4 Ways to Trick Reluctant Locals into Helping You Practice Chinese

4 Ways to Trick Reluctant Locals into Helping You Practice Chinese
May 28, 2020 By Lewis Schwinn , eChinacities.com

“Why don’t you speak Chinese?” asks your Chinese friend in English, causing you to slam your head against the wall. It’s surprisingly easy to live in China without speaking Chinese, and simultaneously difficult to get locals to help you practice. This sometimes happens because our Mandarin skills are so poor that locals with some degree of English proficiency would rather speak English. It also sometimes happens because the Chinese themselves want to practice their foreign language skills with you. While you could protest and try to insist everyone speaks to you in Chinese, there are some underhand ways to trick Chinese people into speaking to you in their native tongue…

Woman in China
Source: Robert Bye 

1. Fabricate an exotic identity

This is the simplest and most direct way to accomplish your goal. Learn the Chinese word for a nationality with a lesser-known language — whether you can pass as being Dutch, Slavic, Somalian or Scandinavian —  and just tell people you’re from there. This is certainly duplicitous but also surprisingly effective; most, if not all, Chinese people cannot identify the nationalities of non-native speakers from the way they speak Chinese.

Once they know they can’t speak English with you, they’ll either switch to Chinese by necessity or abandon you completely now you no longer meet their language practicing needs. Either way, you win! This method, of course, runs the risk of you being called out by a Chinese person with incredibly niche language skills, but at least you’ll both have an entertaining story to tell.

2. Befriend old people

Most China expats have a few horror stories of dealing with angry old Chinese folk who seem to hate foreigners on principle. China, like everywhere, certainly has its share of curmudgeons, but it’s also home to a lot of awesome older people. These awesome elders not only generally cannot speak a word of English, and are thus perfect language partners, but they are also interesting people who have lived through some crazy times. They have great stories, unique insights, free time, and usually a limited exposure to foreign culture that makes them genuinely intrigued to talk with you.

The only downside to this plan is that China’s elderly don’t tend to speak standard Mandarin all that well. You’ll therefore have to search out a well educated older language partner, unless you want to learn the local dialect and freak people out when you order noodles like a native.

3. Haggle your way to fluency

You’ll probably find local’s reluctance to speak to you in Chinese will disappear once money is involved. In general, you’ll find that people trying to sell you things are the most willing to keep a conversation going, with the added bonus that they’ll usually try to communicate as simply and effectively as possible. The easiest way to take advantage of this mode of practice is to go to street markets, which are coincidentally usually run by older people. Haggle, ask questions, insult, and compliment your way to greater savings and better Chinese.

Another good demographic is taxi drivers. Some are on 13-hour shifts, tired beyond belief, and will pray for the sweet release of death rather than listen to you butcher their language. Others, however, are genuinely friendly, bored, and up for a chat. Taxi drivers can make great on-the-go language partners, not least because there’s nowhere for them to escape to.

4. Let telecoms be yourteacher

One of the simplest ways of removing the assumption that you don’t speak Chinese is to remove appearance from the equation altogether. Online forums like Weibo are great places to practice your writing and reading, while other sites like Jingdong and Taobao host chat programs for those up for rapid-fire communication.

A good method for practicing your speaking and listening is to call people, businesses, and organizations with general inquiries or problems. Speaking on the phone in a second language is a real test of your progress as it removes body language cues and relies purely on your listening skills and grasp of grammar. While you can probably work most things out online these days or “press 2 for English”, try challenging yourself with non-urgent enquiries. You could even try engaging with all those cold callers you get! 

Now, I won’t lie, China is not famous for its customer service, and the poor person you get on the phone will probably look for any possible opportunity to hang up on you. But think of it as a fun game where you see how long you can last before they get frustrated and rage quit. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Worst case scenario, you’ll learn the wide and diverse range of swears that make Chinese such a satisfying language to speak!

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Keywords: practice Chinese


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It happens in some nations for instance Korea, France and etc. In the same way, if you are in these countries, hey avoid speaking to you. In the case of France, they will reply you in French.

Mar 31, 2021 09:07 Report Abuse



How about parks Chinese gather there for various things exercise ,looking for partners for there son or daughter

Mar 14, 2021 18:44 Report Abuse



Foreigners only comprise a small percentage of the entire population in China. Hence whether they prefer you to speak in Chinese or vice versa, this is common. It happens in countries like Korea, France and etc. Why making this seemingly an issue?

Oct 27, 2020 09:32 Report Abuse



If there is a will, there is a way in everything in life.

Oct 27, 2020 09:28 Report Abuse



Practice makes perfect. It applies to all languages.

Sep 13, 2020 16:05 Report Abuse



anybody drunk is also goood

Sep 04, 2020 12:22 Report Abuse



I used all of these methods! Another few you missed... security guards...these nosy and bored guys sit for hours... bring a pack of their favorite cigs and a notebook! hair wash/massage (no not THAT kind) they follow a script at first, after you learn that, start breaking out open ended questions about their hometown or favorite food/sport/tv show/music/etc ayis are a bit tough because they'll stop cleaning in order to chat with you, but still charge you... and now practicing your listening by watching any short video platforms is perfect! live broadcasting girls that aren't popular will talk to you as your practice your typing... so many interesting ways to learn! if anyone invites you to ktv, tell them you're allergic to alcohol, but sit by the screen and follow the words as you pick out some familiar phrases... i swear there's only like 300 words or so to learn to know every pop song from the last 40 years here... most importantly... have fun!

Jul 21, 2020 21:11 Report Abuse



ur right about the guards

Sep 23, 2020 10:17 Report Abuse



Thanks, I agree speaking to older Chinese people is helpful not only to practice your Mandarine but also to understand some context of the use of the phrases.

Jun 14, 2020 10:23 Report Abuse



Another good demographic is taxi drivers. Some are on 13-hour shifts, tired beyond belief, and will pray for the sweet release of death rather than listen to you butcher their language. Others, however, are genuinely friendly, bored, and up for a chat. Taxi drivers can make great on-the-go language partners, not least because there’s nowhere for them to escape to

Jun 11, 2020 03:22 Report Abuse



Old people are good to befriend with Good

Jun 10, 2020 20:02 Report Abuse



Speaking of the older Chinese people, many of them organize group outings like a walk, a trip to the mountain, fishing trips, which is helpful if you care to join. The downside is if you have become unfortunately popular, you're the target of the match-making. ;) Though without personal experience, online video chatrooms are popular again. Might work.

May 29, 2020 09:51 Report Abuse