Teaching English in China is a popular decision for many, including ambitious globally-minded recent graduates, budding linguists, and those who just love to travel. Chinese people place a premium on English language skills, and teaching jobs can be hugely rewarding.
One question that many would-be teachers carefully consider is: “How many people in China speak English?”
Great question. Let’s take a look.
English in China – The Basics
For nearly 20 years, English has been a compulsory part of the Chinese educational system. Starting in primary school, students begin their formal English training, and this continues throughout their school years.
Most Chinese people look favorably upon the English language, partially because western culture (especially from Hollywood) is quite popular with younger Chinese people.
You might be shocked to discover that there are more Chinese people who speak English, than all other English speakers combined!
But before you hang up your hat and decide that you’ll be just fine teaching English in China without knowing any Chinese, let’s unpack this a little further.
Just because the Chinese people have English classes, doesn’t mean the average Chinese person can speak English with much proficiency. This should be obvious to anyone who has studied Spanish or French during their school years, but can’t hold much of a conversation in these target languages today, often due to lack of opportunities to use it!
It’s the same with Chinese people and English. Most Chinese, especially those under 30 years old, have had a lot of English training — but very little practice.
English in first-tier Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen)
95% of non-Chinese “foreigners” who live in China reside in the first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. “First tier” is a designation China gives these cities, primarily indicating higher population size and higher wealth (when compared to other Chinese cities).
Consequently, the Chinese people who live in these cities have much more experience interacting with foreigners and speaking in English.
This also means that entire areas have popped up that cater to these expatriates, including western-style restaurants, bars, cinemas, and night-life — all in English.
Living in a first-tier city thus allows the foreign teacher to teach English in China without knowing any Chinese. But the downside (or upside?) is that it’s possible to live in an expat bubble, constantly interacting in English, and almost entirely avoiding Chinese culture and language.
The opportunity to “step outside” that bubble and experience a little Chinese culture certainly exists, and the further outside you step, the less English you’ll find.
English in other cities
Teaching English in China’s second and third-tier cities is much more difficult if you don’t speak any Chinese.
Once you step outside of the first-tier cities, the English competency of the average Chinese person plummets. It goes without saying that this isn’t because Chinese people in non-first-tier cities are any less intelligent or educated, but simply that they have considerably less opportunity to practice their English after school and to interact with foreigners.
Of course, all schools will have some Chinese staff and Teaching Assistants who are bilingual. In tourist areas there will be restaurants, shops, tour guides and hotels with English-speaking staff. However, you’ll likely struggle to communicate in English in a taxi, local restaurant or with a street-food vendor. Therefore, if you are planning on moving to a 2nd or 3rd tier city to teach English in China, it is highly recommended to learn a little Chinese first.
A little Chinese goes a long way
Becoming an English teacher in China is a big and exciting decision, but depending on which city and district you choose to live in, it can be either a just slightly unfamiliar experience, or one that rips you straight out of your comfort zone.
Either way, if you are willing to spend a little time learning some basic Chinese, it will go a long way, no matter which city you plan to live in. And although learning Chinese as an English speaker can be daunting, modern apps like Hack Chinese make it so much easier these days, so there aren’t many reasons to stay completely ignorant of the Chinese language when landing in China to teach English.
The first level of China’s language proficiency exam, the HSK, has only 150 of the most common words. Along with some basic Chinese instruction, learning these words with Hack Chinese will take only a week or so, and will greatly help you avoid feeling lost. HSK proficiency is a great addition to any CV/resume, and is a language proficiency exam recognised worldwide.
Chinese people are incredibly warm, welcoming and helpful, and will appreciate your attempts to engage in Mandarin – even if you butcher it to start with! Fully integrating in to the culture by interacting with colleagues at your school and friendly locals who share the same interests as you can lead to friendships for life. Incredible memories come from sharing dinner with a family, learning to cook delicious delicacies, travelling to a friend’s hometown, and experiencing the epic Chinese New Year celebrations with friendly local faces. You’ll find your experience living and teaching in China is hugely enriched through learning the language – and will give you a fantastic skill to stand out from the crowd, valuable to future employers worldwide.
Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese
Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.