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But I Don't Speak Chinese!
Written by: Amanda Barrows
Last Updated: July 19, 2021
No local language skills? No problem. It’s never too late to start learning a foreign language. Living abroad will give you the opportunity to immerse yourself in a new language and culture. With an open mind and a willingness to learn, you could even become fluent. However, even if you aren’t looking to become fluent in the local language of your host country - or maybe learning languages simply isn’t your ‘cup of tea’ - I definitely recommend learning at least some survival level language skills to get around in your host country. It will help you with your initial adaption to a new culture, your daily life, and will enable you to connect and engage in your local community.
Why Learn the Local Language?
In my situation, I arrived in Suzhou, China not speaking Mandarin. However, I made an effort to learn basic phrases, as I have come to find that learning even a bit of the language means the world to local people. It shows a certain level of respect for the culture and country within which you have now decided to make your home. Speaking someone’s language speaks to their heart. As a foreigner, I’m a guest in China and an ambassador for my country. Learning a bit of the language can show respect and that, although adjustment may be difficult, I am making an effort.
Learning the local language, can also make daily life easier. Communication is key wherever one lives in the world, and China is no different. Although some people may speak English in the metropolitan centers, the same cannot be said for the outskirts of cities. If you want to journey with ease to other places, make local friends, or simply go shopping, knowing a bit of basic Chinese will be key in helping you navigate quotidian life.
Finally, having a foundation in the local language will be an indispensable tool for you in the ESL classroom. You will be able to engage with your students, or even clarify classroom instructions. It can also serve as an ice-breaker and attention grabber for students. Although it’s better not to go overboard using Chinese in the ESL classroom, there is no denying that a mutual respect will be established if a teacher is making an effort to learn Chinese.
In my situation, acquiring Chinese language skills has made my students more receptive to my lessons. As I’m working with pre-k students - who can sometimes be a handful - it’s been a useful tool for classroom management. If my teaching assistant leaves the room, I know that I will be able to manage to classroom effectively and will be able to meet the needs of my students and quell conflicts as they arise.
Learning Chinese has also “leveled the playing field” in my ESL classrooms. My students see my willingness to learn Chinese and note that I too make mistakes. This sense of vulnerability, yet unfading enthusiasm for language learning can boost their own confidence and motivation in learning English. It shows that their language goals can be accomplished and that I am also willing to learn from my students. This makes for a healthy classroom dynamic, where teacher and students are willing to learn together and improve over time. Through learning Chinese, I can empathize with my students’ language experience, and will understand what types of mistakes they might make in learning English. It makes me a better teacher. In this way, learning a bit of Chinese for the ESL classroom, has given my students more confidence to speak out in English and has culminated in a healthy classroom dynamic.
I want to reference a personal anecdote to show how impactful learning the local language can be on a student’s outlook. For the sake of this anecdote, I will refer to the student as “Neng Neng” (age 4).
Neng Neng: 老师, 你听不懂我的话, 对吗？
Teacher you don't understand me, right?
I understand you.
Neng Neng: "当你第一次来的时候, 你听不懂我的话..."
When you first came here, you didn't understand me.
But, I've been studying Chinese.
Neng Neng: 老师在学习吗？我的老师听得懂我!
Teacher studies?! My teacher understands me!
Your students will have more respect for you if they know you are making an effort to learn about their culture and their language. Your willingness to learn and curiosity for their lives will make enable you to make class more personal and interesting for them. It will show them that you care and want to make a difference in their lives. This in turn, will keep them motivated in learning English as you will better understand their needs as students and their interests.
How to Learn the Local Language?
There are so many resources available to you wherever you may be in China. The trick is keeping your eyes open, doing some research and asking around to find out what resources are available in your local community. Here are some steps you make take to facilitate your search.
Sign up for a Chinese class: If you are looking for consistency, community and to build a strong foundation for your language skills, I recommend to taking a Chinese class. Many Chinese Universities offer Chinese classes for foreigners. Private language academies are also trending in China and some offer Chinese classes to foreigners. For those who don’t enjoy a commute, on-line classes might also be an option.
Find a local tutor: No matter where you are based in China, there is bound to be someone willing to tutor you. Ask a co-worker to help you do some search, or check your ex-pat Facebook group.
Look online for classes, videos and materials: There are plenty of free resources available to you if you are looking to learn Chinese and they’re only a click away. If you want to learn some of the basics but aren’t sure you want to invest in learning Chinese yet, these sites are good places to start. Below, I am listing 4 of my personal favorite sites to help you get started:
Learning Basic Hanzi:
Learning Survival Chinese:
Immerse yourself in local culture and life: Find every opportunity to engage in your local community. This could be as simple as going to a local market or coffee shop, or greeting Chinese co-workers in Chinese. If you are looking to engage with the community in Chinese, local people will be generally more willing to respond, and might even help you to improve your Mandarin skills by correcting your mistakes. Language learning happens through repetition, trial-and-error and understanding one’s mistakes. Thus, every opportunity you take to speak Mandarin, brings you one step closer to further understanding the language.
Living abroad is an experience that involves adaptation to a new language and culture. Although it can be challenging, to those who are willing to learn, this new environment can facilitate fast-paced language learning. Every effort taken in learning the language of one’s host country will pay off in the long run. As my students remind me every day, to speak and to be understood is truly a gift.
Upon graduating from College in 2014, Amanda received her TEFL certification from International TEFL Academy and began teaching English in France. A few years later, and a Fulbright grant under her belt, she went on to teach English in South Korea, and then Suzhou, China, where she became one of our 2018 Alumni Content & Writing Ambassadors.
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