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How to Survive in China Without Knowing How to Speak Chinese

I write about travel, my experiences in China, psychology, culture, recipes, and other random subjects.

A picture of me somewhere in Wuhan.

A picture of me somewhere in Wuhan.

How to Survive in China Without Being Able to Speak Chinese

I know what you're going to say. Wesley, if you're going to live in China, you should learn Chinese. Yes, of course. I do agree with you on this. Anyone living in China for any length of time should make the attempt to at least learn the language. This is the same thing people often say about foreigners living in America. It is a logical and practical view of things. A person should make an effort to learn the language of the country they're living in.

Start Learning Chinese Before You Go

The ideal situation would actually be to begin learning Mandarin Chinese a few months at least before you get on the plane to go to China. This is the most practical course of action. But what if you can't plan that far ahead?

I myself had every intention of going to other parts of the world. I didn't know that I was coming to China until about two weeks before I left America. During those two weeks, I was a very busy person between giving notice at my job, taking care of my visa and dealing with some family matters. I didn't have time to begin studying the language. I didn't even have time to think that it was a good idea.

Learning a Language Isn't Quick and Easy

Also, for some of us, the learning comes slow. It isn't exactly easy to learn a second language, no matter how many promises you hear from language-acquisition companies.

While the idea of immersion in a given language is supposed to increase learning speed the reality is that you still have to be proactive. Learning any language takes time, hard work and a bit of dedication.

So How Do You Live in China Without Learning Chinese?

This is a simple question that I often hear from my students here in China as well as from people back home. If you don't know how to speak Chinese, how do you manage to live in China?

The answer is that it isn't easy, but it can be done. In fact, it may well be easier than you think. This article is meant to answer that question. It is also meant to help in some way people who may find themselves in a country where they don't speak the language.

The following list of tips can help a person who doesn't speak Chinese or much Chinese survive more easily.

8 Tips for Living in China Without Knowing Chinese

1. Make friends with other foreigners who speak Chinese.

There are many foreigners living in China who are studying Chinese or working as an English teacher. If they've been in China for a while odds are they can speak a bit of Chinese. Depending on why you are in China it should be fairly easy to meet them. Many of the foreigners you meet will offer you help if you need it.

Foreigners living in China will often also have suggestions about how to study Chinese and what works best for them.

2. Make friends with Chinese people who speak some English.

This will be easy. Chinese people who are learning English will often try to meet you. They'll approach you on the bus, in shops, at work or school. After you've been in China for a while it may even seem annoying how often some people will approach you trying to practice their English.

If you are teaching or studying in China, you may often be invited out by co-workers or students. Accept a few invitations and be friendly. The Chinese friends you make will often offer to help you in situations where you need someone to interpret.

3. Buy a cellphone.

It doesn't need to be an expensive phone. A cheap 230 RMB phone might be the best investment you make in China. With a cheap cell phone, you can save text messages that you can use later.

Have one of your Chinese friends send you a text with your address in both Chinese characters and in English. The English should be at the bottom. This will allow you to quickly identify the correct message you need.

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If you are trying to get home by taxi and the driver doesn't understand you or if you don't remember the address, you can show him the saved text message. While a cheap phone is all you need, a smartphone can make things even simpler.

4. Carry a small phrasebook.

Mandarin-English phrasebooks can be invaluable. These will usually have expressions written in English, Chinese pinyin and Characters. You should always attempt to say what you want in Chinese first using the pinyin as a guide. If people don't understand you can point to the characters for the word.

5. Pay attention to body language.

I have often gotten directions from people without being able to understand the words that they were speaking. If you show someone an address and know how to ask where the place is, then stand back and watch what they do with there hands you will find that you can infer much of the information from the gestures they use while telling you the location.

6. Use empty packages.

An empty box can speak for you. If you've run out of something, you can carry the empty package to the store. This is especially good for medicines. Showing a person at a store or pharmacy an empty box is usually a lot quicker and easier than struggling with them not understanding what you're asking for. You'll also be certain that you've gotten the right thing.

7. Stay patient.

Finding yourself in a new country where you are suddenly both illiterate and unable to speak or understand people who are speaking to you can at times be frustrating. It can also present you with a few challenges you may never have previously imagined.

In many cases, you will still be able to communicate with the people around you, but doing so may take a bit more time than normal.

8. Try to learn the language.

Learn as much as you can. Just because you don't know Chinese doesn't mean that you can't learn it. And while learning may be slow, picking up a few choice phrases will carry you a long way.

Listen to what people say to you in public. Ask your friends how to say things. Learn the names of your favorite Chinese dishes. Pick up a learning program like Berlitz, Pimsluer or ChinesePod. Each little phrase you learn will exponentially open up your ability to communicate with the people around you.

These eight things make living in China without knowing Chinese much easier. The downside to this is that most of these may also make it easier not to learn Chinese. For people who are genuinely interested in learning Chinese, I would make the following suggestions.

5 Tips for Learning Chinese in China

1. Don't rely too heavily on your friends.

I've done it and I've seen others do it. A group of friends will sit down at a table in a restaurant and after deciding what they want everyone looks at the persons whose Chinese is the best. It is usually someone who has been in the country for a few years. This same person is almost always the one who orders. By relying on this friend to do all the ordering no one else needs to learn anything.

2. Study a little every day.

I've taken Chinese classes that were two hours long twice a week at a language center. The classes were free and I'm not willing to pass up anything free. We covered a lot of material in a short amount of time. I filled a notebook full of useful Chinese phrases with English explanations. Do I remember any of it? Not really.

More recently I've begun listening to 30-minute lessons on my MP3 player. I listen to the same lesson several times a day while walking to work, sitting on the bus, or in between classes. I also listen to the same lesson several days in a row. I've covered very little material but I remember most of it and have started using some of it in my daily life.

3. Use what you learn.

If you learn an expression in Chinese, then use that expression with your Chinese friends. It will make them happy to hear it and it will help you to remember it. Often they will try to help you with your pronunciation or try to teach you something else.

4. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

If you can express an idea or a question this is good. Don't get hung up on trying to find the right word or having the perfect pronunciation. If people can understand your meaning that is good enough.

5. Don't get frustrated if every Chinese person doesn't understand your Chinese.

They often don't understand each other. While traveling together some of my Chinese friends have told me that they couldn't understand the local people in some areas. That may sound strange but this is usually because of differences in dialect.

You might say something perfectly and the person you are speaking to may still not understand. Don't let this bother you. Context often helps in these situations. Try repeating the same thing while focusing more on the tones of the word. Most of the time when someone doesn't understand me it is because I have the wrong tones. They may eventually understand or another Chinese person may understand and help you out. Just be patient and keep trying.

© 2012 Wesley Meacham

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