Speaking English in China

Here’s a situation likely to be familiar to Chinese-speaking foreigners in China. You walk into a bar, cafe, or shop in a reasonably fashionable district of a big city. The guy or girl behind the counter greets you with a ‘hello!’. You reply in Chinese. They reply in English. You reply again in Chinese, attempting to establish your ability in the language. They reply again in English, doing the same. You get annoyed, and say ‘I speak Chinese’ in Chinese. Without flinching, they carry on in their dogged attempt to speak your language with you.

This situation happens, I think, for two reasons. One is that those laowai who have taken the time to learn Chinese at a decent level feel a sense of pride in their ability and want to use it as much as possible. Having invested much in learning the language, they don’t want to sound like just any other fresh-off-the-boat foreigner in the country. They’re in China, darnit, and they want to speak Chinese.

The second reason is the belief- mostly incorrect- that the Chinese simply don’t believe foreigners can learn their language. The foreigner might speak flawless Mandarin but the barman or service person might see the big nose and think, “laowai= English language”. The foreigner then thinks that his effort to learn the language might be worth no more than a hill of beans if nobody thinks he can actually use it.

In reality the reason most Chinese people want to speak English with you is because they don’t often have many opportunities to practice.  At schools everywhere in the country, even in tiny towns, students are required to learn English. Yet despite the massive number of laowai teachers in the country, the vast majority of Chinese students learn their English from Chinese teachers.  Added to a general inability for most people to travel abroad, opportunities can be scant for the locals to practice the English skills they spend so much time trying to refine.

These Chinese people I mention don’t include the juvenile yahoos who scream ‘Hallooo!!’ at you while you’re walking to work.  They’re merely ordinary folks eager to flex their English muscles, and while it may pain you to hear again about 5,00o years of history or that China is a developing country or other tired chestnuts, you’re doing a well-meaning local a rich favor.

Fortunately, the vast majority of people in China don’t speak, or don’t want to speak, any English so there’s plenty of opportunities for us to practice. And I’m sure listening to us butcher their language might just be the inspiration they need to throw some English our way.

Talk on Speaking English in China


35 Comments
  1. The situation sounds familiar to all of us, I guess. Now imagine that you’re not even from an English speaking country but everybody assumes you must be…
    I confess that when I’m not in China I do the same whenever I’m around Chinese people. They might speak my mother tongue even better than myself; I’ll still want them for their Mandarin :-)

  2. Profile photo of

    I kind of like the mutt language exchanges that form between two quasi-successful second language acquirers. “再来两瓶啤酒”, “Two beers. 没问题.”

    Reminds me of being in an episode of Firefly. :-)

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  4. Mutt language LOL… my Chinese girlfriend and I speak a pretty thick dialect of Chinglish. It’s become completely unconscious now, I don’t really actively pick to say things like, “我们的dinner is in the 厨房.” It’s not out of an inability to say exactly what I want. We just like switching between each others’ mother tongues so much that our ongoing repartee just mushed itself into a weird hybrid.
    As an English teacher, my opportunities to speak Chinese have been severely limited. I would suggest if anybody really wants more practice, find a language partner. They’re not hard to find either. As said above, most English teachers are Chinese, and, very often, not only do they give poor instruction, but their own English isn’t always so great. Kids here scramble for the chance to learn from a native speaker. Most of my students say that I’m their first 外教, and they’re all college level.
    Although most Chinese folk can’t understand more than “hello”, there are so many people learning English right now that it’s likely, within a decade or so, there will be more people speaking English in China than in the US. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them will be speaking proper English. And there’s still going to be all the same overused phrases that native speakers don’t generally use. (if I had a 元 for every time one of my students started a sentence with “we all know that…”, I’d be rolling in cash.)
    Don’t feel offended if people won’t respond to your 普通话. Many Chinese folk are all to familiar with 外国人 speaking completely unintelligible Mandarin so they’ve just learned to shut us out. Some of us don’t speak half as well as we think. I shudder to consider how many of my classmates in the US refused to use tones. I do have to agree, however, that it doesn’t feel good. I know my Chinese isn’t the best, but it’s pretty damn good. I felt stupid my first couple years of study when all I could say was things like, “I woke up, then I ate breakfast, then I went to the zoo, then I saw some animals, then I went home. The end.” I can actually express my opinions now, about politics and such. Still I get the cold shoulder on a daily basis. I’ll say something to somebody, and they’ll just stare right past me and ask my girlfriend, like I don’t exist. Sometimes my girlfriend will play with them and shrug, then say in English, “Sorry, I’m American, I don’t speak Chinese,”thus forcing them to defer to me.

  5. I may have gotten my nose out of joint in situations like this a few years back, but to be honest, for every time someone is trying to use their english with me , there are 50 times where someone doesnt, cant or wont.

    my M.O. now is to defer with whatever spoken language the other party responds to first or wishes to speak. I’m comfortable in both, but if they want to play ball on my field, I’m more than obliging.

  6. Unless you are an American of Asian background, like myself, in which case the scenario is entirely reversed. People begin in Chinese irrespective of your Chinese level (which was annoying when I was a beginner) and are extremely incredulous at your odd grammar, weird tonese, and protestations that “Actually I’m an American/Brit/Canadian.” I’ve been told flatly to my face “No, you’re Chinese.”

    • I’ve noticed lots of westerners with Asian parents have that same problem. Bruce Lee, for instance, is the most famous. He was American, but, even post-mortem, Chinese folk will insist that he was Chinese. He was born in the US, raised there, he worked there, went to school there. Most of his ideas were derived from western philosophy. His martial art was neither kungfu nor Chinese. It was derived more from western styles than eastern–American boxing in particular. He only studied with Yip Man for 6 months. He really spent very little of his life here, but Chinese folk have claimed him as their own. On the other hand, so have the Bosnians; they erected a statue of him in their city of Mostar in 2005. But he was American. You know who else thought Bruce Lee was American? Bruce Lee.

      A friend of mine from Ireland gets the same treatment here. Although her parents are from Hong Kong, she was born and raised in Ireland. She can speak a little bit of Cantonese, but her Mandarin is absolutely awful. Still, folks here tell her that she is Chinese. When we western kids go out as a group, Chinese folk will always talk only to her. She usually has no idea what they’re saying, so some of us who are a little more fluent will answer them. They just brush us off and continue talking to her, like we don’t exist. She just shrugs and says something with a big Irish lilt like, “Fook if I know, man.”

      • Point well taken, although Bruce Lee is not a good example. He was indeed born in SF, but was brought back to HK at 3 months and raised there until almost 18 years old. English was his second language which he spoke with a distinct HK-BE accent his whole life.

        The Chinese do view anyone with Chinese ancestry as Chinese, regardless of where they are born or live. The common term used is 华侨, literally Chinese sojourners, for “overseas Chinese”. This is also evident in their designation of American/Canadian/British- Chinese as opposed to Chinese- American/Canadian/British.

      • Unfortunately, the problem for me is that although I’m Asian, my background is *not* Chinese, which makes Chinese people who insist that I indeed *am* Chinese even more disconcerting!

      • Silojet–sorry, but Bruce Lee was American. He really is the perfect example of this, and it’s why I mention him in various threads. Instead of rewriting the whole thing, I’m just going to copy and paste what I wrote previously:

        “Most of what I’ve been saying comes from Bruce Lee himself and from Guru Dan Inosanto. While Bruce was alive, Guru, a Philippino man, was his top student, his best friend, and eventually came to teach 70% of Bruce’s classes while he was alive. Bruce passed the torch to Guru, who is the only person really officially capable of certifying instructors. Most martial artists in the world assert that you can’t have a conversation about Bruce or his martial art without at least mentioning Guru. For instance, Bruce sent Guru to learn the Filipino arts, to bring them back to Way of Intercepting Fist. Guru knows more about Bruce than anybody on the planet, perhaps save his wife (who’s gone a little nutty with telling everybody they can’t use Bruce’s crest, which includes Guru). So I’m going to go ahead and trust him, rather than somebody who just read about him or watched some movies or TV show about his life.

        “So–Bruce was born in the US when his father was there filming a movie. His mother, who was half-German, was also an actor. He traveled to Hong Kong from time to time, but mostly grew up in the US. His accent comes from growing up around Chinese folk, in Chinatown. But as far as his native tongue being Cantonese, he couldn’t speak much, and almost no Mandarin whatsoever. You should look up “Bruce Lee: the Lost Interview”. See the man say so himself. Or you can believe what you’ve heard a bunch of your peers say.

        “Bruce only studied with Yip Man for about 6 months. Wing Chun and the like did not define his style, it was merely another style to draw inspiration from. He took just as much from western styles. For instance, most of the punches come from American boxing. Junfan was Chinese-inspired, sure, but Way of Intercepting Fist was neither Chinese, nor was it kung fu. It was a form without forms, without nations.

        “Bruce may have had Chinese parents, but he was an American, and said so. He was born there, and was buried there.”

        whew.
        yeah. American. Chinese and German ancestry, but American.

      • Can’t you boys just agree that he’s a mixture of both. If he spent his first 18 years in HK though, in my books he is at least partly Chinese not purely ‘American’.

        Besides Meng, he was a person, not just a martial artist, so its a little one-sided only to evaluate who he was as a person in terms of this, even if he has become a walking personification of martial arts.

      • elephunk–at no point have I tried to evaluate him solely as a martial artist; on the contrary, he was a philosopher, family man, all sorts of things (not an actor, he hated acting intensely–those films were just to demonstrate off his style). I was actually talking about where the information comes from–his best friend/#1 student/co-teacher/confidant/ bearer of his torch/etc… so that you don’t think I’m just pulling this out of the ether. Most folks get their “facts” about him from books, movies, TV, or, worst of all, their friends. There are so many myths surrounding him, like him growing up in Hong Kong, or the circumstances of his death, or his back injury.

        This is sooooooo off-topic away from “Speaking English in China”. sorry Matt :P

  7. Thinking back on my earlier frustrations at the ‘sale assitants’ trying to keep the convo in English, I now realise my Chinese was probably pretty damn hard to understand and they wanted the Convo in English for sack of efficiency. In fact, the better my Chinese becomes, the worse I think it is – something I’m sure many of you who know speak reasonable Chinese have felt :)

    These days I don’t have these language battles, except with Chinese English teachers. You’ll find as soon as they think you’re Chinese is better than their English they will usually give way.

  8. The way I see it is that if and when someone speaks to me in English here, even if it’s not fantastic, I will reply in English. I speak pretty decent Chinese and I get to speak it everyday, whereas the sales assistant or whoever does not, as the article mentioned. I used to get annoyed, but conversely now my Chinese is at a good level I am more relaxed in my own skin and less out to prove a point.

    • I’m on board with Luke. When I was in Xinjiang studying Mandarin and Uyghur, that was my rule of thumb: I spoke whatever was spoken to me. It gets annoying when people just to speak English, but there’s definitely no short supply of folk who prefer to speak their own native language.

  9. Might I add that was DOES annoy me enormously is when Chinese people talk to foreigners in ‘laowai speaking Chinese voice’. I’m sure most people with decent Chinese know what I mean by this, as you’re good enough to distinguish the piss taking deliberate mix up of tones – just like a laowai with rubbish Chinese. The worst for this are taxi drivers, who must have to put up with some terrible Chinese all day long. This does not excuse it though and I’m sure if I went into a Chinese restaurant in China town and did a ‘slanty eye’ gesture with my fingers at the corner of my eyes and said ‘two flied lice prease’ I would quite rightly get the s&*t kicked out of me.

  10. I live in Italy, and it happens all the time there too! It’s usually that they want to practice, and show you they know their language…and, I’m quite honored. They know full well you know their language, so, I just go with the flow!
    I even have friends after years and years will answer my Italian queries in English time and again (I guess one can also think that their Italian isn’t quite up to snuff!!!)
    No matter – makes it fun.

    Meanwhile, I’m collecting all of your language mistakes! Check out:
    http://www.upyourbottom.com

    FMaggi
    Burntbythetuscansun.blogspot.com

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    Brings back so many bad memories… When I first got to China someone explained it to me like this – to them, seeing a foreigner speak Chinese is like seeing a dog speak English, it’s just incomprehensible and they refuse to actually hear what you are saying.
    Try speaking Spanish or Japanese to them next time and see how they react.

  13. Profile photo of Fink

    How come no one pointed out that a lot of these people THINK they speak Chinese… but they just don’t?

    Not to be an asshole, but I know plenty of people who say “Yeah! I speak Chinese!” then I have Chinese friends tell me later (in Chinese because the Laowai can’t really understand Chinese when spoken at a normal pace) that his Chinese is terrible and they’re going to need me to explain wtf he is on about.

    I’m not fluent, but I can just understand why a lot of Chinese people respond in English: they legit have no idea what the whitey is talking about. We gotta up our game too, it’s not just them getting used to us.

    • Fink: I think people have been leaving comments above from their own perspective, I know I did, and I can say without feeling like it’s boasting that my Chinese is very good, and very understandable. There are, however some Chinese people who either really want to practice English, or are so shocked by the ‘whitey’ speaking Chinese that they crack out the English without thinking.

      As I said in my original comment, I now just ignore those situations, reply in English and be done with it, without seeing it as an insult to my Chinese, which I know to be fine. This post was addressing the issue that perhaps Chinese people in the US, for example, don’t face of making an effort to speak a 2nd language and having the listener respond in a broken form of your own tongue, as if to say ‘don’t even try’.

      As an interesting side note to your comment about Chinese whispers behind laowai’s backs, I have found that compared to the early days of Chinese speaking when people were polite but most likely joking behind my back, now the praise is actually genunine and the odd mistake (yes I still make them) goes quickly corrected.

  14. Well put…I go into fancy Starbucks-esque establishment here in Liaocheng about once a week to work on my hanzi, and despite the fact that my oral Chinese ain’t too shabby, the workers there always speak English, and actually go out of their way to talk to me as much as possible. I finally asked one of the girls there to speak Mandarin with me, at which point she apologized and explained that she has never had the opportunity to converse with a native English speaker. I told her we could speak English if she would be willing to show me the stroke order of certain characters that confused me.

  15. I’m sorry but even those Chinese that get to practice their English everyday still insist on speaking English with you and quite frankly I still find it so annoying! Maybe cuz either I’m a dick or just too shy (or maybe just admit to being both!) it’s kind of hard just to ‘make’ friends with a Chinese person out of thin air. Those who you usually make friends with are the ones that speak a decent level of English and even if your Chinese is better than theirs they will STILL insist on speaking English. I’m sorry but I’m reaching breaking point with learning to speak Chinese, I’ve studied hard and tried hard but it’s like I’m fighting a language war with them than just having a friendly language exchange!! Though my pronunciation is still rather off, you’d think if you had a Chinese friend they’d help you out a bit but it jsut feels like to me that because you’re a foreigner, you’re a puppet to practice English with. Does anyone get my drift? Cuz I am sick and tired of it!

    • I am a foreigner in Beijing and it is very annoying to have these language struggles. My Chinese is to the point where it is better than most of their English, but that is besides the point. Yes I understand that Chinese people want to practice their English because they may not have the chance to leave the country, but at the same time one of my main reasons for coming here was to learn the language. Furthermore, the majority of the people here that want to be your “friend” are just using you, which is frustrating. We are in CHINA we should speak Chinese. If someones English is better than my Chinese, I will concede just for sake of convenience, but other than that, I feel like I have to fight just to speak the national language.

  16. My native language is not English and I get extremely offended when Chinese people insist on speaking it with me. When I started working here I tried speaking 50/50 English and Chinese, but my coworkers quickly seized on this opportunity to speak exclusively to me in English, and I got so disappointed with their attitude that I promised myself never to utter a single word of English to a Chinese person again.

    What disappointed me the most was that even though many of them solicited suggestions on how to improve their English or wanted me to correct them, only a select few seemed to care about what I pointed out. Most of them kept on repeating the same mistakes even after I had pointed them out countless times. The whole experience of speaking English with them made me feel used and otherized, like I was some goddamn mannequin there for them to regurgitate sample sentences.

    Now, when anyone tries to speak English to me I pretend not to understand, which in turn makes them insecure (face loss) and more likely to speak Chinese. I also do all correspondence (emails, text messages etc.) exclusively in Chinese.

    Over the years I’ve gotten close to a native-sounding Mandarin in a lot of situations, and I’ve found that as my pronunciation got smoother there were only a few diehards left that insisted on speaking English to me. I also pay close attention to any feedback I get and take any suggestions people offer very seriously. I dare suggest I’ve worked much harder to attain my current level in Mandarin than any of them have with their English, and thus fail to see any moral imperative to help them improve their English, seeing its not my native language and the conversation goes much smoother when one of the parties are speaking the language they grew up with.

    • I agree with what you’ve said, Yersi. And god damn, you most have worked hard not only on your Mandarin, but on your English, too. I cannot find any reason to believe you would be anything but a native speaker.

  17. Yup, I’m with Yersi. The odd shopkeeper, little kid that can only speak a few words of English is fine, but anyone with better language skills than that gets a two-pronged attack:

    1) Everytime they say sometime I always act as though I can’t understand and make them repeat it twice.

    2) I respond exactly as a I would to another native speaker, without any attempt to simplify my grammar, vocabulary, or reduce speed.

    As a result any English conversations are incredibly painful, and anyone who doesn’t end up switching to Mandarin ends up not talking to me altogether :P .

    Sure, it’s not very nice, but it gets the job done. And I don’t have much sympathy for the hordes of people coming up and saying, “Hi, can we be friends? What’s your QQ? Can we set up a time to practice oral English and maybe you can write my English papers for me thanks?”

  18. Just looked at this website today…was outside of a restaurant listening to my MP3, really adamant in thinking I would nt get interrupted. Then the normal questions….where are you from? etc, Just really annoys me! It shouldn’t but it does. Because it’s my free time and I dont want to be a walking English computer. I will follow your advice Johnson! Nice!

  19. I totally agree with you. I have a friend, a french guy, who has been in beijing since last september, but he just doesn’t want to try to speak chinese, he has opportunities to practice chinese, example the family of his chinese friend, but he maybe too shy? Now he can only say “nihao” “xiexie” “buyong” “chabuduo”, that’s all. He’s really wasting his time…

  20. I found your blog really interesting. The problem is, we speak the “native English”. Not what other European countries learn with the odd mistake here and there, English. You’re like a Christmas Present to them that they can only spend say 5-10 minutes with and once you’re gone, you’re gone. I am living in Austria and studying German at University. Low and behold, the moment the so called English accent arises “Ohh, and you are from England?” NEVER say you are from England- it is a mistake and can only lead to attempts of English. Holland is the preferable choice, I have also used France- but I cannot perfect that accent ;).

  21. ha, if you don’t want them to speak to you in english, just say, “i’m sorry, i’m polish!” (“对不起,我是波兰人”)。

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