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Mandarin Chinese as a travel language

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I live in China most of each year and travel fairly much in Asia. Am finding more and more that when I get stuck in situations where I cannot adequately use the local language and the people I'm dealing with can't speak English, Chinese can come in handy.

 

Am in Jakarta today, and that happened at lunch. It was a large and busy restaurant and I was stumped. Nobody spoke English and my minimal Indonesian failed. I just said one word, "Chinese" and it was like rubbing Aladdin's magic lamp. The waiter left and Presto, a Chinese speaker appeared. Turned out she was the owner.

 

The lady's first Chinese language was Hokkein, but she was still able to communicate just fine in Mandarin. Realized at the time that the same thing happened last week in Kuala Lumpur and I had not given it any thought.

 

Did a mental survey as I was finishing the meal. Getting bailed out by Chinese has happened to me in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Also in Korea. Some situations were more surprising than others. It has notably *not* proved helpful in Japan, where I just get blank stares when trying it.

 

My guess is that this is not only due to the Chinese diaspora that took place over the course of years past, but that it's also due to the increasingly large footprint of newly-affluent Mainland Chinese tourists. I have Chinese friends who go to Australia once or twice a year without speaking a word of English.

 

Has anyone else noticed the same thing?

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fanglu

A few years ago in Venezuela I found Chinese pretty helpful. I can't speak Spanish at all (well, I can put a Spanishy kind of accent on and end an English word with an 'a' sound, which works surprisingly often, but other than that). Chinese people stand out, so are easy to find in a pinch, and the vast majority of them could speak Mandarin (some with strong accents). They were very willing to translate into Spanish for me (much to the amusement of everyone else nearby), and it was interesting to hear their stories about how they'd come (most reasonably recently) to Venezuela to open shops etc.

 

I've used Chinese in Laos too, although it wasn't overly helpful since none of the people I spoke to could speak much Laos at all.

 

I've spent a fair bit of time in Thailand, and have always found it easier to find someone who speaks English than someone who speaks Chinese. I've met lots of old people (including my father in law) who speak 潮州话 (which is also what most Thai people mean when they say 'Chinese' - ภาษาจีน), and a reasonable number of them can read at least some Chinese, so I guess in a pinch you could try writing something down.

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abcdefg

That's interesting. Who would have thought it would be useful in Venezuela? Switching to Chinese does indeed tend to lead to swapping "life stories."

 

I didn't realize 潮州话 was the most common Chinese language in Thailand. I must agree that English usually works there. Wish I could speak Thai. Tried to learn it once without much success.

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Kanjiology

@abcdefg

 

Haha, what kind of reactions do you get when you use Chinese? If you're not of Asian descent they must be pretty surprised. 

 

I'm usually either in Mainland China where I can only use Mandarin or in South Florida where the population of Chinese is rather small and have never had the opportunity to use my Mandarin in the wild. 

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tooironic

I too have been pleasantly surprised when Mandarin has worked as a lingua franca when English has failed - mostly with Koreas, Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians. Of course, it's not as if it's a fixed thing - it depends entirely on the individual I meet as to whether they can actually speak Mandarin on account of their family or education background. When I eventually travel more of Asia (i.e. outside of China and Taiwan) I'll see if it comes in handy the way the it has for the OP. As a native speaker of English, I have always found it refreshing when English is no longer the default mode of communication.

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gato

I was able to use Chinese in Kyoto on a recent visit on three different occasions -- with a restaurant waiter at a ramen shop, a sales clerk at an electronics store, and a clerk at a department store for dealing with sales tax refund.   The first two were students from mainland China studying in Kyoto.  The third was probably Taiwanese, judging from her accent.  The one at the ramen shop was a lifesaver because we were hungry but couldn't figure out how to make an order (turned out you had to enter your order and pay on a "vending machine" before sitting down).  

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abcdefg
Haha, what kind of reactions do you get when you use Chinese? If you're not of Asian descent they must be pretty surprised.

 

@Kanjiology -- I'm not Asian so speaking Chinese always first elicits a doubletake, then after that it's no big deal.

 

As a native speaker of English, I have always found it refreshing when English is no longer the default mode of communication.

 

 

@tooironic -- Agree! It may signal the start of a new era.

 

The one at the ramen shop was a lifesaver because we were hungry but couldn't figure out how to make an order (turned out you had to enter your order and pay on a "vending machine" before sitting down).

 

 

@gato -- Ah, those crazy Japanese vending machines! I have had several fierce struggles with them too, 

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stapler

I can see how Chinese coming on holiday to Australia don't need any English haha. The CBD of every city has large and visible numbers of Chinese. Where I live (a small town called Adelaide) some shops and banks etc even use multilingual signage: Chinese and English. I imagine it's quite similar and New Zealand and Canada.

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abcdefg

@stapler -- Adelaide is where my Kunming friends go. Their daughter attends a boarding school there.

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OneEye

I've been able to use Chinese a few places in Japan, but not many. The first time I came to Tokyo for vacation, I was in some glassware store on Kappabashi Street and the owner started speaking Japanese to me. I didn't understand a word, so she smiled and walked to the back and yelled to the other lady working there "這個外國人不會說日語啊." I was saved! We talked for a while and she gave my wife a discount on some glasses.

 

Then again, at a pretty authentic Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood, nobody speaks a word of Chinese. Oh well.

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renzhe

I had an interesting experience in Bangkok when I met up with a friend from university. His girlfriend spoke very little English, but was quite fluent in Chinese, having lived in Beijing for a year. Both of them are Thai, but ethnic Chinese -- very common in Bangkok. My friend could understand Mandarin reasonably well, but not speak it. It was a really cool experience for me, switching between Mandarin and English the whole day, and it felt really normal, despite the fact that we were in Thailand.

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Shelley

I must admit I am not too surprised that Chinese can be such a good "third" language, a lingua franca.

 

One of the reasons one of my fellow students at evening class gave as his reason for learning Chinese was that he believed Chinese and English would be two very useful languages for traveling in the future ( this was about 10 years ago) so maybe he was right :)

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abcdefg

I must admit I am not too surprised that Chinese can be such a good "third" language, a lingua franca.

 

 

Am embarrassed to confess that finding Chinese useful in those situations kind of took me by surprise even though it shouldn't have. Sort of discovered it by accident.

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Silent

Haven't had any use for Chinese as a lifesaver outside of China yet. Nevertheless since I try to learn Chinese I do realize it's more useful then I thought. However in hindsight it's quite obvious. I mean Chinese has been an influential language for east Asia for ages. This shows to some extent in modern Asian languages.  There's a huge diaspora all over the world and in recent decades the economics and increased number of Chinese tourists have their impact too.

 

At the same time I see the opposite happening with German. A few decades ago in European touristic places and eastern Europe German was usually the language of choice. Often times English wasn't available. Now the default seems English with German still a very good second, specially when dealing with older people.

 

I've the impression that English is worldwide on the increase due to better education and being recognised by most as the lingua franca of the world. Chinese is on the increase mainly due to economic reasons (business and tourism) but I guess education plays a role too. The Chinese are moving towards a more uniform language instead of a bunch of mutually unintelligable dialects. At the same time many of the other languages decrease in importance. There's little point in learning French and German when communication in English works fine too.

 

So in a sense, the Chinese might push their language by being economically important and not learning other languages (too well).

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AdamD

Last year in Kuala Lumpur, in the space of a week, I used pure Chinese (terribly) three times in shops, and a fourth with a Malaysian-born driver who said he speaks Chinese but wouldn't.

 

Four years ago I was in Zambia, which has a solid chunk of Chinese investment, but the only Chinese I saw was sign-written horribly. I'd love to go back and see whether it's changed since then.

 

 

As a native speaker of English, I have always found it refreshing when English is no longer the default mode of communication.

 

Yes, and it seems to be more frequently the case than when I started learning five years ago. Now that loads of kids everywhere are being taught Chinese at primary level, in 20 years it'll surely be up there with Spanish and French as a fall-back language.

 

The lingua franca aspect is also a great answer to the "so why are you studying Chinese?" question that I must have been asked 4,000 times by now.

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Matty

A few years ago back in Sydney I was lost while looking for the train station. There was only one person in sight anywhere so I asked her where the train station was. She responded with "arm flapping" apparently trying to communicate that she didn't speak English.

She appeared a lot less stressed out when I asked again in Chinese and proceeded to give me some good directions.

SUCCESS!

I've also found that between Chinese and English you can speak to pretty much anyone in South Korea. They're usually good enough at either one or the other.

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skylee

Chinese in South Korea? I know it works at touristy places but am not sure if it would work in other places. I wonder if Japanese might work better than Chinese in South Korea.

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Matty

Yup, try it. I found that generally if they don't speak English they can speak Chinese. I generally avoid tourist locations so I can't compare with those.

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tysond

Firstly, many parts of SE Asia have significant Chinese populations - Singapore (75%), Malaysia (30%), Indonesia (1% but strong in business),  Thailand (14% including many important families), etc.  There are Chinese all through the business communities of SE Asia, some of them there for many years of diaspora, some of them recent arrivals.  If you are in a hotel, mine, plantation, factory, store, mall, etc - there's a good chance the owners might be Chinese. 

 

They are also in the Pacific - I've used Chinese in Vanautu, Tahiti and Palau.  In the pacific many are traders importing goods from China and selling locally (often at vastly cheaper prices than imports from France/USA the traditional suppliers via colonial history), some are owning factories and producing goods locally.  I stayed in a beach chalet that was designed and built by a Chinese businessman living & married to a local in Tahiti.. 

 

I think there is a big trend of consolidating Mandarin as the preferred language for ethnic Chinese (mixed dialect families, trade, pop culture, Chinese school standardization) and also more and more Chinese are emigrating from PRC.

 

Trade and tourism are also making it more worthwhile to learn Mandarin to work with PRC suppliers and customers -- but realistically the level of Chinese folks learn for these purposes is not very high (unless they are ethnic Chinese and part of the schooling/culture) - it's more a few hundred words to handle the basics while there are stronger Chinese speakers on staff to handle the hard stuff.

 

I've seen quite non-Chinese people sending their kids to Chinese classes, anticipating it will be useful, but I really don't know if this is effective (maybe it's a nice background that will one day be useful, but right now their kids are non-functional in Chinese and don't use it in daily life).

 

Agree with others it's fun and rewarding when English doesn't work but Chinese saves the day.  I also had great fun a month ago in a tiny village in Malaysia speaking English, Malay and Mandarin with the shopkeeper, switching each sentence depending on what you know and what is fun to say.  (Of course he can probably also speak Tamil, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese!).

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hongputaojiu

Yes Mandarin is also very useful in Europe. Whenever I found English was not an option, finding Mandarin speakers was quite easy. This happened to me in Paris, Budapest and Rome, where I dont speak any of the local languages. It was really super convenient! And the surprise of the people you chat with is priceless! I got help looking for a park (Paris) the subway (Budapest), hotel (Rome) and even just ordering food at random places especially in Eastern Europe!

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