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.