Aqua Nor: What does the language say?
Twelve years working experience at the Norwegian Consulate General in Shanghai has equipped me with full knowledge about Norway. However, now that I have recently moved to Trondheim, I still feel I am a newcomer to the city and the country. And this feeling gets stronger after my visit to the most heated event in the city last week, Aqua Nor.
Aqua Nor experience
Stepping in to the exhibition hall and walking through the booths and pavilions full of Norwegian posters, I can not help asking myself “ what does the language say?” Aqua Nor has built its reputation as an important international meeting place for aquaculture industry in the past 27 years. It has attracted 4000 visitors from 63 nations this year. However, a large number of the booths, mostly Norwegian exhibitors, have their posters only in Norwegian language. I am not sure how much Norwegian the visitors from the other 62 nations can understand. But for a Chinese visitor like me, I could not figure out what exactly the company does by simply looking at their company logo and the Norwegian information that they write on their backdrops. I just have to walk pass the booth and keep looking for signs that I do understand. While strolling in the exhibition halls, I start to wonder what kind of message these exhibitors want to convey when they only have their visual information in Norwegian. Is it so that they are more comfortable and confident in promoting themselves in Norwegian? Is it so that they only expect to meet the people who know about them from before? Is it so that they only want to attract potential Norwegian customers? Is it so that they think their companies are so famous that the minute the visitors see their names and logos, they will recognize what they do without even reading the introduction? I can not figure out the correct reason for this. But I start to understand why there are so many companies interested in China that yet hesitate to enter the Chinese market.
I feel drowned in the Norwegian posters and backdrops
Entering into a new market with different language and culture background is to a certain extent the same as me walking into Aqua Nor. I know that this exhibition is supposed to be international and people there are able to speak english, but I feel drowned in the Norwegian posters and backdrops and find no where to start. Likewise, Chinese market is known for its huge size and its people’s consumption capacity, however, many foreign companies feel overwhelmed to step into this market because of the language barrier.
292 different languages within one country
China is the world’s most populous country. It has 56 ethnic groups with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people living in 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 direct-controlled municipalities and 2 Special Administrative Regions. There are as many as 292 languages in China, and about 70% of the population speak mandarin, which is the official language of the country. Even among the mandarin speaking group, people from different regions sometimes tend to use different words and expressions to describe the same thing. There has been a huge debate on the Chinese social media about what long johns should be called in mandarin. People from the south think it should be called “Mian Mao Ku”, which literally means cotton fur trousers, whereas people from the north think it should be called “Qiu Ku”, which literally means autumn trousers. There is no right or wrong answer to this question because they are both correct. But you do need to remember to call the long johns “Mian Mao Ku” if you talk to a person from the south and refer it as “Qiu Ku” if you talk to a northerner. Otherwise, people may have problem to understand you.
After China’s reform and opening up in 1978, it has been developing so fast that now it has become the world’s second biggest economy. According to the World Bank, China represents 14.8% of the world economy, and it grew 6.7% last year in 2016, catching up the biggest economy the United States of America. In the past 28 years, hundreds of thousands of foreign companies from different countries across various industries, swarm into China. No matter what kind of services or products they sell, they all have one thing in common: the message that they want to convey to their customers are all in Chinese. They have made the correct choice to open the door. Because Language is the basic tool for communication. It is of importance to convey your message in the language that your customers understand.
Language is more than words
However, to speak the language does not guarantee you the success in the Chinese market. Because Language is also the carrier of its culture. It is of greater importance to use the language in the way that is culturally correct. A simple example would be if you are trying to sell a “Qiu Ku” to a person from Sanya, which is known as the Chinese Hawaii. He may not even look at it because first of all, he has no idea what “Qiu Ku” is, and secondly people live in Sanya do not necessarily need to wear “Qiu Ku” at all.
There are many foreign companies that fail in expending their business in China, even though they have opened the door. The reasons vary in each case. Some of them blame the bureaucracy, the governmental challenges, intellectual property, etc. They find it hard to compete with their Chinese competitors who are well-resourced. Take the digital industry for instance, the data from Libra shows that the top 100 app in China are all published by Chinese companies, and Wechat is on the top of this list. Some people may argue that if Facebook was not blocked in China, it must be more popular in China than Wechat given the fact that it has gained its popularity all over the world. There are certainly many reasons contribute to this result. But we should not neglect the fact that Chinese companies have the privilege to communicate with their customers better and know the culture more profound. To the Chinese customers, Wechat speaks our language so well and accommodating the culture correctly to their needs, and we feel close to it. The emojis on Wechat has all the buzzwords that we would say and the faces that we would make in our real life, while emojis on Facebook are rather distant. The red pocket function in Wechat has successfully inherited the Chinese tradition of giving out money in a red envelope to family or friends on birthdays, weddings, holidays, and other occasions to celebrate, and successfully brought this tradition into a digital world. It is not culturally possible for Facebook to replace Wechat, at least not with what Facebook has to offer at the moment.
Language says the message that the speaker and writer want to convey to the listener and reader. It plays a significant role not only in our daily life, but also in the business world. It is the tool that you use to communicate with your customers. Using a language that your customer can understand and using it in the right way will help you to stand out from your competitors, and lead you closer to the success of your target market. As for me, I regret that I have not studied Norwegian earlier. There are so much more I could explore and experience in this beautiful country if I had known the language better. But it is never too late to mend!