The Problem: I live in China, and my Chinese speaking ability is laughable.

Living in China was supposed to be a convenient, almost inevitable way of soaking up a language that is so completely different from my native English.

But almost two years after leaving the United States for a “temporary” experience across the world, I’ve learned a pretty consistent truth: The Chinese language skills of most English-speaking expats rarely extends outside of basic necessities, such as “Hello; “Thank you”, “I don’t understand” and “I want coffee/beer”.

I should know. I’m one of those expats.

I’m a writer and present day English teacher in Shanghai, China, My job, teaching and practicing the English language to mostly 25-to-40 year-old adults, is evidence of the multiplying connections between China and the West. Many of my students either work or aspire to work for foreign-run companies, most of which require basic English skills for local staff.

In what is sometimes a pretty stark contrast, many job opportunities for foreigners (particularly native English speakers) require absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language. Even though we’re living in China.

To be fair, Shanghai — like many large cities in China– caters itself well to English-speaking visitors. Street signs are in English; shop names and information are always translated into English; restaurant menus are available in English. The metro line announces stops in both Chinese and English. There are multiple English-language city guides and news sources online, such as the popular sites Time Out and SmartShanghai.

In a throwback to Shanghai’s city structure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — where the city was split into foreign-run American, British and French concessions — modern-stay Shanghai contains multiple “foreign” neighborhoods. These areas are littered with the trendy cafe’s, restaurants, bars and globally recognizable brand stores (H&M, Gap, Zara, Sephora…. the list goes on and on) that let westerners like me feel perfectly at home.

Here’s where I live – People’s Square, right at the heart of the city’s downtown.


((photo via the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition)

Long story short: As a result of a combination of endless convenience, laziness and working in a completely English environment, my Mandarin speaking skills barely qualify as “basic” It essentially consists of the following:

Hello!  Ní hǎo

How are you?  Ní hǎo ma

I’m good! I’m not good!  Wǒ hěn hǎo/ Wǒ hěn bù hǎoI

know/I don’t know   Wǒ zhīdào/ Wǒ bù zhīdào

I am American     Wǒ shì měiguó rén

I am an English teacher  Wǒ shì yīngyǔ lǎoshī

My Chinese is not good   Wǒ de zhōngguó bù hǎo

Are you American?   Nǐ shì měiguó rén ma?

How is your Chinese?  Zěnme shì nín de zhōngguó?

I’m sorry!  Duìbùqǐ

Thank you! Xièxiè

No problem!  Méi wèntí

I am your American friend. You are my Chinese friend.  Wǒ shì nǐ dì měiguó péngyǒu. Nǐ shì wǒ de zhōngguó péngyǒu.

Where is…? Nǎlǐ ma

What time?  Jǐ diǎn

I want…Wǒ yào

I have…Wǒ yǒu

I like…Xǐhuān

This one   Zhège

I’m hungry  Wǒ èle

I’m full  Wǒ chī bǎole

I’m happy  Wǒ hěn kāixīn

Complemented by vocabulary such as: numbers 1-100 (Yī ,èr, sān…), apple (Píngguǒ), mango (Mángguǒ),rice (fàn), noodles (miàn), egg (jīdàn), tomato (fānqié), dumplings (jiǎozi), pork (zhūròu), chicken (jīròu), beef (niúròu), coffee (kāfēi), beer (píjiǔ), chocolate (qiǎokèlì),people (rén), America (Měiguó), China (Zhōngguó), France (Fàguó), England (Yīngguó), Thailand (Tàiguó), Canada (Jiānádà),north (běi), south (nán),east (dōng),west (xī)

Yeah… no meaningful intellectual breakthroughs are happening at this level. I’m hoping that is going to change.

I\m on a journey to improve my Chinese language skills so I can actually communicate on a higher level than announcing my nationality and credentials (My usual speech upon meeting a new person can be translated as, “Hello! My name is Ashley. I am American. I am an English teacher. How are you? I’m sorry, my Chinese is bad.”)

In this blog, I will document my efforts to become more conversant. Along the way, I’d like to share photos, stories and news about China, globalization and my life as an American woman living in the most populated neighborhood of one of the most populated cities in the most populated country on Earth.

One thought on “The Problem: I live in China, and my Chinese speaking ability is laughable.

  1. You can do it! All it takes is setting aside intentional study time each day. While acquisition may happen passively, I believe aggressively studying, as a supplement to what you acquire naturally, boosts your skills like nothing else.

    I’m really interested by the fact that your “complimentary vocabulary” is basically exactly the same thing they taught me in my basic Chinese classes. (This is of course assuming you learned through conventional classes.) I think it’s interesting that you listed Pingguo as the first of this list; it is also one of the first words they taught us in our class.

    Formulaic teaching can be crippling. Learning in a context is the best way! And hey, kudos for stepping outside your country comfort zone. It’s a tremendous first step.

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