Communicating in China is often a challenge for first-time visitors who are traveling independently without an English-speaking guide.
Unless your Mandarin is up to par — and even then it won't be understood by everyone — the language barrier in China can be...well...maddening. Even charades fail travelers in China. Motion with your hands for chopsticks and your waiter may bring you a pencil. But with a little patience, hacking through the cultural differences can be fun, adventurous, and rewarding!
Really, English-speaking travelers are blessed as they travel throughout the world. English, of varying quality, is prevalent in tourist destinations. China, especially rural areas, is often an exception. While traveling independently, you may inevitably find yourself in places with little or no English available.
The Language Barrier in China
Don’t worry, language barriers are certainly not a good enough reason to dread a place. Difficulty communicating didn't even make the list of 10 things travelers hate in Asia. You can usually charade your way through simple communications by pointing or acting out what you need. Just in case your best attempts fail, you need a backup plan for getting your point across.
Although not being easily understood can be frustrating, the staff in tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants will usually speak just enough English. As you travel farther afield, the language difference becomes more frustrating.
Even those words you diligently learned in Mandarin may not work.
A Point It book can come in very useful on extended trips to China. The small book contains thousands of categorized thumbnails for items, food, emergencies, and other essentials that you can simply point to when trying to communicate.
The Point It smartphone app (purchase required) is another option.
Tip: Some improvising travelers in China have learned to leverage their smartphones for easier communication. A signal or Wi-Fi may not always be available, however, you can take photos of items that you use frequently on your trip (e.g., your hotel room, a table setting, etc). Bringing up the photo and pointing to what you need can be a great visual queue for staff who want to help you.
Ordering Food in China
You can get around the language barrier in authentic restaurants by pointing (use your chin or full hand to be polite, not just a finger) to dishes that other customers are eating. Pay attention as you're coming inside to see if anything looks appealing.
Some establishments may even invite you back into the kitchen to choose what you want prepared! If you still want to eat there after a glimpse behind the scenes, point out some ingredients that look fresh. Staff will sometimes disappear to grab an employee who speaks a little English to help you order.
Many eateries in China have Chinese and English versions of their menu.
You can guess which one is more expensive. Ordering from the English version also reduces your chances of enjoying authentic Chinese food.
Large bus and train stations will usually have a ticketing window for foreigners staffed by someone who speaks at least limited English. Read more about getting around in Asia for making smart transportation choices.
Taking Taxis in China
Most travelers encounter their first difficulty communicating in China after taking a taxi from the hotel. Taxi drivers usually speak very limited English, if any at all.
Obviously, you don’t want to accidentally be taken to the train station when you have a flight to catch — it happens! On your way out of the hotel:
- Grab the hotel card so that you can show drivers the address in Chinese when you're ready to return.
- Ask the reception desk to write destinations, food, or other useful terms in Chinese. This is also a good opportunity to get recommendations for restaurants and such.
When using a taxi in China, ensure many times that the driver understands your destination. They may say so at first to save face and keep a customer but later drive you around in circles looking for an address.
Saying Hello While in China
Knowing how to say hello in Chinese is a great way to break the ice with locals and get to know a place better. You’ll often get a smile and a friendly response, even if that is the extent of your interaction in Chinese.
In China, you won’t have to learn how to bow as in Japan or wai as in Thailand. Instead, Chinese people may opt to shake hands with you, albeit a much looser handshake than what is expected in the West.
Tips for Beating the Language Barrier in China
- Speaking Louder Doesn’t Help: You’ll inevitably encounter uninformed tourists speaking loudly to locals, assuming that adding volume and speaking slower will help them to understand better. As you can imagine, this simply isn’t the case. Would you be able to understand Mandarin if it was given to you louder and slower? If someone doesn’t understand you, simply repeating the same words won’t help. Don't make yourself look like a rude tourist.
- Getting It Right: Unfortunately, your reward for nailing a tone-perfect hello or expression in Mandarin will inevitably be a friendly stream of more Mandarin directed your way. Just by attempting to speak the language, strangers will sometimes give you way too much credit and begin speaking to you conversationally!
- Mandarin Works Best in Beijing: Whatever you learn in Mandarin will be infinitely more useful while near Beijing. The farther you travel from the capital city, the less luck you’ll have finding Chinese people who can understand your messy attempts to get the tones right.
- Alphabets Aren't the Same: Pointing to a card, map, or guidebook with a phonetic alphabet isn’t going to help others to understand you, just as you can’t read Chinese characters. You can always ask an English-speaking friend or the reception desk to write Chinese characters for you to show to drivers.
- Know a Few Phrases: Arriving in China armed with these useful phrases in Mandarin may save you lots of stress.
Speaking Mandarin While in China
Nothing can be more frustrating than trying to learn a tonal language. To untrained ears, you’re saying the word correctly, however, no one seems to understand. Add to this the fact that most words in the Chinese language are very short and deceivingly simple, often only three letters long!
Knowing a few words in Mandarin will certainly enhance your travel experience, however, don’t expect everyone to understand your initial attempts. Chinese people who are accustomed to dealing with tourists may be able to understand your mispronounced tones, but people on the street may not.
There is always the chance that the person with whom you are speaking may not even understand much Mandarin. Chinese people from different provinces sometimes have trouble communicating with each other. Standard Chinese, aka Mandarin, only relatively recently became the national language throughout Mainland China. Young people may understand Mandarin better because they were taught in school, however, you may have less success when speaking with older Chinese people. Cantonese — very different from Mandarin — is still taught and spoken in Hong Kong and Macau.
Chinese people will often draw the correlating symbol in the air or on their palm while trying to communicate. While this helps people from different regions communicate with each other, it won't help you very much.
Numbers Are Important
You’ll obviously use numbers frequently in everyday interactions while in China. Prices will be quoted to you in Chinese. Miscommunication during negotiations — yes, you’ll need to negotiate when buying souvenirs — can have dire consequences.
To prevent arguments and embarrassment when negotiating prices, the Chinese use a finger-counting system to express numbers, similar but slightly different than our own. Learning the numbers in Chinese will be a big help when haggling. Being able to recognize the hand symbols for each number may come in handy in noisy, frenetic markets.
Some proprietors who can read Arabic numerals may have calculators available at the checkout counter. If so, you simply pass the calculator back and forth with counteroffers until an agreeable price is reached.
Tip: You can take budget travel to the next level by learning the Chinese symbols for each number. Not only will learning Chinese numbers — it's easier than you think — help you to read tickets (i.e., seat numbers, car numbers, etc), you'll be able to understand the Chinese prices on signs and price tags that are lower than the English version.
What Exactly Is a Laowai?
Undoubtedly a word that you’ll hear often while in China, foreigners are referred to as laowai (old outsider). Although strangers may even point while calling you a laowai to your face, the term is rarely meant to be rude or derogatory. The Chinese government has been trying to quell the use of the word laowai in media and daily use for years without much luck.