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Home  /  Inside China  /  Language Barrier, or 'Why We are Lucky to Speak some Chinese'
Language Barrier, or 'Why We are Lucky to Speak some Chinese' print version
Thinking Chinese is clearly the last place where there is a need to explain the benefits of speaking some Chinese, particularly while visiting China. Still, it is always fun (or maybe disturbing for some) to remember the days when the language barrier made it difficult to buy even a bottle of water, plus to notify the non-Chinese speakers who are visiting China soon that it's not going to be a walk in the park...

They study English in school, some of them have already advanced to university English level, but somehow a foreign visitor in China often feels as if there is no concrete trace of English in mainland China.

Some claim that high school students only want to pass the English exam and forget the accumulated knowledge and leave space in their heads for topics that play a bigger part in their National College Entrance Exam (高考 gaokao). Maybe English can indeed be more encouraged by the Ministry of Education, however there still seems to be a big gap between people's Chinese knowledge and their oral expression skills. Obviously I'm referring to those youngsters who finished their education path successfully and not to the majority of the population...

What is that prevents many Chinese from practicing English out loud? Do they speak more freely with each other but become shy when a laowai wishes to communicate with them? Who knows. I have heard from Chinese friends that since the experience of studying in China schools comprises a lot of memorization, perfectionism and an intense desire not to make mistakes, when studying languages there are many setbacks, which prevents students from being more playful, expressing themselves and making mistakes again and again, perhaps the most important element in language learning.

Enough with analyzing Chinese's willing to speak English. How does the language barrier affect a new laowai arriving in China, is it really impossible to move one step without being misunderstood? Well, humans tend to build bridges between them in mysterious ways, but in China these bridges aren't constructed very efficiently it seems. The fact that we are dealing with a tonal language raises an obstacle even when saying names of destinations to taxi driver, or ordering a dish in a restaurant (in case that the menu isn't very helpful). You can spend half an hour saying a name before the other side understands your intentions.

Needless to say that when running more complex arraigns, such as visiting a doctor, ordering an hotel room or exchanging money in the bank this barrier becomes less amusing. Yes, having a Chinese speaking friend with you, names and specific requests written in Chinese on a paper beforehand (not copied by your handwriting but rather written by a Chinese or printed) is not a bad advice. Spending a few hours with a conversation book or a basic dictionary before you arrive, including the Pinyin system (the Romanization of Chinese character) will also make future life in China slightly less difficult.

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