Published on:
June 5, 2018

by: Guest

Teacher Guest Post: Help! I don’t speak Chinese!

This week Opportunity China’s Shenzhen Blogger, Zoe Brent, discusses the challenges that come with living and working in a country with such a diverse and challenging language(s). Zoe shares her top tips on how maximise your language learning capacity whilst in China. 

I will put you under no illusion – Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to begin to learn, let alone practice while living out in China. I was fortunate enough to have a head start in learning Chinese before I came to China as I had already studied the language at university. I spent about three years in the classroom and I have to be honest, it did not prepare me well for life out in China in any way. I had excellent teachers and got good scores, but that means little out in China because of the sheer diversity of language out here. In Shenzhen alone, you can hear all kinds of local dialects or different languages entirely hello Cantonese!) all on the same metro train. In the classroom, I didn’t get nearly enough chance to practice as I would have liked but now I honestly don’t have a choice but to speak as much as I can, especially now the cashier at my local grocery store has heard me chatting to a friend in the store and now won’t tell me how much my weekly shop is in English!

On the topic of shopping, Laojie (Shenzhen) is one of the places where you will be hit at full speed by so many different types of Mandarin and Cantonese that it’s hard to know where to start. Dongmen Shopping Street is full of noise; store owners shouting cheap deals and then their competitors across the street yelling out even cheaper ones, it’s a good place to get started. Haggling is one of the easiest was to practice Chinese – you only need a few phrases 多少钱? (duō shao qián, how much is it?) and 太贵了!(tài guì le, too expensive!) to get you started – and hearing the language is the best way to start familiarising yourself with it.

When the language sounds totally different to what you were expecting, it can be hard to feel confident in your own ability to communicate with people. In some cases, although it’s less common in big cities, using English is not an option so if you speak any Chinese at all, now is the time not to be put off by slang or accent and just say something! Finding opportunities to practice somewhere can also be difficult, but the biggest piece of advice I can give is to seize the opportunities you get with both hands and have a go. Most locals will be stunned that you can say anything at all and therefore will be the most patient, kind and positive people you could ever meet. I have had so many wonderful conversations in tea stores with servers who as soon as they discovered I could speak a bit of Chinese wanted to chat about way more than if I wanted my tea hot or cold.

Most of the language advice aimed at new ESL teachers is for those who do not have any prior language experience (don’t worry, I have some tips for you too!) but for those of you who are not new to the weird and wonderful tones of Mandarin, prepare yourself for some entirely different challenges. Put simply, these are my four simple pieces of advice for anyone with a background in Chinese who is ready to road test their language skills.

1. Fake it ’till you make it

Your biggest issue in China will be the sheer diversity of language; in some cases, the language can be so localised that Chinese people from different parts of the same city may not be able to understand each other clearly so it’s even more impossible for a foreigner. In Shenzhen, there are so many different local dialects, which often pick up or drop Cantonese words, or you can often just hear Cantonese thanks to Hong Kong being only thirty minutes away by bus. It can be pretty daunting to hear a form of Chinese which is so alien to what you may have been exposed to in the classroom. This is especially true if you learned the ‘Beijing standard’ as I did and then found yourself in Southern China. All I can say is drop that ⼉ (èr) sound before someone laughs at you and try to mimic those around you the best you can. After a few days, you’ll start to figure out familiar words that are said differently so just listen carefully and try to copy. If you aren’t sure you’ve understood correctly, ask someone and they will probably be stunned enough with a foreigner speaking Chinese to help you out. Anyone who studied at a Confucius Institute will know what I’m talking about, but if you get really stuck just sing 对不起 (Sorry) by Transitions ( at the person until they figure out that any Chinese you know has gone out the window and just make a quick escape.

2. Make some friends

I really fell on my feet with the expat community out here in Shenzhen. There is a huge group of us out here and most expats will either be learning Chinese or already have a level of competence with the language that they can help you if you have questions which you really need to ask in English. Most of my friends have been studying Chinese for longer than me, or have just had more exposure to the language so it’s great to be able to ask them for advice when I get stuck. However, although hanging out with other foreigners is great, try not to fall into that trap where you live in a little expat bubble. That will absolutely not help your Mandarin skills get any better, so be confident and try to make friends with as many people as you can. It’s tough at first, but soon enough you can find people who are patient enough to listen to you spit out as many words as you can in your new language.

3. Grab every change to practice

With so much rich language input going on around you, it would be a real shame to let it go to waste. Take time to practice Mandarin in your spare time as well as out and about. I attend Chinese lessons every week to help me with elements of language, such as reading Chinese characters, along with a number of other teachers who work at the same company as me. Formal teaching is useful for catching mistakes – or as my 老师 (teacher) calls it ‘learning not proper Chinese’ – and clarifying anything which has more of a cultural meaning than simply what’s shown in a textbook. Another option is to attend local language exchanges. In Shenzhen, I am almost certain language exchanges take place almost every night in some cafe or bar around the city so it’s quite easy to find like minded people who want to learn as much as you.

4. In case of emergency

As Mandarin becomes an increasingly popular language to learn, there are a wealth of resources
out there online which you can use to dip in and out of language learning if you don’t have time
for any formal studies. I highly recommend ChineseSkill on iPhone for bite sized lessons while on
the metro or waiting for the bus. Another must have is Pleco, a pocket Mandarin Chinese
dictionary, for looking up that one unknown character on a menu in a restaurant. A final tip in case
of real emergency is to carry a copy of your address in both English, Pinyin and Chinese
characters around in your wallet. Miscommunications happen, but at least with this you won’t end
up thousands of miles from home after a night out after accidentally telling your DiDi driver you
live in the wrong district.

5. Don’t know any Chinese? That’s okay!

I can’t speak for what it’s like for newcomers to China who have no language ability, so I won’t
pretend to know what the uphill climb is like for you guys. I can, however, say with confidence that
many of my friends who landed on Chinese soil only being able to say 你好 (ní hao, hello) have not
struggled. In fact, most of them have jumped at the chance to learn Mandarin and are already
showing great progress after a few short months. Some have even enlisted us ‘more proficient’
Chinese speakers to help them prepare for national exams, so there is always the option for help
if you want to learn. If you are a really stuck, just download a translation app (I recommend
Microsoft Translate, it works out here without a VPN) and that will get you most of the way there.
However, I would recommend penning down at least a few phrases before you fly out here. It
really will make the first few weeks a lot easier on you.
Here is a list of essential daily phrases to get you started:

你好 ní hǎo hello
早上好 záo shāng hǎo good morning
再⻅见 zái jiàn goodbye (Although, it’s perfectly acceptable to just say ‘bye, bye’ so go with that!)
对不起 duìbùqī I’m sorry
多少钱?duō shao qiàn? How much is it?
洗手间在哪里?xīshoujiàn zài náli? Where is the toilet?
听不懂 tíng bù dong I don’t understand
我的中文不好 wǒ de zhōngwén bù hǎo My Chinese is bad

Zoe is part of the February 2018 Teach China Graduate Program. Learn more about the program and how to apply here.


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