Is Speaking Chinese Good for Business in the United States?

Is Speaking Chinese Good for Business in the United States?

Chinese – mostly Yue dialects including Cantonese and Taishanese – is the third most spoken language in the United States at present, sitting behind the usual suspects of English and Spanish as the first and second most spoken languages respectively.

The language has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years as China establishes itself as a global powerhouse.

US Census Bureau figures show that the number of Chinese language speakers in the country has increased almost fourfold over the course of the last three decades – rising to just under 2.9 million in 2011.

It is a certainty that this number has jumped again since then, so is it time for businesses to consider operating in Chinese?

Chinese in the classroom

The growing number of Chinese speakers stateside is mostly reflective of a shift in immigration trends, with most people now emigrating from Asian countries as immigration numbers from Europe decline.

But it is not just immigrants who speak the language. A large number of non-native speakers have begun trying to pick up Chinese, banking on it becoming a valuable skill set for the future, and several school districts across the country have expanded language programs to accommodate this demand.

Students from a wide range of backgrounds have taken up the subject, some at the request of their parents, in the hope that it will provide them with limitless opportunities in the future global economy.

This goes beyond children of Chinese descent and white kids from affluent families, who had previously been more likely to learn the language, infiltrating a large number of minority communities.

There are currently more than 50 Chinese-language immersion programs at schools nationwide for youngsters in grades 12 and below to get involved with, compared to around a dozen or so a decade ago.

Exodus of wealthy businessmen

An exodus of wealthy businessmen from China to the US has played an influential in the rise of Chinese.

First-generation businessmen – the ones behind China’s dramatic economic rise – dream of a secure retirement. Countries like the US and Canada represent a safe haven where they can sit back, relax and enjoy their later years.

In 2013, the US issued a total of 6,895 visas to Chinese nationals under the EB-5 program, which allows foreigners to live in the country if they agree to invest a minimum sum of $500,000 in a targeted employment area.

The fact that South Koreans, the next largest group, only got 364 such visas emphasises the scale of the movement from China.

Canada closed down a similar program to the EB-5 earlier this year, something that had been swamped by Chinese demand, so the US can probably expect to see many more Chinese immigrants in the near future as a result.

Where to find Chinese speakers

The vast majority of Chinese speakers in the US can be found residing in cities on the east and west coasts, notably New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where there are often multiple Chinatowns.

Washington, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, Sacramento and Las Vegas are just some of the other cities that boast the largest Chinese-American populations in the country.

In addition to the big cities, smaller pockets are also dispersed in rural areas, often university-college towns.

Here are the leading states for Chinese speakers.

  • California (1,122,187)
  • New York (451,859)
  • Hawaii (170,803)
  • Texas (121,588)
  • New Jersey (110,263)
  • Massachusetts (92,380)
  • Illinois (86,095)
  • Washington (75,884)
  • Florida (59,280)
  • Pennsylvania (56,831)

The five states of California, New York, Hawaii, Texas and New Jersey make up more than four fifths of the Chinese-American population, with two fifths being in California alone, so these should be the target areas for brands wanting to do business in Chinese.

Various dialects

The US Census Bureau defines Chinese as including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Kan (Gan), Hsiang (Xiang), Fuchow (Fuzhou), Formosan, Taishanese and Wu. But there are also a number of other dialects spoken by Chinese Americans, so brands need to think carefully when doing business in Chinese.

The aim of advertising is to appeal to a wide audience, so standard Chinese – Mandarin – is the best place to start. Cantonese and Taishanese – two of the most commonly spoken dialects in the US – are also worth considering.

Like with any marketing campaign, however, it is essential to test the water before taking the plunge.

Companies should think about the following advertising methods.

  • Print
  • Television
  • Radio
  • Internet

In all four instances, good translation is of the utmost importance. A mistake, no matter how small, could be the difference between success and failure, so brands should recruit professional translators of work with a reputable translation agency.

Online translation services like Google Translate do not cut the mustard when it comes to Chinese. They are often littered with errors that native speakers will pick up on, so avoid them at all costs or risk losing out.

What does the future hold?

As previously mentioned, the US can expect to see an influx of many more migrants from China in the near future, something which will play into the hands of businesses able to speak Chinese.

The fact that students from China are by far the largest group of foreign students on US campuses – some 235,597 were registered to institutions across the country in 2013, according to the Institute of International Education – adds further weight to the argument that brands should jump on the bandwagon.

While English and Spanish still reign supreme – and they will continue to do so for some time to come – it is hard to ignore the dramatic rise of Chinese.

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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