The Willing Mute: Why Many Expats Don't Speak Chinese

The Willing Mute: Why Many Expats Don't Speak Chinese
Jul 20, 2012 By Erin Sperling ,

Why Many Expats Don't Speak Chinese

When you live in another country, you are going to learn some of the language even if you aren't linguistically inclined. Unless you stay within a small-knit community where everyone from the apartment manager to the shopkeeper speaks your language, you will absolutely HAVE to use the basics in order to travel anywhere outside your apartment, buy food, or replace the now-threadbare clothes you brought from home. It’s pure necessity. There are some expats that go beyond that necessity, making a point to make friends that speak only Chinese and study characters in their spare time. However, there are also a lot of us who fail to move past those basics, and sometimes even actively seek to create that English-only community amongst ourselves. Word passes quickly among expats of restaurants with English-speaking staff, phone numbers of cab drivers who speak English, and bilingual buddies for everything in between, resulting in numerous people that have been here for years but still know little more than the basics. Why do we do this to ourselves?

The downfall - having it too easy

Granted, part of our linguistic isolation is due to the very passion of our hosts – most jobs consider it their obligation to have someone who is there to translate for you in the workplace and that service often extends to renting an apartment or opening a bank account. When I check the schedule for which bus heads towards home, I've often had someone with excellent English offer to help. We don't learn more Chinese because we simply aren't forced to, and in some cases are encouraged to not speak it. I was once employed by a school where I was forbidden to practice Chinese at all, even with my coworkers. Additionally, many expats don't plan on spending the rest of their lives in China, so a few years of not being able to chat with your neighbour doesn't seem like that big of a deal and the inconvenience is quickly bypassed by someone else stepping in to translate. And, in times of dire need, there's always someone wielding a Chinese-English dictionary on their phone.

Chinese is an extremely difficult language to learn. Tones can be downright impossible to grasp and learning characters is a tedious process at best. We don't have many of the same opportunities as Chinese people who go to live in the US, UK, France, or many other countries have. First of all, it’s a rare treat if they meet someone abroad who can speak or is studying Chinese, whereas we are regularly regarded as the ultimate English lesson and source of practice. Additionally, we can't learn a basic alphabet and then naturally increase our vocabulary every time we step outside (this one is particularly irksome to me – if Chinese were the same, I would know the words for bank, bakery, lottery, snack, etc. without ever touching a dictionary). Even if we do learn a little from what we see, there's still an extra step involved before it can be fully added to our vernacular. For example, I can recognize the characters for “copy” a mile away but I still have to look up the pronunciation every time I need some made. 

Inadvertently snubbing Chinese culture

Difficulty aside, however, what excuses do the numerous expats that speak next-to-no Chinese really have? Most openly admit to their lack of Chinese ability, and abashedly say that they know they should study more. We know that we aren't doing more to help ourselves, but we willingly overlook how much we are missing out on by being mutes in the country we chose to spend at least a year of our lives in.  Understanding Chinese culture is hard enough, but without being able to speak to Chinese people in their mother tongue we can expect little more than a base understanding of what China really is.  Language and culture are intricately linked, and cultural details are often showcased through use of language – how we make small talk, the idioms we use, current slang and so on. Thanks to hanzi (Chinese characters), tidbits of history are also presented through writing. For example, many traditional dishes are named in such a way as to illustrate the dish's history or to make a cultural comment.

The main reason why more expats don't speak much Chinese is this: we don't need to learn it. China caters to English speakers. This is evidenced by people I have met from other countries who don't speak English. Their Chinese is often above and beyond the average English-speaking expat. While in China they had to learn one of the two to survive, and the logical choice for them was Chinese (and in some cases, their English improved). For those of us who do speak English, however, there is often little incentive unless you are really passionate about learning more about Chinese culture and want to make a bevy of Chinese friends. I think most if not all expats enjoy learning about Chinese culture, but the very difficulty of the language inhibits all but the most inspired and the number of people around who can translate for us can give us the false impression that we are learning everything we want to know about China. 

But is this really a good excuse? Did we relocate to another country just to rely on our hosts and the kindness (and patience) of strangers? Chinese is difficult, of course, and the sheer amount of regional dialects makes the task even more challenging. But we are missing out by willingly remaining mutes in a country we chose to spend a significant amount of time in. We are cheating ourselves of cultural understanding, bragging rights (“I can speak Chinese!”) and everything in between. If you met someone who lived in Spain for a year but can't speak any more Spanish than what the average tourist learns to get around, wouldn't it seem a bit odd? Yet that is exactly what most of us do. The system is partly to blame for our lack of a need to learn, but ultimately, as is the same with just about everything in life, the responsibility falls on our own shoulders. Studying Chinese in China shouldn't be a chore – it is an opening for multiple opportunities, cultural understanding, and, at the very least, cheaper prices and the chance to make a new friend.

Related links
7 Reasons You Should Learn Chinese: 1-3
Want to Learn Chinese? Choosing the Best Language Program
Learning Mandarin: 7 Dos and Don'ts

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Keywords: expat Chinese speakers why do expats not learn Chinese Why expats don’t speak Chinese


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JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

I suspect the real reason why so many expats don't bother to learn the language is because the values of their home job market have taught them that it's not relevant - and because it's those values that dictate employment prospects, I can't say they're wrong.

Aug 19, 2012 13:03 Report Abuse



I'm not sure whether it's really about the Chinese language and the difficulty learning the language. I find that especially folks from English speaking countries rarely adapt (or even try to) learn the domestic language when they are abroad. I have seen this across Europe as well as in Asia. It seems to be a mixture of arrogance ('English is a world language'), laziness and locals forcing you to speak English that they can improve their English....

Jul 25, 2012 00:26 Report Abuse



I'm in no good position to criticize anyone too strictly since I feel I am a slow-learner and have no excuses for the lack of study, however, I have to say it really did surprise and disappoint me to meet ex-pats, some a full year in China, who barely spoke a word.
But this also baffles me on this side of the Pacific. I have met Chinese immigrants even 5 years residing in Canada who can barely string together one or two choppy sentences.
Interesting article. I had wondered how this was possible. I do know one foreign teacher told us that him and his fellow teachers were living in a particular neighbourhood almost exclusively foreigners like themselves and English the 'unofficial official language'. They established the habit of English stores and pubs, were accommodated with English books and television, spent time online in English. Somehow they stayed inside those habits and he knew of a friend who had been in China for 2 years and barely spoke a word of mandarin!
Yes, it was something like the 'inadvertent negligence' mentioned here. So I supposed too.

Jul 24, 2012 00:17 Report Abuse


Dongying Don

I have learned a great deal of Chinese in just over 14 months, but now my school has not had a teacher for us in over 6 months as was promised. I love speaking Chinese and use internet sources such as Google translate to help me. I also love and respect Chinese culture. Thank you China for this great experience you have given me.

Jul 22, 2012 15:10 Report Abuse



Well, I agree we should learn the language of the country we stay at. I did that with English but with Chinese that is a whole different experience. Have you guys ever watched chinese people communicate (if they are not from the same town). They often start writing, because they do have difficulty understanding each other as well in the spoken language. If my teacher talks fast in Chinese I have difficulty understanding it, if he writes on the black board it is easier for me to figure it out. Unfortunately after being here for over two years I still can't make out the tones. Just can't hear them. Maybe you know they have only about 400 syllables, which means means lot's of repetitions with the same tone but totally different meanings. I think it is sad that some of you make fun of others which do not speak or write your language perfectly. Maybe you should try that in a foreign language to you.

Jul 22, 2012 04:29 Report Abuse



When the F******,ARROGANT Chinese stop LAUGHING when I speak their language, then I will make a greater attempt to learn it!! Very simple! It's ALL ABOUT RESPECT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :( * Do Western people laugh when the Chinese start speaking English? NO, THEY DON'T!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Jul 21, 2012 21:55 Report Abuse



I had never any problem talking with Chinese peoples and all said my Chinese is very good. Most of this... they confuse me with xinjiang girl =))

Jul 21, 2012 10:53 Report Abuse


Jing Pu Dong

i appreciate that a tone can make the same spelt word different, no problem with respecting that element of chinese. personally i have always not worried about the tonal aspect too much and tried to obtain the natural feel for it. when i first started learning the language it was the different vowel and certain consonant combinations that i recognized needed to mbe mastered. some people think the tones should be mastered first, i do not.

this is my criticism. if during a conversation in any language a word is mispronounced then surely out of common sense and refrainging from stupidity the native speaker should realise what the person is trying to say. i was in france once and asked where was the train station a word that sounds like 'war'. despite the fact i had actually said where is the war? the person knew i was not a terrorist and directed me to the station.

in china common sense, ignorance and laziness all prevail to the inevitable ting bu dong or a taxi driver ripping you off if you get the pronounciation wrong. it is arrogant, small minded and to be honest insulting, because unless chinese are all illiterate, just like any other nation of course they know what you mean. shits.

Jul 20, 2012 23:44 Report Abuse



speak more, you will speak better. if you want to practice oral chinese, pls add my skype jacky.zhang103

Jul 20, 2012 22:43 Report Abuse



Interesting article. However, it's not only like that in China, I spent 2 month in thailand before and met many foreigners live there since years but can't speak thai for the same reason. Unfortunately many expats like to stay in a group of person and environment where they don't need to learn the language of the country they're living.
It's a choice of life.
One advice i can give to expats is to do as me, go to work in small town in china where the most of people can't speak english except hello and where you got very few expat. China is a huge country and it's easy to get opportunities if you want to teach in a small town.

Jul 20, 2012 22:37 Report Abuse



I don't get why Expats ALL have to learn Chinese. Sure it's great to learn Chinese, and it's a great opportunity as you are in the country. But why do they have to? Isn't learning language a personal choice? Yes, it's not as convenience living in China w/o speaking Chinese, but isn't that's also their choice? Plus if I'm only going to live here for 1 year or 2 and I will be busy working all day (and knowing Chinese or not does not affect my job performance), why do I have to kill myself learning another language? Why can't I spend my day off hanging out with my English speaking friends and relax?
I've seen Chinese living in Canada for 20, 30 years only speaking survival English. They hang out with Chinese friends, go for Chinese speaking services (shops, doctors, etc) . Too bad they missed a lot of fun or culture stuff, but those aren't anything necessary for them. They live comfortably in Canada without English. So what's wrong with Expats making themselves comfortable in China without speaking Chinese? I don't get it.

Jul 20, 2012 19:21 Report Abuse



I guess if your stay is temp only - let's say a year or so than it's understandable. However, I've seen a lot of expats who've been in China for years and they barely can order a beer. Honestly I hardly know foreigners who can speak/write Chinese...

Jul 25, 2012 00:31 Report Abuse



Why would I ever pass this level of Chinese when when ever i say nihao,Chinese people tell me WOW! your Chinese is so good! hehe! tell me they've never done that to you.

Jul 20, 2012 18:18 Report Abuse


Ms. Mo

I do understand the tendency to speak more English than Chinese. Even though I have a pretty high level of fluency, I often end up speaking English with my Chinese roommate. But that's my own fault, for not having enough confidence to speak to her more in Chinese. I find that more and more when I go out, I can just speak Chinese better with people I don't know, and most of the people I encounter either seem grateful or non-plussed that I speak to them in Chinese. I just hope one day I get the courage to speak more Chinese with my roommate and not always defer to English.

Jul 20, 2012 17:01 Report Abuse



Just have it in mind that shes using you to improve her English. What can you gain from her too?

Jul 20, 2012 19:15 Report Abuse


Chris, Xian

I wish I could overcome the biggest stumbling block, I believe, to improving one's Chinese is an inability to read their script. Pinyin only to a small extent addresses that issue although it is better than no Pinyin! It should be remembered that Chinese kids from the age of 4 spend several years acquiring 2000 or so writing characters with which to express themselves and the script is not entirely phonetically based e.g. the Chinese expression for "good" is made up of the 2 characters meaning a female and a child. What chance therefore do us older expats whose memories are not as retentive as those of a youngster, of acquiring much more than a smattering of Chinese. As kids in primary school in Britain we learned the phonetics of just 26 characters plus their combinations so our vocabularies increased quite rapidly from a very early age providing that is that we were encouraged to read as well.

Dec 23, 2011 01:14 Report Abuse


Me and Me

Language is a carrier of culture and those who speak several languages are said to be men of culture.I`ve always followed debates about immigration in the US,and I noticed that younger Americans kept insisting on Mexicans and other immigrants learning English,integrating into the society,or return to where they came from if this was not the case.Transpose that debate to China and see how it works out.The simple truth here is that the Chinese language is much more difficult for foreigners to learn;they have therefore gone into some denial mood,instead of giving it a try and not splitting hairs about the amount they may end up learning.When you learn the language of a country,you also learn the culture of that country.If we pretend that China and the US are joint at the hip,and has to understand each other,isn't it logical that a concerted effort must be made to master the language? The Chinese seem to be another step ahead,because they have delved into learning English without the kinds of complaints and derogatory language we are reading here about learning Chinese.Just look at the share effort,and finances they put into learning English.Doesn't this teach us that Chinese are always the cuturally savvy lot others are not?If the catch up in English ,added to their language ,they will be a step ahead o the sulking babies complaining here.Chinese employers struggle to utter few words in English,employ you and make your lives colourful,but you can't even reward them or these efforts by showing respect to their language!How can we hate the Chinese language so much,but are crazy about Chinese women?

Dec 15, 2011 03:23 Report Abuse



I've always thought that the average foreign teacher level of Chinese is rather pathetic.

The fact that so many are literally mute in a country of 1.4 billion people is probably what most quickly leads FT's to turning into raging, skitzo alcoholics.

Sep 24, 2011 22:57 Report Abuse


Jie Ke

I have been trying to learn conversational Mandarin for about 5 years. I do notice that when I speak with a softer voice and faster rhythm the Chinese seem t undestand me better than when I try to pronouce every word with perfect tone. So I think in part, Chinese have two modes of listening: slow vs. fast. Also consider than when someone sings pop Chinese songs - guess what? Tones are thrown out the window. That doesn't mean the song is easily understood (without tones) but they learn the song often by subtitles accompanying the VCD or DVD. What amazes me though is how similar English grammer is to Chinese. It is earily the same.

Learning to read and write? another story!!!

Mar 02, 2011 17:04 Report Abuse



you are so right!
The more you try to pronounce like you've been taught, the more you invite stupid looks of tingbudong, but when you dash the tones and just flow, they understand you better.

Jul 20, 2012 18:30 Report Abuse



Chinese Is so hard.. the have different pronunciation for just one syllable

Feb 20, 2011 17:22 Report Abuse


Donald Lloyd

Your aritcle is so stupid that I just had to reply. I have lived here ten years and I have learned about Chinese culture by reading and observing. I have traveled throughout the country and language has never been a barrier. I am an English teacher and came here for employment not to learn the language.

Feb 18, 2011 15:05 Report Abuse



Answering the question of the article, I would have to agree that a significant reason is because its quite easy to function without speaking Chinese at all. I actually think its quite effective for foreigners to use English and simple gestures to convey what they want to non-English speaking Chinese. Ordering food, taking a taxi, shopping etc., actually don't require Chinese at all. Just pointing, mumbling and gesturing can get the point across in most situations, and that's good enough for most people.

Also, that Chinese is a grind. Most expats here in China or in their home countries don't have the time or the energy to focus on it, as to why you see many people saying they would love to study, but because of X reason, they can't. Or that they once were at a decent level, but because family matters, job, whatever, their progression stopped or went backwards. This is why most people who can speak Chinese well, nowadays, are usually young, have some formal training from somewhere, and have a few years time of basically not too much going on, that will allow them to attain a high level. Past a certain age or period in someones life, this process is not possible for most I think. Chinese is really a language that should be started early, like high-school at the latest. I think many expats in China won't fit this category and feel that their lack of time or resources would eventually lead to a wasted effort to learn a very difficult language as their already established, or soon to be, lives take over. Had I not had a foundation in Chinese before coming here a year and half ago, I know I would be sitting in that group right now as the pressure of finding a "real" job is slowly creeping up.

Feb 13, 2011 03:50 Report Abuse



Frankie, I think what you'll find is that there many variations of "pin yin", which seemingly has gotten all mixed up.

This link ( proves that when you look at the comparison chart. So, it is important however, or from whomever you're learning Chinese, that you learn that system accurately, then later on, when you see a form that is different from what you learn, it'll be easy to make the connection. For the longest time, and to give you an example, I would write "woman" as "nu", which I learned under the Taiwanese b p m f system, but my girlfriend (from the mainland) told me that it should be "nv". You should also understand that "pin yin" was essentially made for westerners to learn it, but obviously, as I said, there are variations to it, much like how the mainland prefers simplified characters and taiwan prefer the traditional characters.

I found the chart within this link ( to be more accurate to how I learned, under the Taiwanese system. Maybe it can be of help.

Feb 12, 2011 06:41 Report Abuse



In fact the language is old and outdated so why would anyone want to learn it. Most westerners will not be in China for their lives but only for a short time, once they leave China nobody can speak Chinese anyway so they will lose their language skills. this is wasting time learning something that you will only forget after 5 or 6 years of not using it.
Another fact is most Chinese cannot understand each other so how would they be able to understand foreigner speaking the language, an example is when I order food to take out from the restaurant, the girl at the counter cannot understand me. So I go out side and call the same girl gets my order right every time. This tell me that they only see a foreigner and can only hear a foreigner and cannot even believe that this foreigner could be able to speak such a complex language as Chinese.
This to me is arrogance and nothing else.
The world is speaking English only China is speaking Chinese.

Feb 11, 2011 21:33 Report Abuse