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Do you need Survival Chinese to travel in China?


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Can you get by only with English? Does speaking a few words of Chinese really increase the depth of the relationships you can have with local people along the way?

Any good tips to get this survival Chinese in a few days at low cost?

Thanks in advance!


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Hi Sylvain,

If you only travel to Shanghai, Hong kong and Beijing, you probably don't much Chinese and it won't be so important.

But traveling to The west and south west, (or pretty much anywhere outside of these cities) learning a little chinese will go a long way.

There are survival Chinese books and phrase books out there. I personally like the lonely planet phrasebook. In the Shanghai foreign language on they had one or two phrase books that were written by Shanghai westerns who chose not to use pinyin, but it had interesting phrases for hitting on girls and talking about food.

The major survival things you will need to learn are the numbers and money bargaining. (you bargain for most things at tourist markets). Food issues. i.e. if you don't say make it mild in Scihuan you will burn your stomach up with chili peppers. The basic 20 questions most chinese will ask you,

who are you, what country? what job? what salary? what tourist place are you going to? Are you married? etc...

There is a food site of Chinese food vocabulary with pictures. (do a search on the forums>) That can help if you're interested in food.

Many Chinese universities also give short term classes in Chinese if you want to just learn quickly for the first few days in China, most will be flexible call them or just walk in the door. Also there are internet language exchange sites and online tutoring sites. (Yes I do run a tutoring site follow the link at the bottom if you're interested.) We had a swiss high school student study for 3 month before coming to travel in China , he though it was very useful. The Language exchange site can be good, just keep in mind the time difference with the east coast of the US is 12 hours. and with England usually 7 hours ahead.

Also Chinese people will be flexible if you want to use body language and gestures to talk. Most of them are the same, or learned from the US, i.e. thumbs up good.

If you meet Chinese people along the way who speak english, ask them to write down the addresses of the places you want to see, and perhaps food. (This also works with pointing to the characters in the phrase book or travel guide.)

In any case traveling in China feels very safe. Apart from the drunk people outside bars and the occasionall bicycle thief, there is very little crime here.

Good luck have fun,


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... but don't expect every Chinese person to understand what you learn.

Many travellers/tourists learn some survival language ... and that indeed helps them around in the whole of many countries.

However in China, due to it's size, big cultural differences and rather poor education, many local Chinese people (outside the cities mentioned by Simon) do not speak or understand Mandarin Chinese neither.

This is particularly the case with older people. But even young people, who learned Mandarin at school, tend to forget it rather quickly when they start working and continue living in their local village/small town.

I even find that some young school leavers/drop-outs pertain their English skills better than their Mandarin ones.

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Senzhi is wrong,

the vast majority of people in China speak and understand mandarin. They may sometimes have accents like londoners, but they almost all speak mandarin. For some old people who haven't been to middle school or high school , their writing and reading skills might not be good. But at least they could understand you if you speak clearly enough.

In this way China can be easier than europe half the size but many more languages.

have fun,


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Hi senzhi,

Sorry to be so direct. But some of my friends irk me, but trying to claim China has a continent's worth of languages. I have traveled from the southern tip of Zhuhai to the south west lijiiang, to the western Tian Chi Lake near Urumuqi, shanghai and Beijing. In each place I have used my mandarin and everyone knew what I was saying and spoke with.

( A couple times people would try to switch to English to practice.)

Sorry about being harsh. Also I found people would invite me to do cool stuff even with very minor chinese skills. I highly recommend learning some, as it opens up another world.

(Also if you're traveling to places unknown to the guide book, the poor but stunning Guizho province or the dessert landscapes of Gansu and Ningxia chinese skills will be of great help.

Have fun,


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No worries.

And it's true, being able to communicate with people that speak a foreign language does indeed open a brand new world. Even a simple "Hi" or "Thank you" in any foreign language gives back a great appreciation of your efforts.

Having travelled extensively in Europe, Middle-East, Asia and Africa, I know that many travellers expect that all people from a foreign country understand the few memorised travelling/tourist phrasebook sentences. In general this is more or less true, but I do find it in China a little bit more complex than that ... and thus can cause confusion for the well-meaning visitor.

In China, I have travelled all over the south and the Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai area. I do find that Mandarin is still not that evoluated in the southern local parts as the Chinese government publicly makes us think, except for the usual big cities ... and sometimes even less than English.

But of course that makes the communication more challenging ... and the fun greater and more rewarding! :D

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accent can be an obstacle in some cases. I worked in the Henan province last year and people always confused 'f' sound and 'h' sound. I found no problem to understand this because I can southern dialects, but some of my friends found it hard to make a switch.

One interesting phenonemon is that some people, whose dialects are similar Mandarin, tend to 'pretend' to speak Mandarin when they're speaking their own dialect. This problem is particular common in Sichuan and Henan. When they insist they've spoken 'Mandarin' to you , don't always take it serious.

Situation in rural areas can be even worse. Many old and mid-aged people can't speak Mandarin. If you're very fluent in Chinese, and understand many vocab, you possibly understand what they're saying. But it's too difficult for new learners to manage it well.

But the best way to make friends is always to learn their language. In cities as big as Shenzhen, Shanghai or Beijing, although people to talk with Europeans and Americans and take it as a good opportunity to practice English (they assume all White can speak English), most of them just don't speak well, usually fail to understand what you say. How could you make good friends when you could only say "Ni Hao", "Wo hen hao"?

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Situation in rural areas can be even worse. Many old and mid-aged people can't speak Mandarin. If you're very fluent in Chinese, and understand many vocab, you possibly understand what they're saying. But it's too difficult for new learners to manage it well.

Actually, it's very very difficult even for a native Mandarin speaker to understand some southern dialects.:oops:

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