language group has two written forms: Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Simplified Chinese was developed by China in the 1950s, in an effort to improve literacy across the population.

It’s easy to get confused about which form to use in translation, because there’s no correlation to the spoken dialect. For example, Taiwan and Singapore both speak a form of Mandarin, but Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese and Singapore uses Simplified.

Character appearance and strokes

The most obvious difference in Traditional and Simplified Chinese is how the characters look. As it implies, Simplified Chinese simplifies each Traditional character, making it easier for people to write and understand them.

For example, duì (meaning “correct”) can be written as 对 (Simplified) or 對 (Traditional). The Simplified one is written using five strokes, while the Traditional version needs 14 strokes.

Phrases and meaning

There are also differences in vocabulary, grammar and punctuation between Simplified and Traditional Chinese.

The same vocabulary in Simplified can mean something completely different in Traditional. For example, the word tu dou (土豆) means “potatoes” in Simplified Chinese but “peanuts” in Traditional Chinese.

Even if they’re minor differences, it’s crucial to understand the meaning and common usage of language for Chinese localization.

Should I use Traditional or Simplified Chinese?

It’s an important question for Chinese localization. The correct written form will depend on where you’re expanding to.

If you’re targeting China, Malaysia or Singapore, you should use Simplified Chinese. If you’re targeting Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan, you should choose Traditional Chinese.

It’s important to look carefully at your target audience in a new territory. Malaysian schools teach Simplified Chinese, but it was only introduced in the 1980s. Before that, Traditional Chinese was the most familiar written form, thanks to the influence of media from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The form you use will depend on the demographics you want to reach.

Chinese is a complex group of languages. It can be tough to understand the different dialects and written forms, but there’s a big opportunity for businesses that succeed.