"Chinese — Traditional"

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The other day, just before going through security at the international terminal at the airport in Melbourne, Australia, I noticed a second sign beside the sign of instructions on what you couldn't take onto the airplane.  The second sign was (I assume) the same set of instructions in Chinese, and it was headed "Chinese – Traditional".

This, I assume, meant that the Chinese characters on the sign were the traditional characters now used mainly in Taiwan, as opposed to the simplified characters used in mainland China.  (If I hadn't already turned my cell phone off, I could've taken a picture to show to a knowledgeable colleague or incorporate into this post, but as it was…)   The choice of traditional characters seemed a bit puzzling.  The fact that there was a Chinese-language sign suggests that lots of Chinese-speaking visitors pass through that airport; but are they all from Taiwan or one of the few other places where people still learn the old characters?  That seems surprising, but then, I have zero knowledge of the tourism patterns in southern Australia.  I have assumed (in my equally vast ignorance of Chinese) that someone trained to read only the simplified characters would not be able to read the traditional ones easily, but that someone trained to read the complex characters might be able to read the simplified ones.   Have other readers of Language Log seen similar signs?

[Update — Irene Wong writes:

I took this photo in HK in November 2009 at the entrance to Ocean World. I don't know how to send a photo in the comments to the blog.

HK locals would need the traditional version. But their are so many tourists from China who visit HK now, often only on day trips.

These day visitors would be from that part of china around HK where cantonese is still spoken. Such visitors probably speak Mandarin as well. All but the very old ones would only read simplified. And most of the very old ones are probably illiterate anyway because the majority of Chinese didn't get any or much schooling before the revolution in 1949.

In Australia there are many residents originally from HK , Malaya and Singapore. They would only read traditional.

Older people from Malaya and Singapore would only read traditional. But many cantonese speakers form Malaya do not read any chinese because they attended "english" schools concentrating on that language.. These people are almost all Cantonese speaking. Younger people from Singpore know Mandarin.

But now Australia has many Mandarin residents from China.  Their families from China visit them  and many many tourists to Aust come from China. They need simplified. We also have many thousands of Chinese students studying here. They should read English but no doubt would read simplified.

The number of Australian residents or tourists from Taiwan is not significant compared with the other countries I have mentioned.

A few of the comments assumed the people from China were poor. Believe me there is a middle class who have so much money to travel and spend massive amounts. Look at the size of and buyers in jewellery shops in HK.

The picture is here:



  1. Jongseong Park said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    As a non-Chinese-speaking younger Korean I am still reasonably familiar with traditional characters. When I visited China, though, I found simplified characters difficult to figure out. There are of course cases where it is transparent how multiple strokes have been simplified following cursive script logic. But often there are non-obvious substitutions. You can sometimes guess what the characters are supposed to be from context, and only then figure out that for example it's using a simpler radical that has a similar sound to the original.

    So I think a degree of familiarity with both traditional and simplified characters is needed before you can read the ones you're less familiar with. I don't think this would be too difficult for Chinese speakers once they get the hang of it, but it wouldn't come automatically.

    My guess is that people in traditional-using areas, particularly the older generation, would not be much familiar with simplified Chinese, whereas more people who learn simplified Chinese would be familiar enough with traditional Chinese, not necessarily enough to write in them but enough to recognize which simplified characters would correspond to the traditional characters they see.

  2. John Thayer Jensen said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    In New Zealand, Chinese signs tend to be in both character sets. A large percentage – don't know how large, so just speaking impressionistically – of our Chinese are from Hong Kong, which also uses the 'traditional' characters. My immediate supervisor at the University is from Hong Kong and says he cannot read the simplified characters.


  3. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    As interesting to me as the use of traditional characters is the use of the heading "Chinese – Traditional". I wonder who that heading is intended for; presumably the sign's primary audience would be capable of recognizing the language and script. Do they put out different languages based on what flights are currently going through security, or something like that, such that security personnel need to know what signs they're putting out?

  4. Eric TF Bat said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    "Chinese – Traditional" and "Chinese – Simplified" are the labels that most computer programs use to refer to the two "languages". On my Ubuntu Linux system I can, for example, select either or both from a long list ranging from Afar to Zulu, and be reasonably confident that I will then completely fail to understand anything my computer is telling me. Except when the programmers forgot to "internationalize" [sic] their programs and so they resolutely continue to speak only fractured Geeklish.

  5. Chris said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

    It's not just Taiwan that uses the traditional characters, it's also Hong Kong, Macau and most overseas Chinese communities around the world, including the one in Australia (overseas Chinese communities have been in existence much longer than the PRC). This is also true in the US, but due to the increased influx of immigrants from the PRC, this might be changing now (and come to think of it, probably in Australia as well).

    Another notable case is Singapore, which adopted the simplified character set due to economic reasons. Very interesting also neighbouring Malasysia, where Chinese newspapers use traditional for the headlines, but simplified in the actual article.

  6. G said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    Quite a few of the characters are the same between traditional and simplified, so one could often puzzle out the other script I would think. My guess is that a couple of things are going on here to influence these choices:

    a) Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional characters and until recently at least were more affluent and probably constituted the bulk of international travellers.

    b) Most immigrant Chinese communities abroad use traditional characters.

    c) Lots of older people from the mainland would have been educated in traditional characters as well (although this percentage drops over time as people die of course).

    d) In my completely anecdotal and unscientific experience people from TW and HK hate simplified characters.

    So one might argue that traditional characters might be more recognizable to a higher percentage of Chinese-reading travellers at Australian airports, although this might be changing or have already changed with the economic rise of mainland China.

  7. thomas said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

    I have partial confirmation of this: I didn't photograph the signs, but I did take a photo of the charity coin-donation boxes at Melbourne Airport, which say "Thanks" in a variety of languages. The range includes traditional Chinese – 謝謝 – and not simplified Chinese.

  8. Chris said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    To add to what G said above, traditional characters are still used on the mainland in more "traditional" or formal settings — invitations, signs for businesses, etc. So it's generally safe to assume that most people who read Chinese fluently will be at least familiar with traditional characters, but not necessarily with simplified characters.

  9. Eric L. said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    An almost on-topic anecdote: I was in this health food store in a tourist trap somewhere up (down?) the coast near Sydney, and got to talking with the owner. She had infosheets about her biscuits and jams and the like touting all their hand-craftedness and health benefits translated into Japanese, "Cantonese", and "Mandarin".

    Now, I'd be surprised to see written Cantonese on a brochure even in Hong Kong, especially a brochure aimed *ahem* the kind of consumer who has enough money to buy these overpriced jars of jam, but too little sense to question all the alleged health benefits. To see written Cantonese in Australia I'd be utterly gobsmacked. But of course a quick glance revealed that the "Cantonese" and "Mandarin" were actually the exact same (standard Mandarin) text written in traditional and simplified characters, respectively. Not even any attempt to account for vocabulary differences between the mainland and Hong Kong.

    So I asked the owner — and yes, the translation agency apparently told her she was getting a "package deal" on three languages rather than two, and charged her accordingly.

  10. Amos said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    I'm from Singapore and find it hard to read traditional characters, having only learnt the simplified ones. Every time I've seen those signs at Melbourne Airport, I've actually assumed they were meant for people from Hong Kong (not so much Taiwan), given the large influx of migrants from there before the handover to China – I still remember when I first moved to Melbourne in 2002, if I heard 'Chinese' spoken on the street, it would usually be Cantonese. Of course nowadays, it's usually Mandarin I hear.

  11. Rick Matz said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    Now that you mention it, the signs at Detroit Metro International Airport includes Japanese and Traditional Chinese, not the simplified version.

  12. Yao Ziyuan said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    Simplified Chinese users can read Traditional Chinese, but they can't write them. Even for reading, they prefer a browser extension (Tong Wen Tang) that automatically simplifies all traditional characters in a web page.

  13. JP Villanueva said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    I'll corroborate what Yao Ziyuan says above: speakers from the mainland PRC claim that they can read both, no problem. In fact my teacher made a point to say that it's no big deal to PRC Chinese to read both traditional and simplified characters; she went on to imply that non-PRC squeamishness over simplified characters is a little…. precious. I got the idea that non-PRC people look at the simplified set as a sign of communism, which is to be resisted.

    When I lived in Shanghai, I would often ask about words and characters, and they would often write both a simplified and a traditional character for instructive purposes… the simplified character was for me to see, but the traditional character was presented (with a lot of pride, it seemed to me) as a more "logical" or "complete" form (e.g., "you can see the meaning better with the traditional character") and I got the feeling that they felt the traditional character was either more beautiful or more fun to write.

    Of course China is a big country and my friends were highly educated people; it may be the case that there are people that don't read traditional characters. However, something tells me that someone without an education that includes traditional characters is not the kind of person who will be traveling to Melbourne. That's just a guess on my part though.

  14. Danmcc said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    I wonder whether there is any expectation that those that use the "simplified" character set being more likely to have passable English (I don't know the answer, maybe someone else does).

    I imagine in terms of making decisions for which translations to feature on signs, the highest need would be for large populations which are unlikely to have workable English. So I wonder whether that might be a factor in deciding which character set to display on airport signs or similar. From the comments, I wonder whether older people with poorer English skills are more likely to understand the traditional characters, while those that would struggle to understand the traditional characters are much more likely to have sufficient English competence.

  15. Sean said,

    January 30, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    Just to add to the comments earlier about Cantonese and Mandarin, 2006 Australian census numbers say there are twice as many Cantonese-speakers in Australia than Mandarin-speakers.

  16. Sarah said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 2:05 am

    I have tried unsuccessfully in the past to find out if there is a difference between written Cantonese and written Mandarin. Do these relate to traditional and simplified in any useful way? (I am often asked to supply dual-language books for children who don't speak English and want to send appropriate books where they are available.)

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 4:39 am

    Sarah, the Wikipedia article on written Cantonese would be a good starting place. Essentially, Cantonese is written with traditional characters augmented with characters for Cantonese-specific vocabulary, while Mandarin may be written with either traditional or simplified characters. But be aware that speaking Cantonese does not necessarily correlate to reading written Cantonese better than written Mandarin.

  18. Alex said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    @ Sarah:

    Yes, there are a couple of differences. There are two ways of writing down Cantonese. The first way is Standard Chinese, which is based on Standard Mandarin, and thus this form of written Cantonese does not reflect the spoken language. For example, in Written Standard Cantonese, the spoken Cantonese posessive marker 嘅 ("ge" in the Yale romanization) is replaced with the Mandarin possessive marker 的 ("dīk")*; another example is the replacement of the character meaning "to be"–in spoken Cantonese, it's 係 ("haih") and in Mandarin, it's 是 ("sih"). Apart from purely lexical differences, there are also important grammatical differences between the two languages.

    The other way Cantonese can be written is to reflect the way it is spoken. In Written Standard Cantonese, the question "Where are you going?" would be written as: "你去哪裡呀?" (néih heui náh léuih a?"), which is how a Mandarin speaker would ask the question in speech (of course, in Mandarin–I've only supplied the Cantonese pronunciation). However, in the written form of spoken Cantonese, the question would be written as: "你去邊呀?" ("néih heui bīn a?"), which is how a Cantonese speaker would ask the question in speech.

    There is yet a third element which other commenters have mentioned above: Cantonese speakers from mainland China use simplified script, while those in overseas communities and Hong Kong use traditional script.

    If anyone thinks I missed anything, please say so.

    Anyways, my girlfriend–a native of HK–and I recently visited Copenhagen and she was very surprised to see a great number of Chinese signs that used traditional script to the exclusion of simplified. We assumed it was due to the same reasons why Chinatowns in the US have traditional characters and (usually) not simplified–immigrants hailed from either an era prior to the creation and use of simplified script or they came from Hong Kong (or both).

    *Please note that I am supplying the Cantonese pronunciations of all the characters, as I don't know any Mandarin.

  19. Rick Sprague said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    @Ran Ari-Gur: Re English labeling on foreign language signs

    The major home improvement warehouse chain where I work provides translation for non-Anglophone customers, supported by a third party service reached by telephone. There is a multilingual sign in the store informing customers that the service is available, and that they may indicate their choice of language by pointing to it on the sign. The English label is for the store personnel to use when requesting an appropriate translator. (Our sign has both traditional and simplified Chinese.)

    I'm not sure whether the airport sign is labeled in English for that purpose, but since Dr. Thomason wasn't able to read the Chinese, it's conceivable that it had similar instructions in addition to or instead of listing proscribed objects.

  20. Estel said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    This picture shows a bus timetable that appears to be labelled in two varieties of Chinese with different numbers of characters. Is it Mandarin and Cantonese?

  21. David said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    There is a widely-popular idea, especially in Taiwan, that it is better to learn traditional characters first, and then learn simplified. However, I first studied simplified characters in Beijing, and then later learned traditional in Taipei. I didn't find any hurdle; for the majority of characters, it was just a question of replacing a simplified radical with a more complex one that is easily inferred. However, there are some cases where the simplified and the traditional have nothing in common. Yet after several years of study, as in my case, these are easily picked up as exceptions, not as the rule. I would recommend a learner of Mandarin to choose whichever system is more practical for them and to go with that.

    This also reminds me of a funny conversation I had with an East Asian Studies professor at Indiana University. We were talking about studying Chinese writing, and I pointed out that at Leeds University (at least at the time) students learned Chinese with simplified characters. "That's ridiculous!" he barked. Well, maybe they are interested in more contemporary issues, I said. "But even if you are interested in 20th century history, half of the century's documents are written in traditional Chinese!" I had to carefully explain to the learned professor that the vast majority of second-language learners of ANY language, including English, are not philologists, historians, or anthropologists: the majority will work in business. He actually looked shocked when I said this. I am an academic, but I have to agree that the Ivory Tower stereotype is alive and well.

  22. Bob Violence said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    I don't think either of them are specifically Written Cantonese (which probably wouldn't be used for a sign like that anyway). The first one is in simplified characters and the second is traditional. The second line seems to more closely reflect Hong Kong usage ("時間表" for "schedule" is more common in HK than "時刻表"), but I don't see any particularly compelling reason to use two different translations.

  23. Bruce said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    Overseas Chinese, from wherever (the mainland, Taiwan, Malaysia) have shown a strong preference for traditional characters, at least in the past. Local Chinese language newspapers here in Vancouver generally use traditional characters.

    If you have to post a single sign that all can read, it's generally better to use traditional, since in many cases the simplified character is a component part of the traditional one. Signs for visitors within China sometimes use traditional characters, since a significant proportion of visitors are overseas Chinese.

  24. Qov said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    The English language labels are for the convenience of the person restocking the brochures.

  25. Jethro said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

    Also in Melbourne, my local public library has a touch screen kiosk for checking out books, and you can select from about 10 options for the language in which instructions are displayed. But the languages aren't labelled with names, instead the screen displays a set of national flags for you to press the appropriate one to select the desired language. The two Chinese language options are represented by the flags of the PRC and Taiwan.

    The system also has some other interesting flag choices – the English language option is represented by the UK flag, and the Arabic language option is represented by the flag of Saudi Arabia. It also has a pirate language option, represented by the jolly roger flag.

  26. Will said,

    January 31, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    The first line in Chinese is in simplified font (多语种时刻表). It doesn't read as specifically Cantonese or Mandarin to me, as they make sense in both dialects?
    The second line is traditional (多種語言時間表). The meaning is the same as the line above but is slightly wordier and the use of 時間表 for "timetable " tends to reflect more HK/TW usage. Again, I wouldn't say that its obviously Mand or Cant.

  27. Fluxor said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    It used to be about a decade or so ago that a simplified vs. traditional brochure would have the identical translation with just different character sets. Nowadays, one will often find that even the translations differ, with the simplified character translation being generally more wordy and vernacular than the traditional character translation. This reflects the general writing style differences between mainland China and Hong Kong/ Taiwan.

  28. army1987 said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    "The system also has some other interesting flag choices – the English language option is represented by the UK flag"
    What's so interesting about it? Wherever I can remember seeing languages represented by national flags, English was always represented by the Union Jack (or the Stars and Stripes for American English).

  29. army1987 said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    the vast majority of second-language learners of ANY language, including English, are not philologists, historians, or anthropologists: the majority will work in business
    "Any" sounds like too strong a word for me. I don't think many of the people who choose to study Irish (i.e. excluding Irish people themselves, who are forced to do so in school) do that just in case they had to deal with a customer from a gaeltacht.

  30. Elizabeth said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    As you can see, this is somewhat of hot topic in the Chinese speaking community. I do know that many speakers from Hong Kong are committed to Traditional Chinese despite becoming a part of Mainland China, I think partly because of the characters needed for Cantonese, but maybe with some political overtones as well.

    If Australia has a lot of immigrants from Hong Kong (and as a Commonwealth country, it's very probable), then Traditional Chinese makes sense.

    I do know Wikipedia often has both in entries about about Chinese/Asian culture. Yet there are separate sites for each script. Complicated and very interesting.

  31. stormboy said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 7:27 am

    I think there's also an aesthetic element to it. HK Chinese frequently say that they find traditional characters more attractive.

  32. Bob Violence said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    I do know Wikipedia often has both in entries about about Chinese/Asian culture. Yet there are separate sites for each script.

    There were, but they've since unified them into a single site with automatic conversion between different scripts. It also accounts for other differences, like "歐巴馬" for "Obama" in Taiwan versus "奥巴马"/"奧巴馬" elsewhere. (Article-specific adjustments can also be made.) Of course they still have separate Wikipedias for non-Mandarin Chinese languages.

  33. Mark Mandel said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:07 pm

    A website of the PA Dept. of Public Welfare (http://www.enrollnow.net/PASelfService/home.html) says: "We can help in your language", with a list of five languages. The first is "Espanol [sic] (Spanish)", and the second is "Simple Chinese"; the characters are rendered as a graphic, but you can see them at the bottom right of the page.

    The Spanish link leads to a Spanish version of the page; all the others lead to a single page that seems to say, in each language, "Blah blah blah these services blah blah call this number" (same number for each language). At least that page says "Simplified Chinese", not "Simple Chinese". (Is that anything like Basic English?)

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