Is it absolutely necessary to know Chinese when living in China?

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Exchange students from Finland, Japan and Indonesia with a Chinese writer

- common language Mandarin Chinese

There are many kinds of foreigners coming to China: students, English teachers, travelers, business men, expats of international companies and their families. I’m sure everyone agrees that it is beneficial to know Mandarin Chinese when you live in China, but is it absolutely necessary?

Thank you Jennie for the blog post idea!

 It’s possible to live in China without knowing Chinese

Lots of expats live here without knowing the language, it’s absolutely doable but it has a big effect on your life. You will most likely eat in Western restaurants where the staff speaks English and rely on photos when you visit a Chinese restaurants. Haggling the prices on markets isn’t that easy because the language barrier and you can’t hear what prices the other customers get.

You will need a Chinese friend to help you with many things like renting an apartment, going to the post office and communicating with your cleaning ayi if you happen to have one.

But you will miss out a lot

You can have a perfectly happy life in China if you stay in the expat bubble, but is that really what you want to do? Why to move to a new country if you don’t explore the culture and meet some locals?

Even learning simple phrases like 你好(ni hao, hello),谢谢(xiexie, thank you) and 对不起 (duibuqi, sorry) the Chinese people will see you in a completely different light. They are always happy to hear us foreigners speaking Chinese and will do their best to cheer us up by complementing our language skills even after your very first ni hao.

By learning some Chinese you will show your respect to the culture and the people. Show them that you are willing to learn new things in order to communicate with them. It makes me very happy every time I hear a foreigner speaking Finnish, which is also regarded as a difficult language.

No excuses, learn the basics!

We all have our excuses not to do something, I can very well relate to that. But I’m sure we all can find at least 5 minutes every day to learn the basics, right?

You can start by:

Have any questions about learning Chinese? Ask away in the comments!

  • R Zhao

    I agree. I didn’t know much Chinese my first year in China and most the foreign teachers I know don’t get beyond the basics since there is really no place to study Chinese where I live.

    I think it’s really important to learn how to count and learn phrases related to shopping such as “How much is this?” “That’s too expensive” and “Make it cheaper.” It also helps to learn vocab and characters for food you like and learn some phrases for buying train and bus tickets if you plan to travel. Again, this stuff isn’t necessary, but makes life much easier!

    I’d also like to add, you can still make Chinese friends without knowing Chinese. You won’t be stuck in an expat bubble if you don’t want to be. There are lots of Chinese people, especially students and young adults, who can speak English and are happy to make foreign friends.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Great that you brought it up! Shopping and food related vocab is something that everyone should study early on. It’s not hard to learn the basic phrases and they will help you out a lot.

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  • thenakedlistener

    It’s kind of the same sad sorry with many of the expats here in Hong Kong. I literally know expats who have been in Hong Kong for something like 30, 40 or even 50 years and don’t even know ‘thank you’ in Cantonese. Sure, the expat can live in Hong Kong (or China or anywhere) without all possible knowledge of the local language, but life like that is kind of like in animated suspension.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I would imagine that it’s even easier in Hong Kong to not learn Cantonese, as it’s so easy to live with English only. But in Guangzhou if you only limit yourself to the English resrautants/friends/venues, you’re going to miss most of the city.

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  • kent

    Agree with you, but for me my I can’t read chinese but I can speak. I still choose food menu base on pictures or check out someone next table eating what. Is fun thou :D

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I understand that very well, Kent, the picture menus are great! Sure it limits your restaurant choises, but that’s how we all do it in the beginning.

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  • Nommoc

    Yes you can live in China w/o knowing Chinese.

    However I couldn’t imagine doing so.

    Avoid living life in a “English” bubble.

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