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Section II: Living in China continued

Language Barrier in China

At Least They Speak English

Probably the greatest adjustment required of us all as foreign teachers is coping with the language barrier—and it is so formidable, pervasive and ubiquitous, that it is almost unimaginable prior to arriving in China.

Despite the fact that China has more English language learners than any other country in the world, the truth is—especially outside the three major international cities—the English speaking abilities of the Chinese, in general, are abysmal to non-existent.

The reality is, the vast majority of Chinese students acquire just enough language skills to pass their English language certification exams and to win a better job but, after graduating from college and securing that first job, will seldom, if ever, use one word of spoken English again for the rest of their lives. There is no English language speaking environment outside the foreign English teachers' classrooms and, more to the point, the Chinese Communist Regime has strictly forbidden the use of the English language on national television.

A few Chinese English language learners will land positions that require the use of English on a regular or even daily basis such as tour guides (in major cities), translators and Chinese English teachers, but probably 90 to 95 percent will never utter or use another word of spoken English again after graduating from college (although those who work for international companies will need to use their reading and, possibly, writing skills on occasion). Consequently—and this is particularly true in regions and cities where foreigners are scarce—virtually everyone you encounter will not be able to communicate with you in English.

The dire consequences of this reality warrant some discussion and consideration. What this means is that until you acquire some minimal language survival skills (usually three to six months), you will not be able to do anything that you took for granted back home, without first being accompanied by an interpreter. You will not be able to go to a restaurant, order water for your apartment, shop in any store (other than a grocery, perhaps), go to the bank, change money, visit a doctor, get eyeglasses, or take a taxi, etc., without first imposing on someone else with Chinese communication skills to accompany you. If you do have to take a taxi to get to one of your school's branches, you will need to carry on your person various scrapes of paper with the destinations (to and from your apartment) written in Chinese (and not all taxi drivers are literate).

No matter what you need to take care of initially (such as purchasing a cell phone, or acquiring furnishings for your apartment, etc.), you will first have to make prior arrangements to be accompanied by someone who can speak for you. You will only be able to eat in restaurants that offer menus with photos of all their main entrees (and most don't, including many 4-star hotels), or you will have to ask a Chinese friend to write down the names of all the dishes you like (and, then, you won't be able to try anything new unless accompanied by a Chinese). The overall initial experience can be quite daunting and frustrating beyond belief, even humiliating. In a manner of speaking, you will feel very much like a dependent child who can't do anything on his or her own. You absolutely and positively need to be mentally prepared for this initial adjustment period prior to arriving in China.

Learn Some Chinese Before You Arrive

Hence, it is highly recommended you attempt to acquire some "survival" Chinese language skills before you arrive here (especially if you will not be teaching in one of the three aforementioned international cities). By survival Chinese language skills, we are talking about acquiring 1) an understanding of how the four different tones in Chinese are produced and, 2) enough of a vocabulary and understanding of grammar to, for example, communicate basic needs, place an order in a restaurant, or give a destination and simple directions to a taxi driver. Acquiring this minimal level of Chinese, preferably before you arrive, will make your adjustment to China indescribably easier and gentler. The truth of the matter is, the Chinese are so appreciative whenever foreigners attempt to speak their language that just a few words can go a very long way.

There are numerous books available for learning Chinese via Pinyin (the representation of the corresponding sounds of the Chinese characters through the use of the Roman alphabet) and you would be well-advised to buy a good English-Chinese dictionary (with Pinyin) before you leave home (as it is extremely difficult to find an English-Chinese dictionary with anything but Chinese characters in China—which is entirely useless unless you can read Chinese characters).

A good place to start your journey would be to view some of the Chinese language resources listed in our China EFL Teacher Resource page. In addition, many foreigners have reported excellent results with the "Rosetta Stone" Chinese computer language course. Those who are particularly conscientious might even consider taking a course or two in Chinese at a local community college or university before arriving here, including those who plan on formally studying Chinese in China. Whatever language skills you can acquire before arriving here will make a tremendous difference to you personally.

As a final note, and in response to several reader inquires about this, Chinese language skills are not required for employment as a foreign English teacher and having them will not make you more competitive for a position. In fact, most schools will be reticent to hire anyone they feel is primarily teaching in China in order to learn Chinese and they typically forbid their foreign teachers from speaking or practicing any Chinese in class whatsoever. The schools feel that if they wanted someone to speak Chinese to their students, they would have hired a Chinese English teacher.




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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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