Language Barrier in China

Probably the greatest adjustment required of living in China is coping with the language barrier—and it is so formidable, pervasive and ubiquitous, that it is almost unimaginable prior to arriving in China.

Despite the fact that China has more English language learners than any other country in the world, the truth is—especially outside the three major international cities—the English speaking abilities of the Chinese, in general, are abysmal to non-existent.

The reality is, the vast majority of Chinese students acquire just enough language skills to pass their English language certification exams and to win a better job but, after graduating from college and securing that first job, will seldom, if ever, use one word of spoken English again for the rest of their lives. There is no English language speaking environment outside the foreign English teachers’ classrooms and, more to the point, the Chinese Communist Regime has strictly forbidden the use of the English language on national television.

A few Chinese English language learners will land positions that require the use of English on a regular or even daily basis such as tour guides (in major cities), translators and Chinese English teachers, but probably 90 to 95 percent will never utter or use another word of spoken English again after graduating from college (although those who work for international companies will need to use their reading and, possibly, writing skills on occasion). Consequently—and this is particularly true in regions and cities where foreigners are scarce—virtually everyone you encounter will not be able to communicate with you in English.

The dire consequences of this reality warrant some discussion and consideration. What this means is that until you acquire some minimal language survival skills (usually three to six months), you will not be able to do anything that you took for granted back home without being accompanied by an interpreter. You will not be able to go to a restaurant, order water for your apartment, shop in any store (other than a grocery, perhaps), go to the bank, change money, visit a doctor, get eyeglasses, or take a taxi, etc., without first imposing on someone else with Chinese communication skills to accompany you.

No matter what you need to take care of initially (such as purchasing a cell phone, or acquiring furnishings for your apartment, etc.), you will first have to make prior arrangements to be accompanied by someone who can speak for you. You will only be able to eat in restaurants that offer menus with photos of all their main entrees (and most don’t, including many 4-star hotels), or you will have to ask a Chinese friend to write down the names of all the dishes you like (and, then, you won’t be able to try anything new unless accompanied by a Chinese). The overall initial experience can be quite daunting and frustrating beyond belief, even humiliating. In a manner of speaking, you will feel very much like a dependent child who can’t do anything on his or her own. You absolutely and positively need to be mentally prepared for this initial adjustment period prior to arriving in China.

Learn Some Chinese Before You Arrive

Hence, it is highly recommended you attempt to acquire some “survival” Chinese language skills before you arrive here (especially if you will not be living in one of the three aforementioned international cities). By survival Chinese language skills, we are talking about acquiring 1) an understanding of how the four different tones in Chinese are produced and, 2) enough of a vocabulary and understanding of grammar to, for example, communicate basic needs, place an order in a restaurant, or give a destination and simple directions to a taxi driver. Acquiring this minimal level of Chinese, preferably before you arrive, will make your adjustment to China indescribably easier and gentler. The truth of the matter is, the Chinese are so appreciative whenever foreigners attempt to speak their language that just a few words can go a very long way.

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