Speaking Mandarin in China

Hi everyone,

It is widely agreed that speaking Mandarin is essential for a successful integration in China. Do you agree? Share your experience!

Do you speak Mandarin? If so, where did you learn this language? Where can one attend a language course in China?

If not, how do you cope with daily activities? Is it easy to communicate in a different language with Chinese?

Thank you for sharing your experience.


Can the author who suggested this topic speak mandarin ? If so ? How did he/ she learned  ? People who suggest such thing they should be practicing themselves not talk empty words.

yes ,it does become necessary to learn mandarin and is definitely useful in daily transactions
there are several institutions offering mandarin learning programs ,
But the best is to couple this with a personal tutor so you can pick up quickly.
my experience has been to have a personal tutor atleast 2-3 timers a week for 1.30 to 2 hrs per session and then gradually slow down to a level which is workable to both.
hope this helps
all the best.
and enjoy the lessons.

Thank you so much for your reply. Great !

Hi Priscilla,

It is widely agreed that speaking Mandarin is essential for a successful integration in China. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree.

Do you speak Mandarin? If so, where did you learn this language? Where can one attend a language course in China?
No, I don't speak Mandarin. There are many schools and individuals offering classes in any big Chinese city.

If not, how do you cope with daily activities? Is it easy to communicate in a different language with Chinese?
Coping is hell; very little English spoken. In the words of Gary P. Nunn, (although he was referring to London) "I'm leaving just as fast as I can."

Love and kudos to those of you who love China. My mileage varies.

It really does. In my opinion not just mandarin. I mean where ever we are we must know the national language of that specific place at least the very basic ones to communicate with the locals. I remember when I arrived here in China in 2007 I had difficulty on how to communicate with Chinese and the only way for me to survive is to use a body language to get them understood what I want. And since then I was challenged that I should learn mandarin. Anyway I didn't learn my mandarin at school. I learnt it through my Chinese friends and work colleges. I've learnt it easily by asking through sentences not by words. Then I ask them to translate for me those common questions and sentences that we normally asked when we communicate with other people. Plus I exposed myself usually with Chinese. And I pay attention on how do they communicate. Another thing is that I won't be afraid of saying my Chinese sentences although it won't be in the right accent or if one word won't be mentioned .Because I believe that Chinese people would understand it as it's their dialect so when you use it in a sentence they'll understand , it's just exactly the same when they speak English to us if they couldn't express it correctly we know what they were trying to say due to the contex that they've used.
Thanks. Hope this would help.

Yes, it is necessary to learn the language.  It makes your life a whole lot easier than having to rely on sign language, a dictionary, or even someone who can act as your translator.

When I first arrived in Beijing in 1999, I spent the first six months in a total immersion course - seven days a week, 12 hours a day, plus three hours of homework every evening.  I spoke no other language except for Chinese during that period.

It served me well.  I can converse, lecture, and read.  I am now studying for my a high level of HSK.

I think if one is planning to relocate to a foreign country for a period of time, it behooves the person to grasp a smattering of the language at the outset, then gradually build the skills by attending a qualified course or hiring a personal instructor in a one-to one class or in a small group setting.

With dedicated practice and resolve, you'll be amazed at the progress you can make.

Well I'm the odd one here because learning the language depends on why you came to the country, in my opinion.

I came to China in 2007, and yes, I've been here 10 years and I still don't really speak it.  I can't read it or write it but it hasn't stopped me.  Mostly it's because of what I do, I teach English.

I didn't come to China to learn Chinese, I came to teach English so for me learning Chinese hasn't been a priority.  In fact NOT learning Chinese has actually made me a better English teacher.  As I struggle with daily communication I learn methods that I then use in the classroom.  My students seem to grasp English better because they can understand the concepts as I put them into real situations.

My daily life (doing normal things) becomes the basis of how I teach.  This method works well for me and I feel it's made me more aware of what things are really important for a language learner to grasp.

It's not that I don't speak ANY Chinese, it's that I speak very little.  I understand more than I can speak but that too is normal when learning any language. 

My advice, well if you came to China to learn the language then by all means do it.  However, if you came for another reason and you really don't need to learn it, then don't.  It's really a personal choice.  I don't believe I will ever be fluent in Chinese (for many reasons) but I do manage and I manage without asking people to help me.  I do my daily living without constantly having to ask anyone.  I only seek help when it's a bigger issue and language is really needed.  Otherwise, I've done just fine.

One last thing, language is a tool we use for communication, but it's just a tool.  We communicate with so many other methods and once you discover that it will open up the world.  I find I can communicate with just about anyone, maybe I can't get into details, but you'd be surprised at what you can learn if you just make the effort to try.

My husband and I both started tutoring lessons with Accent Mandarin in Shanghai as soon as we moved there.  It was very hard in the beginning but after about 6 months, I felt comfortable in getting myself around by taxi, shopping and having basic conversation.  After a year, I felt like I had a good basic understanding of the language.  It changed my experience in China greatly and I highly recommend it.  We had a tutor come to the house twice a week for an hour session.  It was fun to do it together and talk with each other.

Indeed ir is a must that you learn mandarin
Reason is simple, if you want to get a life in China you need to understand what is going around and communicate with the others. If you refuse to do it, you still have the chance to live within foreigners in cities like Shanghai or Shenzhen but at that point you will lose a good chance to learn and live new things and experiences.

I also agree on the importance of advancing one's Mandarin, at least speaking skill, and then hearing skill, as fast and far as possible, no matter what reason you are in China. This is difficult for many westerners, and is very daunting for me. I self-teach and absorb the environment every day. Part of my daily routine is the Pimsleur set, I'm now at Mandarin II unit 22. Does anyone have a good experience of other self learning packages they could share?

I am soon to start my second semester of Mandarin study and I am really enjoying the experience. I had been doing  a lot of import export type business in the wholesale markets of Guangzhou, and felt that I needed to up my game and so I decided to take a year off to study conversational Chinese. At first I tried a couple of universities and not only were the teaching methods medieval but so was the accommodation. The dorms at GZ University of Technology were like a prison block and the dorms at SCUT were so appalling that that they were demolished shortly after my visit.
This was one of the many reasons that I decided to move away from the big polluted cities and choose a location based on quality of life instead. Fortunately, it worked out to be much cheaper as well. I am currently studying in Lijiang, Yunnan and the difference between here and other Chinese cities is like night and day. Like most days, the weather here is wonderful today. Bright cerulean blue skies, with abundant sunshine which brings the day time temperatures up to about 20 degrees. There is no pollution haze or smog like there is in the coastal cities and the clean crisp air here is very similar to alpine resorts in Italy and Switzerland. When I send pictures of the place, few people can believe that I am still in China. In most of China, it is either sweltering hot or miserably cold.  Here is enjoyable all year round.
My school has reasonable dorms, although I decided to get a small but modern apartment. I live on the top floor in one of the nicer parts of the new town and this is the view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain from my huge picture windows.

At less than a thousand kuai per month, my rent is much cheaper than it was in Guangzhou. When i first arrived, I lived in the Old Town and although costs were a bit higher, there were literally thousands of boutique guest houses to choose from. I paid about 2,000 a month for a simple room with bathroom at a very popular hostel but I know that for the 5000 I was paying in Guangzhou, I could get something really swish and elegant. Cost of living is definitely much cheaper here too. There might not be any expensive expat supermarkets filled with imported goods, but the food here is healthy and fresh. This combined with the excellent air quality means that I am not constantly being struck down with nasty viruses and bronchial flus like I was in Guangzhou. It is relatively easy to live here for around one or two thousand a month, but that does not mean it is a backwater. We have a few Starbucks and some good pizza places. All of the big five star hotel chains are represented, Hilton, Continental, Grand Hyatt etc. so you can still splurge if you really want to.
If you have not heard of Lijiang, here are a few pictures to make you green with envy.

My classes are good for picking up new vocabulary but the schedule is quite light, so I have plenty of opportunities for self study too.  I personally like songs and movies better than textbooks but it is the everyday interaction here that really speeds up my progress.  Lijiang is a tourist town and very different to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. In the big cities, everybody is always so busy with their lives, so busy with their jobs and so busy making money to survive that it can be difficult to strike up friendships with locals. In fact, being part of the Chinese rat race can be down right depressing for most urban dwellers.
Lijiang on the other hand is one of China's most beautiful tourist destinations.  As soon as tourists arrive here they are in a much more open, happier mood and therefore it is easy to strike up causal conversations.  I get to practice with accents from all over the country and talk about much more interesting subjects than people's boring jobs.
My fellow students here are from a much broader background than the city universities.  Those places are often dominated mostly by Korean teenagers and obnoxious rich kids of the African elites.  My classmates here have been much more interesting and diverse.  They are also more serious about making real progress.
Part time work is officially prohibited but there seems to be little serious enforcement.  Last semester, I had an older classmate who was giving English lessons to local Tu Haos at 200 kuai an hour as well as teaching at one of the five star hotels. One guy was was moonlighting as a trekking guide (hiking opportunities here are some of the best in Asia) and another was acting wedding priest for the western style ceremonies that are becoming ever more popular with Chinese. Others have gone on to start their own official businesses. One opened a school in a nearby town while another spends his off season here, while organising trekking trips into the Pamirs the rest of the year. There was one more GZ escapee who was tired of English teaching jobs but could not get hired as anything else because of his lack of Chinese skills. I hear that he is now working as a factory manager.
Anyway, enough waffling from me. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.

Thank you where are you taken your mandarin classes. Language school. University in Lijiang?
Thank you. Brian


I take exception to the word you used to describe language - a tool. True, you can learn a language to help you lead an easier life in your chosen country, but that is pointless unless you absorb the history and culture of the country where you study the local language,

How can you understand the 5,000 years of Chinese history and not read or even learn about The Three Kingdoms, The Water Marshes, The Journey to the West; other Chinese classics stories of value; the numerous holidays, their meanings and associated foods.  Also exploring the various Dynasties will give you insights onto the past.

Having been here for such a length of time, it's a shame you cannot integrate yourself more in the community - there is a great deal to be discovered and cherished by doing so.


You are just a SHOW  off. Talking about the 5000 years history of china etc... keep this lecture to yourself. If you can speak fluent Chinese good on you. Don't advise people what they should do or not do in China. It is none of your business Sir.

Brian, there are at least two or three choice for studying Mandarin in Lijiang.
I am studying with a school called Huayang Academy but there is also the Teacher's College and another place called Speakeasy.
There is a University here but it is a very low level place and I do not think they offer a Chinese course.
Huayang also has schools in Dali and Kunming, both of which are a big improvement on GZ .-)

I personally find the history boring and worthless. Not because I dislike history but because most of it is clearly manufactured. Unfortunately most textbooks are filled with great figures from China's illustrious past.
For example, my level three book had individual chapters on both Sun Yat Sen and Wu Zi Tian.  We spent more than a week on each and yet nobody has ever asked me my opinion on either.  It would have been much more useful to study about contemporary subjects that Chinese people like to talk about, such as Evergrande's progress or the latest League of Legend characters.

Well.. any part of the world you go to a non English speaking countries.. you got to learn to speak it.. whether through school or through friends.. otherwise, your life will be in a challenging situation.

As for me, I have to put in effort to speak & use the local terms that they use in China.

Let all put in effort to learn it for your stay in China..


David's (Fdawei's) post resonated with me. The debate about where enlightenment exists has taken place since ancient times in China. Nichiren, a Japanese sage who advanced a school of Buddhism inherited from much earlier teachings of T'ienTai in China, writing in the eleventh month of the second year of Koan (1279), uses The Dragon Gate of Chinese folklore to introduce this topic.

"A WATERFALL called the Dragon Gate exists in China. Its waters plunge a hundred feet, swifter than an arrow shot by a strong warrior. It is said that a great many carp gather in the basin below, hoping to climb the falls, and that any that succeeds will turn into a dragon. Not a single carp, however, out of a hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand, can climb the falls, not even after ten or twenty years. Some are swept away by the strong currents, some fall prey to eagles, hawks, kites, and owls, and others are netted, scooped up, or even shot with arrows by fishermen who line both banks of the falls ten cho wide. Such is the difficulty a carp faces in becoming a dragon. "

My take away from this, is that enlightenment does not exist in some unseen, isolated, supposedly pure stream above the Falls, rather it can be found in one's daily struggle together with common people in the pond below.

Hi Priscella,
I'ts interesting to learn mandarin i studied in SUN YAT SEN UNIVERSITY, GUANGZHOU for about a year. Because for me it's more easy to go around china if i can speak even basic chinese and also learning their language is also a way of learning chinese culture.

Could you tell us a bit about the SYS Mandarin program?
Costs, student make up etc.
Thanks in advance.

The "Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Mandarin Course" is available free on line. If you want to look it over, make sure you select the FREE one from your search results, as there are some re-packager links that ask for $. Its very American in style, was used to train US diplomats quickly before their assignment to PRC. For this reason alone FSI has good promise.

I'm trying FSI out now, the pronunciation and tone training goes much deeper than the other sources I've used. Am also working with Pimsleur (old CD sets can be got in many western public libraries).

Great . Thank you so much !

I agree. Put your money where yourmouth is.  Talk solutions and don't add to our list of anxieties.


You totally misunderstand, I have not been able to absorb the language or really take the time to learn it because of work.  However, don't assume I don't understand the culture.  I understand it very well.  In fact I have read all those books and more, I even teach Chinese History and have been told my understanding of the history and the culture is amazing considering I don't speak Chinese.

Learning the language is a "tool" towards effective communication.  I don't want you to assume that just because I don't speak it I'm less than able to be integrated into my community.  I have lived in the same complex for 7 years, I am friendly with my neighbors and have a huge network of contacts.  I do fine. 

Some people I have discovered are blessed to be language equipped.  They learn language very easily, while others like me struggle.  Just because we struggle don't assume we are not trying.  I think you need to consider that and be a little more open that for some of us language learning is not why we came to China.  For me it was to teach English and I like to think I do that very well, and most of my students would tell you that too.

Just an FYI, not too long ago I was awarded with "Most Favorite Teacher" from the Provincial Government in Jilin...I think I must be doing something right.

well done ! Brian

Hello Irai,

Many thanks for taking the time to reply to my earlier message, where I was perhaps, too harsh in my judgment.

You seem to have integrated extremely well into the Chinese community in Jilin and I applaud your being honored with "Most Favorite Teacher" by the Jilin government.

Seven years is certainly a long time to be in China so obviously your work, your network and, above all, your teaching, brings you the rewards and joy of being here.

My best to you for the rest of your sojourn in the Middle Kingdom.



Dear David:

I wasn't offended, I just thought you most likely misunderstood...that can happen.  Thanks for the kind words however.

I do plan to stay rooted so to speak here in Jilin as I've invested (time and money) into building a college prep program and want to see it grow and thrive.

My goal has been to change the way Chinese students are prepared for going to study abroad.  It's not radical as such but it is very different.  So far the program is growing slowly but slow and steady is much better than rapid and burned out.

It isn't that I don't want to learn the language it's been more about my focus and time to commit to learning which hasn't happened.  My time is so crammed pack most days that trying to squeeze in one more thing just isn't possible.  At my age I thought I'd be slowing down but quite the opposite has happened.  It's good and bad.

I do agree that learning a culture (which can include learning the language) is very important if you plan on staying for an extended time.  Knowing more about the people is vital.  I could not do what I am doing if I had not spent my previous years immersed in learning more about this place and the people I serve.  I can do what I do because of that time spent learning those things, it has opened up so many doors.

I wish you all the best too.


You do have a wonderful idea and plan for Chinese students.  There certainly is a pressing need for a method to change the way in which Chinese prep themselves for overseas study.  There are many such groups in Beijing and elsewhere, but they don't adequately prepare the students to face the reality of what they will encounter once abroad. And when they go abroad the schools, teachers and staff find a genuine deficit in what the Chinese students know.  You fill a vital role.

It's virtually impossible to develop a course and open a training centre to do what you do in either Beijing or Shanghai these days. The Commercial Registration Bureau has been ordered not to grant licenses rto individuals who want to register a training company.  So your location, away from the prying eyes of the central government, gives you more leeway.

Obviously you have the knowledge and ambition to succeed.

Be well,


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