One Country, One Language? Not always the case…

What is the difference between written and spoken language across the world? It isn’t always as straightforward as it seems…

You might be looking to export into China and so you seek to produce a document in Mandarin, but you’ll soon be told this is impossible. Why?

Because Mandarin isn’t a written language. Mandarin is the name of the most common spoken Chinese language (Cantonese is another) while Chinese (Traditional or Simplified) is the name of the most common form of written Chinese.

What we’re talking about here, is when the WRITTEN form of a language has a different name to the SPOKEN form of a language.

It is plain to see how confusion can occur. You might have asked your Chinese client what language they speak and they will have replied Mandarin. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean that they write in Mandarin.

We know that it can all be a bit confusing for English speakers like ourselves and that is why we are here to help.Our language experts are your language experts!

We have complied a little guide to give you a brief overview of countries whose language can confuse and what to think of when exporting into these areas:



  • Mandarin – commonly spoken in Mainland China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore.
  • Cantonese – commonly spoken in Mainland China, in Hong Kong and in many overseas Chinese communities across the world.
  • Lots of other lesser used dialects.


  • Traditional Chinese – commonly used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities.
  • Simplified Chinese – the new system was introduced in the 1950s to increase literacy. Traditional characters can often be understood by mainland Chinese and Singaporeans, however these groups generally retain the use of Simplified characters.
  • Written Cantonese – Modern Cantonese speakers have developed their own written script, including new characters for words that don’t exist in standard Chinese.



  • Flemish – the spoken dialect of Dutch used in Belgium.


  • Standard Dutch – sometimes ‘localised’ for Belgium but not essential.


  • Spanish – the most prominent language of Spain. When receiving requests for translations for Spain do take extra care to clarify whether the target audience is looking for European or South American Spanish.
  • Catalan – Catalan and its different dialects is spoken in the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Island and Valencia. When written it has acute and grave accents (é and è), dieresis (ï), a mid dot to separate two l, the “ela geminada” l·l, as well as the “ce trencada” ç.
  • Basque – a language spoken and written mainly in the Basque country in the north of Spain and the south west of France. Place names within the Spanish Basque Country have both a Basque and Spanish spelling.
  • Galician – written and spoken by some 3 million people in Galicia in the North-West of Spain, it is very similar to Portuguese. It is the official language of Galicia alongside Spanish, which is the most common language for everyday use.
  • Please note that the co-official languages in Spain (Galician, Catalan, Basque) are established in the Spanish constitution as co-official in every territory, meaning that you can ask for an interpreter in any official procedure.

South America


  • Spanish – the number one language of South America with around 205 million speakers. South American Spanish differs from the European equivalent and there are additional differences in language between the North and South and East and West parts of the continent. The South American trading bloc uses Spanish and Portuguese as working languages.
  • Portuguese – the second most common language in South America with approximately 190 million speakers. It is the official language of Brazil and it is spoken in some regions bordering Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese differs from European Portuguese, more so when spoken than when written. However, much thanks to the great exchange of pop culture, people in either country will understand each other.
  • Dutch – the official language of Suriname.
  • English – the official language of Guyana.
  • Quechan – a Native South American language family which has 12 dialects and 8-10 million speakers. It is spoken primarily in the Andes.
  • At least 12 more languages are spoken across the continent, including French, Guarani and Aimara and a range of other indigenous languages.


  • Spanish – Spanish in South America differs from European Spanish not just in pronunciation but in grammar and vocabulary.
  • Portuguese – Brazilian schools have historically taught written Portuguese according to the standards of Portugal. Today the differences between written Brazilian Portuguese and the European equivalent are similar to those between British and American English. 

Pakistan and India


  • Urdu – the national language of Pakistan.
  • Punjabi – the most widely spoken language in Pakistan. It is spoken by the people belonging to the Punjabi ethnic group in India and Pakistan and it has many different dialects spoken in the sub-regions of greater Punjab.
  • Hindi – mostly mutually intelligible with Urdu. The two languages are almost identical in basic structure and grammar; however there is a great difference in terms of wording. In Hindi most words are derived from Sanskrit, Parakrit and Brij Bhasha, whereas Urdu words are derived from Persian and Arabic.


  • Punjabi – there are two different ways of writing Punjabi, making it very important to determine what section of Punjabi speakers a translation is targeting: Indian or Pakistani; using Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi script respectively.
  • The Shahmukhi script – mainly used by the population of the Pakistani province of Punjab.
  • The Gurmukhi script – the predominantly Sikh province of Punjab in India use the Gurmukhi script.
  • Hindi and Urdu – You may be advised to choose either Hindi or Urdu for written translations aimed for Pakistan or India because there is a good chance that if someone can read Punjabi (either script), they can read and understand Urdu and Hindi as well.

The most important thing to take from this:

  • Double-check the language before ordering the translation of a document it is good practise to double-check what language the document needs to be translated into, especially if you’re unfamiliar with its origins.
  • Don’t worry if you forget – a translation company such as ours will simply give you a nudge to check and then we’ll take it from there.
  • 0114 257 2077 – our number, should you have any questions at all.
  • [email protected]  – our email address should you prefer typing to talking.
  • Place your order via phone or email.

From that point on impossible is nothing.

Topics: Localisation
Export Action Plan