Is Chinese localization still important?

Is Chinese localization still important?

January 2020

Is Chinese localization still important?

China's proficiency in English is improving fast, but how important is it to still localize or translate websites intended for a Chinese audience? Let's examine the issues.

The language question

Only a few years ago, Chinese users were considered to be low in English proficiency. However, this is no longer the case and China is now up to the 40th position from 47th in the world. This is according to a new report by international education company, EF, entitled 'English Proficiency Index'. Now in its ninth edition, China has moved from the 'low' to the 'moderate English' category for the first time. 

These figures are likely to grow fast, especially as there are already over a billion people around the world speaking English as their first or second language. The report by Education First shows how the English language naturally has a powerful 'viral' networking effect. As more people begin to use English, the faster its adoption and utility. Chinese students are learning English in schools and absorbing English culture where they can - many now travel overseas for further education and enrichment purposes, further embedding their skills. Chinese businesses are increasingly doing business with native English-speaking nations, or with countries that can do business in English as a shared second language.

Chinese students, business people, researchers, academics, and others all know that the English language is a valuable currency that can help them to achieve their goals, especially on a world stage, and the incentives to master the language are high. In a report, EF also found that the adoption of the English language helps countries like China in other ways too. For example, countries that speak English enjoy greater innovation and international collaboration and are seen as being more open and fair.

Translation and localization services - what happens

When a Western brand or entity wants to do business in China, it will first either translate its existing content into Chinese or entirely localize its website to ensure that it meets local socio-economic, cultural, technological, and other needs. The Chinese culture is complex and hugely varied (for example by geography, cultural group, and generation), and Western content may not always hit the mark. Access needs are also different, as Chinese online users are hugely sophisticated netizens and rely heavily on their smartphones to access websites, meaning that smartphone optimization is key.

When Western companies translate their content, they will often simply convert it into Chinese. When they localize it, however, they will re-express the tone, message, images, presentation, references, and overall presentation to suit the Chinese audience. Remember, as an example, that certain numbers and colors have particular significance in Chinese culture that they do not in the West. It is all too easy to fail to engage - or worse, to offend - a Chinese audience by using these kinds of cultural indicators in a clumsy or insensitive way.

So can Western brands not just market to China in English?

The answer is, not yet. Despite China as a whole being classified as a 'moderate' English proficiency nation, only three Chinese cities have moderate proficiency: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Although Chinese citizens are learning English in vast numbers, the demand for language tuition currently outstrips the supply. The Great Firewall of China also limits access to English content. A further consideration for Western companies is that Chinese speakers of English tend to be clustered within certain groups and audiences. For example:

  • Chinese managers speak the most English, because of their international business links
  • Adults in their late twenties now speak the best English in China, followed by those in the 16-21 age category.
  • Employees working in competitive industries are more likely to speak English, again because of the overseas business angle.
  • English language skills in China's industry are also clustered around certain functions and industries, such as customer services, technology, exporting, science,  hospitality, and so forth.
  • Different cities have very different English adoption levels. For example, Beijing is now ranked with moderate English skills, but Guangzhou is one of the lowest-ranking cities.

The takeaway for Western companies

There will no doubt come a time when it is possible to market and communicate digitally to Chinese audiences in English, but now is unlikely to be that time. There is also the question of satisfying the customer. To market or engage with a Chinese audience in a language that is not their own may be seen as culturally insensitive or even arrogant. It is one thing to offer a website which both languages as an option, but it is important to show respect and cultural sensitivity by presenting information in the speaker's own language.

Additionally, and probably more importantly, only a few specific groups and audiences in China yet will realistically have the skills needed to converse easily in English. It is one thing to present a few key headlines in English, or core brand messages for example, but detail must be presented in Chinese. To do otherwise is to challenge the user too much and website conversions will suffer as a result.

How Western companies can localize their content

There are various approaches to presenting English websites for Chinese audiences. Content must be re-written or fully localized, and marketing campaigns must be conceived with specific knowledge of the end Chinese audience in mind - with concepts, images, words, digital graphical elements, and channels that really work (for example, using Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat or Sina Weibo). This kind of knowledge only comes with experience and specific research of the end audience, as it does with any local Western communication campaign.

In short, to communicate effectively with a Chinese audience, Western websites must still be translated - or, ideally, fully localized - to meet the end user's specific cultural, socio-economic, and technological access needs. The fundamentals of marketing and communication still hold true, regardless of language ability!


For over 20 years, Backbone IT Group have been experts in accessing China’s online market. We extend your team's capabilities with fully supported web servers, web dev, corporate marketing, data compliance and risk mitigation. Get in touch with us to deliver more from your China budget.


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