Times Speaking Chinese is Against Your Best Interests When Living in China

Times Speaking Chinese is Against Your Best Interests When Living in China
Jul 05, 2018 By Kyle Melieste , eChinacities.com

Speaking Chinese when living in China will naturally open up new doors and ultimately better your future job prospects as China’s global power grows. But there are some circumstances when speaking Chinese can lead to more problems and confusion, especially if you’re not that good. Here we bring you some examples of how speaking Chinese in China can crack bridges, rather than build them.

Photo: Gustavo Devito

Let’s first begin with the pros of learning Chinese

Learning Chinese while living in China will inevitably ease communication between yourself and the locals and give you much more freedom in your daily life. You’ll also gain respect from the locals for bothering to learn their daunting language, as they are well aware that mastering Chinese is no breeze. You’ll likely strike up more meaningful friendships with Chinese people and become more involved in your community.

Finally cracked those tones? Admiring your calligraphic Chinese writing? You can take great pride in learning one of the world’s most difficult languages, and your brain will thank you for it. Reading and writing Chinese characters relies solely upon memorization, which explains why Chinese people are renowned for having sponge-like brains.

Last but not least, if you really get good, it’ll be a massive boost to your career prospects back home. Considering China’s ever-growing stature on the world stage and the importance of its economy in every corner of the world, Chinese language skills are in demand and can provide a good entry path into many careers.

Now on to why speaking Chinese is against your better interests in some circumstances…

Confusion central

You may actually cause more confusion when speaking Chinese if your pronunciation and tones are not 100 percent spot on. Unlike English speakers who are pretty used to hearing foreigners speak their language, Chinese people are sometimes slightly taken aback by it. While English speakers living in China have become accustomed to hearing and understanding some really dodgy English, it doesn’t seem so easy to muddle through in Chinese.

Chinese people aren’t used to foreign accents and they’ll find it hard to comprehend if the tone is wrong. Maybe you think wēn (温 - warm),wèn (问- ask),wén (闻 - hear) and wĕn (吻- kiss) all sound the same. To Chinese people, however, they are worlds apart. 

You speak fluent Chinese, right?

If you say just a few words or manage to string a sentence together in Chinese, some Chinese people will naturally assume you’re fluent and will therefore converse with you at a natural conversational pace. You might even find Chinese idioms or cool new buzzwords injected into the conversation, just to throw you off even more. If you’re really not in the mood for a one-way conversation, it might be better to go straight in with English.

We speak English in China

More and more people in China’s big cities now speak some form of English and want to practice it/show off. Regardless of which industry you’re operating in, just speaking English will likely attract what are known locally as “English groupies” – infatuated fans who simply hang around with foreigners for the sake of practicing English for free.

If you attempt switching to Chinese when speaking to such groupies, they’ll forcefully revert back to English. Once I was speaking to a man on a bus who had awful English, so I kindly pointed out that I could understand and speak some Chinese. Yet, whenever I spoke in Chinese he would respond with his horrible English. I admired his effort and determination, but I dare say it would have been easier the other way around.

If you come across an English groupie, it’s polite just to let them do their thing.

The haggling conundrum 

Contrary to common logic, sticking to English while haggling with a street vendor in China might be less hassle and actually bag you a fairer price. Why? Once you start spurting out Chinese phrases, the seller will see an opportunity to hard sell you as much as possible through this newly discovered communication channel. When they think you can only speak English, the price will likely be the only thing up for debate.

Using only English will by no means protect you from being cheated, but a communication barrier might cause the seller to sacrifice a higher price in a bid to avoid the hassle that comes with negotiating in a foreign language.

If you’re negotiating the rent of an apartment between yourself, the landlord and the agent, if they think you can’t speak Chinese, you’ll also be able to spot if they’re trying to rip you off.

Some things are too important to guess

In situations where formal communication is necessary, simply hiring a translator or dragging along a Chinese friend may be safer and more time-effective, even if it means foregoing that one chance to practically apply all those hours spent mimicking tones and memorizing characters.

At busy locations such as a hospital, the local police station or the bank, the Chinese staff may quickly grow impatient if they can’t understand your Chinese. That impatience could  lead to you being cut-off mid-conversation, ignored altogether or simply left very confused.

Straining relationships

Speaking Chinese while in a relationship with a Chinese person will obviously be advantageous in many ways, but it can also lead to over-expectations and potentially more hassle. If you’re learning or can speak Chinese, your Chinese partner will put greater expectations on you getting fully involved with all their friends and family and understanding the intricacies of Chinese culture. They’ll also expect to argue with you in Chinese, and you’ll never win an argument again.  

You become the help

You will also open yourself up to more and more requests and/or criticisms from your Chinese partner’s family. You might find living in China is no longer as hassle-free as you thought, as you’ll be taxiing relatives around town or going back and forth to the local grocery shop several times a day.

Even when staying in a hotel, you might be asked by staff to translate a conversation for non-Chinese speaking guest. Obviously this is a very selfish reason not to show people you can speak Chinese, but aren’t we all just inherently selfish creatures anyway?

Have you come across any other situations where it’s better to speak English in China? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Keywords: Speaking Chinese living in China


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If you can speak decent Chinese how are you automatically set to never win an argument? Not getting that logic. If you don't want to deal with "English Groupies", you can just make up an excuse to leave or claim you're busy with something. You don't have to make pretend friends that are only there to use you as a language practice dummy, or to give themselves some kind of fake validation and cool points.

Jul 06, 2018 12:38 Report Abuse