Which language do you speak in China?

Several people have asked me during the past few days whether I speak to people in Chinese (Mandarin) or English while here in Beijing. So, I’ve complied some observations and experiences about communication between Westerners (me) and Chinese people.

Most young people in Beijing have a basic foundation in English. In fact, a Chinese friend has told me it is a undergraduate requirement to pass an English test with a certain mark in order to graduate. English is the second language in elementary and middle schools and, for the most part, is viewed as one of the more important subjects. If I speak to students on campus (first in Mandarin) and then begin to struggle to say something or don’t understand a question, often they will switch to English and will be happy to help me learn the Chinese word or phrase I did not know.

It is common for students to want to practice their English with you. Sometimes when going out with Chinese friends, they will talk to me exclusively in English even though the words and subject matters are those I have learned and practiced in class. If you’re trying to practice your own second language skills, sometimes this can be a frustrating situation to balance.

When talking with shopkeepers, waiters and taxis drivers, I use only Chinese. For this reason, I often visit coffee shops and purchase inexpensive drinks so I can practice Chinese with them. Taxi drivers are the best Chinese teachers. Most like to ask who you are and where you’re going. Many drivers have strong regional accents, as opposed to my teachers, so when I am able to understand and chat with them it feels like a small success.

If you don’t know how to say something to a shopkeeper or pedestrian, and you are talking with an older person, sometimes they will grab a nearby young person and tell them to translate.

For example, I was at a Kodak shop and wanted to know if they had a list of prices printed on paper to take home and there was confusion as I tried to ask the women behind the counter. The manager came out and asked a young guy browsing picture frames to come figure out what I wanted. I continued to try and describe what I wanted in Chinese with my dictionary and was still unsuccessful to the point that the young man blurted out “Can’t you speak English?!” I explained I wanted to try my best to practice Chinese. It turned out the shop did not have such a list, which is probably one reason they didn’t understand what I wanted. The manager kindly wrote out all the prices for me.

I have also observed that if you look Chinese, you will be expected to speak Chinese. Even if you don’t look Chinese, but have an Asian appearance, if you are the Asian looking person in the group, Chinese people will look to you to communicate. This can be frustrating for American born or raised Chinese and other Asian people who speak limited Mandarin. It can also be frustrating for the non-Asian looking people in the group who are capable of communicating in Chinese, but are assumed to not know it.

I think if you do not know Chinese, you will still be able to get around and communicate with people in Beijing. However, I would encourage you to use as much Chinese as you can whenever you can. In my experience so far, using even the simplest of Chinese will earn smiles and appreciation from the Chinese I talk to and they will often comment “You’re Chinese is not bad!” Although at my basic level, I’m not sure if this means that they are just being amiable or if they have low expectations for Westerners speaking Chinese! Regardless, I will continue to try my best. For all of you second or third language learners out there, I say Jia You! It is a Chinese phrase used in a similar context to American phrases like “Hang in there!” or “Keep on Keepin on,” or “Go! Go! Go!”

Look out for my next post about this weekend’s trip to Tianjin!