From a linguistic standpoint, few languages seem as forbidding and impenetrable as Chinese. Written using thousands of ancient pictograms and featuring a tone system that renders the words for “mother” and “horse” dangerously close to one another, the prospect of learning Chinese seems daunting to say the least. Add in the fact that Chinese shares no common linguistic ancestor with any European language and it’s enough to make you wonder why you didn’t decide to do an exchange in Mexico instead.
But as challenging as the language may seem, it’s still more than possible for native English speakers to get around and communicate effectively in China. Here’s some useful tips on how to do just that.
Prior to departing, there are a few things that you can do to minimize the challenge presented by the language barrier. Downloading a Chinese-English dictionary on your phone gives you a simple but effective way to express simple concepts and ideas when all else fails. For example, Pleco is an excellent free app that allows you to translate words and short phrases from English to Chinese and vice versa. It also has a writing function which enables the user to write down a character using their finger and to find out what it means. This last function is not only useful, but also a fun way to learn to read some basic Chinese characters. For an additional $10, Pleco offers an optical character recognizer, which allows users to simply point their phone camera at a line of text and have it instantly translated on their screen. Other translation apps can be useful too, but bear in mind that, like other Google services, Google Translate cannot be accessed in China without a VPN.
Another way to prepare to confront the language barrier is (drum roll please) actually trying to learn some Chinese. While you probably won’t be reading the Confucian classics in their original prose after a week of study, learning a few simple phrases is well within your grasp. In addition to enabling you to ask basic questions and maybe introduce yourself, making a little effort at speaking the language will win you big points with local people. Unlike in some other countries (I’m lookin’ at you, France), Chinese people are usually very enthusiastic and encouraging towards anyone making an honest attempt to speak their language. Even if you can’t carry on an extensive conversation, having a few choice phrases under your belt is a good way to make friends.
While there are literally hundreds of Chinese language training resources online, edX offers a free and very useful basic Chinese course which students can study at their leisure.
For a list of basic Chinese phrases and a recommended video for learning the fundamentals of Chinese pronunciation and tones, see the “Cultural Tips” section of our Travel Guide.
Even for those with no background in Chinese, getting from point A to B in China is still remarkably simple. Street signs and points of interest will almost always have English language signage, so even if you don’t know that 方家胡同 means “The Alleyway of the Fang Family”, you can still just look for the street sign that shows “Fangjia Hutong” in Roman letters and find your destination relatively easily. Likewise, subway stops are written in both Chinese and English and (in most major cities) have a bilingual announcement system.
Taxi cabs can be slightly trickier since the vast majority of cabbies do not speak English. However, with a little bit of forethought, this shouldn’t be a problem. Before you set off, have a friend or hotel receptionist write down your intended address in Chinese (better yet if they can also mark it down on a map!) for you to show to the cab driver. Failing that, you can have a Chinese-speaking friend simply tell the driver over the phone where you want to go. A lifetime in big city traffic has made most Chinese cabbies remarkably patient, so they’re unlikely to yell at you for not being fluent in Mandarin.
China’s overall English level has increased noticeably in recent years. While older people may speak absolutely no English whatsoever, almost all younger people have taken mandatory English classes in high school. This is not to say that everyone you meet will be completely fluent, but most people under 40 speak at least a little English. If you find yourself needing to convey a thought or need, using simple words with a healthy dose of improvised sign-language may well get your point across.
Major tourist attractions all have signs written in English (and possibly other foreign languages as well) which means you’ll be usually be able to understand what you’re looking at while sightseeing. Likewise, most mid-range and above restaurants in China have picture menus which takes much of the guesswork out of ordering. As with directing cab drivers, it might be a good idea to get Chinese speaking friends to write out some key phrases that you anticipate using so you can simply point to them in your hour of need.
In short, Chinese is indeed a tough linguistic nut to crack, but don’t let that scare you off. With a little advanced preparation and planning, you should have no problem making yourself understood in China. Most people you will meet will be patient, friendly, and willing to help you out if you find yourself in jam. Just do your best, maintain a healthy sense of humor about your mistakes, and everything will turn out fine.