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How to Break Through Language Barriers in China

A photo showing different languages of the word welcome
China Brides Caption logoAvoid communication culture shock on your
China trip.

For English speakers, communication barriers don’t get much in the way as English of varying quality is prevalent in most tourist destinations.

Going on a China trip is no different than traveling to most other international destinations.

The heart of the country is a welcoming haven for foreign visitors, except for those who want to go farther.

The further you stray from the country’s capital, the more the language barriers become intimidating.

However, language difficulty is not enough reason to dread visiting China and miss out on the best China tour packages.

In most parts of Beijing, there are various tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels where staff members speak just enough English.

If your China trip itinerary includes visiting areas outside the city of Beijing, it’s very likely that you’ll fall into frustrations of getting your point across.

If your best attempts fail, it’s important to have backup plans so you can communicate better, or in this case, in other possible and convenient ways.

Before and during your China trip, make sure that you have some helpful communication tools handy.

Tips on Overcoming Communication Barriers

A photo of two men from different races sitting down while chatting in a cafe
China Brides Caption logoBe sure to prepare ample communication tools
before you go on your China trip.

The language barrier in China may give a certain amount of culture shock to first-time visitors as they become familiar with Chinese culture.

Fortunately, there are various ways to keep this under control.

Keep Communication Tools Handy

Using any of these tools alone might not be that much help. A combination of the following, on the other hand, will definitely help you be understood.

  • Phrasebooks

    While in China, you should try to learn some Mandarin, especially some of the most commonly used phrases.

    It will greatly enhance your travel, although it might not realistically dissolve the language barriers in the country.

  • Google Translate

    Like any other translation software, the Google Translate app may result in some reasonably hilarious misunderstandings.

    However, Google Translate can be an impressive tool when used to the fullest potential.

    The app has many features that translate spoken and printed word, one of which is by using the camera in the app.

    For instance, when you look at transcripts with Chinese symbols using the camera on the app, they will appear in English or whichever language you choose.

  • Charades

    All travelers resort to charades as a default option whenever necessary.

    But take note that there are differences in cultural ideologies.

    The usual pointing and gesturing may be misunderstood by others.

    You might motion for chopsticks with your hands and the waiter may bring you a pencil.

    Remember not to point with a single finger in China as doing will offend many people.

  • Point-It Book

    This book consists of thousands of categorized thumbnails that can be very useful on your extended trips to China.

    It contains pictures under main categories such as food, items, emergencies, and other essentials.

    You can simply point at the pictures when trying to communicate with Mandarin speaking locals.

    You can also purchase the Point-It smartphone app depending on your preference.

  • Your Smartphone

    When you’re out of options, communicate your thoughts by pointing out images on your phone.

    Make sure to take a photo of everyday items and scenarios that you can use later on during your trip.

    Taking photos by yourself might be better than researching them so that you can get exactly what you’re requesting.

    This will also be a great visual queue for staff members at any restaurant or establishment who are not familiar with the English language but still insist on helping you.

Learn the Essentials When Ordering Food

Going into restaurants, you can order Chinese food or English cuisines by pointing to dishes that other customers are eating.

When you are seated, make sure to pay attention to other customers’ orders to check for anything that looks appetizing.

To indicate something, point it out with your chin or full hand while dining at a Chinese restaurant.

Some establishments will also go further by inviting you to the kitchen so you can choose what you want prepared.

When they do, point out fresh-looking ingredients for a meal.

It’s almost always that Chinese and English versions for some dishes and recipes are available, especially in tourist-oriented eateries.

If you want to enjoy China to the fullest, try ordering dishes in Chinese versions.

Know When and Where to Find Assistance

When getting tickets, large train and bus stations usually have ticketing windows aimed to assist foreigners and are usually staffed by locals who speak enough English.

Finding assistance for English speaking tourists won’t be much of a problem as there are signs above windows or kiosk.

However, taking a taxi can be challenging.

Taxi drivers mostly speak limited to zero English.

Whether you’re going out for date night or heading to the airport, there are things you can prepare for before leaving the hotel so you can avoid any potential problems:

  • Grab a hotel business card so you will not have a problem coming back from your day trip.

    This way, you can show your address in the Chinese language to the drivers.

  • Tourist-oriented hotels have receptionists who can speak and write basic English.

    Ask them to help you write things down, such as food, destinations, or other useful terms in Chinese.

    This is also a good way to get some creative date ideas at certain restaurants and other tourist attractions if you happen to visit the country with your partner.

  • When confused, seek assistance from locals.

    Younger generations grew up with more diversity, especially in the capital city where you will find young Chinese people who would be very glad to translate your messages into Mandarin.

Practice Using Words and Phrases You’ve Memorized When Conversing With the Locals

Foreigners are encouraged to interact with the locals and say hello in their native language.

Aside from getting friendly smiles and responses, you’d get to know about other great destinations and things to try out as well.

Unlike Japan, you will not have to bow down as they do handshakes, although more loosely than the Western way.

Here are some tips to help you in your pursuit to interact with Chinese locals:

  • Speaking louder will not help.

    There are some locals who speak minimal to zero English, so talking louder or slower might not help them understand you better.

    Try to see things from the perspective of local Mandarin speakers.

    Unless you’re studying Mandarin, you may not be able to understand the language well if it was spoken to you in a louder and slower manner.

  • Getting some words and phrases right could encourage friendly strangers to come your way and engage you in real, genuine conversations.

    It can be intimidating to speak to locals in their language when you only know the basics of Mandarin.

    The unexpected Mandarin response directed your way is, unfortunately, your reward for nailing a tone-perfect Mandarin sentence or phrase, depending on how you spoke it.

  • Mandarin works best in Beijing.

    You’ll most likely want to hit your Mandarin right with people from the capital city.

    If you travel further away, you may have trouble finding Chinese locals who can understand your trial and errors as you try to get your words and sentences right.

  • Take note that only a few Chinese people know the English alphabet.

    Pointing to a map, card, or guidebook with a phonetic alphabet will not help them understand you just as you are not able to understand Chinese symbols.

    All things considered, traveling is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself.

    So go on a China trip and make the most of it by not letting any language barriers intimidate you from doing so.

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