Being a foreigner in China was one of the most difficult to manoeuvre in my travels thus far. The Chinese communication barrier is by far one of the most daunting to overcome, as a lot of people in this country fail to speak English.
“Fail” is definitely the wrong term to use though, as no one on this planet should be expected to speak any other language for the benefit of tourists. As I hope you’ll agree, it’s up to us to learn how to communicate in any country that we visit around the world.
To help you tackle the difficulty of Chinese communication in this big, bustling country, here are a few tips and basic Chinese phrases to help you on your journey!
Download the Google Translate App
The best travel app I’ve ever downloaded!
This app is the thing that will seriously save your butt… The Google Translate App allows you to download languages when on wifi, and will automatically translate between two when looking at any text through the camera on the app.
For example: If you’re looking at a Chinese menu that is entirely written in Chinese symbols, when you look at the same menu through the camera on your phone on the translate app, the menu will appear in English (or the language of your choice). It really is so handy when in countries with a language so unlike your own, and it is especially useful whilst being a foreigner in China!
The app will also translate any text you write into the text box, into your desired language – Chinese symbols included. So if you want to ask something but don’t know how, you can write in your message and show the person instead.
It’s not always 100% accurate… But you’ll definitely get the jist!
Ask Hotel Reception to write down phrases for you
Although finding English speaking locals is quite difficult, there will always be at least one member of staff in large hotels that will speak basic English. It’s also important to take note that even in major tourist locations, English is very rarely spoken.
So when you do come across a local that can speak English, ask them kindly to write down your most needed phrases in Chinese symbols – Such as dietary requirements, desired destinations and other useful terms etc.
This will make things a lot easier for you, especially if you’re vegetarian or have any other meal requirements. Trying to explain what you can and can’t eat was by far one of the most difficult things for me!
Grab a Hotel Card to show Taxi drivers
Most of the hotels that I stayed at during my trip in China had very handy cards to help foreign visitors if they ever get lost.
They had the hotel address in Chinese symbols, as well as a few sentences to ask locals to direct tourists back to their hotel. Even if they don’t have that much detail, at the very least all the hotel cards will have the address in the correct language. Your room key is a good place to look for this information too!
This ensures that when you get into a cab, you can easily negotiate your drop off point by simply showing them the card.
If you’re really confused, try to ask one of the younger locals
As with most cultures, the younger generations have grown up with more diversity. During my trip, the language barrier was often solved by a younger local being kind enough to help some very confused tourists! For the most part, they were more than happy to help translate the message into Mandarin.
If you’re ever really in doubt, I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone around you that can speak a little English!
Learn a few basic Chinese phrases (Mandarin)
Along with simply trying to tackle the Chinese communication barrier, learning a few words in the local language is also very respectful. The locals will really appreciate your effort, and more often than not, your sloppy pronunciation will really make them smile!
It’s a win-win really!
Hello – Nǐ hǎo (nee-how)
Please – Qǐng (t-ying)
Thank you – Xiè xiè (she-she)
Sorry – Bàoqiàn (bao-tian)
Goodbye – Zàijiàn (sai-tian)
Yes – Shì (she)
No – Méiyǒu (may-yo)
Toilet – Cèsuǒ (seh-sore)
Vegetarian – Sù (soo)
Do you speak English? – Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma? (nee-hoi-shoh-ying-you-mah)
I don’t understand – Wǒ bù míngbái (woh-poo-ming-bye)
I don’t speak Mandarin – Wǒ bù huì shuō pǔtōnghuà (woh-boo-hoi-shoh-pu-tung-hua)
I love you – Wǒ ài nǐ (wall-eye-knee)… I know it’s totally not necessary, but it’s the easiest to remember.
Please let me know if you have any other tips to add to this list – Travelling in China can be pretty difficult, but being prepared is by far the best way to tackle it.
I’d also love to know if you have any funny communication stories due to being a foreigner in China. The language barrier can often create some hilarious memories!
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