Language is often an issue when doing business overseas. While the vast majority of manufacturers in China and other Asian nations that do business overseas have one or more English speaking staffers, steps still should be taken to ensure language differences do not cause any problems.
With English the dominant language of international business, it is generally assumed that business negotiations will be carried out in English. However, English ability overseas varies greatly with each nation. For example, while many in Singapore speak English at a native-speaker level, the English level of the average person in China is much lower.
Even in a nation where the level of English is low, it is not unreasonable to expect there to be at least one person at the company who can converse in English. In fact, the lack of any English speaking staff should be taken as a warning that the manufacturer does not have any international experience. However, one should keep in mind the difficulties of learning a foreign language when communicating.
To avoid communication problems, keep specifications, instructions and any other communications as clear and to the point as possible. Use numbered lists to communicate specifications where practical. Since specifications will sometimes change as manufacturing and other design issues are taken into consideration, it is advisable to keep a master list containing all the specifications and that is always updated with any changes. Confirm the entire list before making the samples or going into a production run.
Considering even those with a good mastery of a foreign language can sometimes misunderstand things without evening knowing it, and that written translation rates are usually reasonable, it may be a good idea to hire a translation service to translate the final specifications into Chinese.
A sample can be worth a thousand words. Whenever possible, sending samples and pictures can be the best way to break down language barriers and insure there have not been misunderstandings when communicating specifications.
When negotiating, keep in mind that the person who speaks English best is probably not the decision maker. Keep orientated towards the decision maker who is likely an older person who may not speak much English.
When hiring an interpreter, make sure the interpreter understands the vocabulary of the industry of the product being sourced.
Also, do not assume that the other side does not understand English and say something they should not hear in front of them. Often, they understand more than they show and sometimes use it as a negotiating tactic.
The same tactic can by used if a member of the sourcing team speaks Chinese. Since most westerners do not speak Chinese, the manufacturer will often assume nobody does and may say things openly in Chinese they do not want the other side to know.
While language does pose some challenges, they can usually be overcome by taking relatively simple precautions.