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China | China Travel | China Culture | English in China | Language | Language Barrier

Questions & Answers: Do People Speak English in China?

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Does Chinglish count?

Just kidding…kind of.

I get asked this question quite a bit from people who are curious about China and thinking of coming over to travel or work.  The first thing that comes out of my mouth is always a resounding, NO. But, as always, the truth is more complicated than that.

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It’s a Big City Thing

First off, my answer is biased by the fact that we live in a small city. It’s not a tourist destination, and, although it is filled with quite a few expats, besides that the rest of the population consists of locals and other Chinese Nationals who have moved here for work.  This means that, although these days all the Chinese kids learn English in school, there’s really no incentive here for them to use it. As I’m sure a lot of you know, when you don’t actually speak a language, you lose it faster than a grain of rice through your chopsticks, not to mention when you’re too embarrassed to ever speak it in the first place.

My friends who have lived in some of China’s big megacities (aka Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc.) have voiced that they could get by just fine with English. It was only when they moved to Zhuhai that they really felt the need to learn Chinese.

Crowds gathered at the Lantern Festival Parade in Zhuhai.

The Chinese Actually DO Study English in School

The other major reason why I’m compelled to say that they don’t speak English in China is that for the amount of time they spend studying English, their understanding and speaking ability is horrible. In China, every child that attends school, from the big cities to the small towns, studies the English language for a MINIMUM of 8 years in school. In the bigger, more international cities, such as Shanghai, for example, English courses start as young as 5 years old. For how many years the Chinese study English in school, it’s a bit shocking how little of the population can actually speak or understand the language.

Of, course, there are a lot of compelling reasons for this, such as the fact that in smaller cities and more rural areas the people have no opportunity to ever use or practice the language. Sounds similar to those of us who grew up learning a foreign language in the US don’t you think? When the only people you’re exposed to are those that speak your native tongue, where’s the incentive to speak and retain another language?

It also really doesn’t help that, most of the time, the kids are getting taught how to speak English from Chinese teachers whose pronunciation and general grasp of the English language is often not the greatest.

There is a huge demand for native English speakers to come teach English in China. Generally, all you need is the privilege of growing up in a native English speaking country, a bachelors degree in ANY subject, and a TEFL (certificate of Teaching English as a Foreign Language). If you’re interested in teaching English in China, check out the website Chalkboards and Chopsticks, run by Richelle, a fellow China expat who’s lived in China for 5 years while teaching English and helping Chinese students apply to colleges abroad. Chalkboards and Chopsticks makes use of Richelle’s vast personal experience to help others get teaching jobs in China!

Photo by Travel Freak.

Teaching to the Test

Their curriculum doesn’t do them any favors either. While, yes, the kids in China are required to study English for most of their school years, most of the weight is placed on reading and writing, with little to no emphasis on speaking and listening. The reason for this? The education system in China is almost completely based on tests. With a student population of well over 200 million people, I’m obliged to think that it’s simply faster and easier to just hand out a paper test to everyone at once than to sit each individual student down and grade their speaking ability (as I had done in Spanish class in the US).

Another major factor why the schools only emphasize reading and writing when it comes to learning the English language is that those are the only two components tested in the Gaokao, China’s version of the SAT (the test all high school students have to take in order to get accepted into university). The Gaokao is the end all be all of secondary school education in China, and with a third of the test focused on English reading and writing, why bother spending extraneous hours of precious study time on something that won’t help get Chinese students into college?

Reversing the study trend. A foreigner studying Chinese!

They Can’t Get Out

Another limiting factor to the Chinese people’s ability (or lack of) to speak English is that it’s pretty hard for the majority of the population to ever leave China. For the Chinese to travel internationally they often need to get an expensive visa that comes with all sorts of annoying paperwork or go with a tour group, which is also expensive (as I’m sure those of you who have been on tours know from experience). A lot of the visas, even just tourist visas, have super strict rules and are really difficult for the average Chinese person to obtain, even if they have the money. So while it doesn’t cost much for a Chinese citizen to get a passport, it’s really expensive and quite difficult for a Chinese citizen to actually travel outside of the country.

I don’t know about you guys, but I know from my personal experience growing up in a country where most everyone speaks English that when you’re only surrounded by people that speak your native language it leaves you little to no incentive to pick up a second one. I can tell you with absolute certainty that if we hadn’t moved to China I would definitely never have learned Chinese, and that although I studied Spanish for 3 years in high school, I can’t speak or understand hardly any Spanish anymore as I rarely get any opportunities to practice the language.

Also, we have to remember that China is a HUGE country! A Chinese person can easily travel around and move different places for work without ever having to leave the country. Just like the US, China is a vast and extremely diverse country with so much to see and do within its borders. If you never have to leave, and you can communicate with everyone, why hone your English language skills?

In Indonesia. As Americans in China, we have the most amazing travel opportunities.

So Many Dialects

As a foreigner, from the outside looking in, we tend to just classify Chinese as one language, when in fact there are 299 languages spoken in China (according to Ethnologue). A lot of these languages are more like dialects, but there are a good bit that are completely unintelligible, such as: Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, Mongolian, Korean, and Turkic, among others. Even now, it is still quite common in China for people to grow up speaking two different Chinese languages (their ancestral or regional language, and Mandarin). With so many different languages and dialects spoken throughout China, it’s hard enough for the Chinese to communicate with each other, let alone a foreigner.

Public Domain,

So, do the Chinese speak English?

Really, it depends on where you are in China, but for the majority of the country, I would say no, most people in China cannot speak English.

For those of you that have traveled or lived in China, what has your experience been finding English speakers in China?  Have you found that most Chinese can speak English?

Let us know in the comments!


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China | China Travel | China Culture | English in China | Language | Language Barrier

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