“Week one” learning round up


Okay – it’s taken me longer than one week to get around to posting my “week one” 15-minute Chinese roundup. Which some could say totally defeats the purpose of using the guide – it relies on daily, 15-minute practice sessions – at all.

I can’t really argue with that; what I can say is that, while I’m behind schedule, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at the small part that I have studied so far. So yeah… look out world, I can now totally inquire whether Nǐ yǒu háizi ma (Do you have children?) and about the identities of various family members ( Zhè shì nǐ de fùqīn= Is this your father? Zhè shì nǐ de zhàngfū/qīzi ma = Is this your husband/wife?)

I tried to fit in some real-life practice today at my local Starbucks (yes, I’m a yuppie who cannot forgo coffee, no matter where I am in the world) by pointing to a nearby employee and then asking my barista,  (Nà shì nǐ de péngyǒu ma” (Is that your friend?). I think she was extremely confused by my curiosity (why does this strange American girl care if I’m friends with my coworker…?) but she said “yes” and proceeded to give me my change. She responded to my question in English.

I want to practice my limited Mandarin speaking skills with native speakers. The problem is, many Chinese people also want to practice their limited English with native English speakers. Leading to many, many situations where I begin some kind of transaction in Mandarin, and the shopkeeper/barista/waiter/whatever responds to all of my comments and inquiries in English.

This, of course, does not happen everywhere in China. But foreigners – and with that, the English language – have a strong presence in Shanghai, a special economic zone that’s flush with international business. I would say that about 75 percent of my students at the language training center I work for are trying to improve their English either because they work at a foreign-run company or because they aspire to work for a foreign-run company.

It’s difficult to estimate the number of English speakers in China. Fun fact: English is actually a standard part of China’s education curriculum. Chinese students begin learning English in elementary school and some knowledge of the language is essential for passing the gaokao, the ultra-competitive standardized test taken by millions of high school students each year.

However, Chinese-led English classes tend to focus on reading and vocabulary memorization. There is usually little-to-no speaking practice, and many students graduate without being able to verbally string together a sentence more complex than “My name is ____”

So we don’t know how many people in China are really proficient in English. What we do know is that there are about 300 million English learners in the country, the evidence of which can be seen in any major city: advertisements for English learning centers (including the one I work for) are inescapable.


There are about 1.39 billion native Chinese speakers. Although Mandarin is the countries official dialect, there are several alternative dialects and micro-languages in use across the expansive country. (The Washington Post)

Anyone browsing ESL job listings knows that the English-learning trend isn’t solely centered in China. About 1.5 billion people around the world are studying English, according to an analysis from the University of Dusseldorf featured in a report by The Washington Post. And while China may have the highest native-speaker population in the world, the same analysis concluded that only about 30 million people are actively learning the language (China’s official state language in Mandarin, but as the chart above shows, there are several prominent dialects in the country).


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