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 ,


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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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


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


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


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


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


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


Dude, you're clearly hung over.

Sep 24, 2011 22:59 Report Abuse


If your native language was English, you would understand what he meant by speaking in pinyin.

Jul 20, 2012 19:03 Report Abuse