China is often perceived as a mysterious country, with its history, culture, and customs all adding to its enigmatic nature. It’s just one of the reasons why so many people want to visit every single year. However, the language barrier is, one thing that tends to deter travellers from booking a trip of a lifetime to this amazing country.
Whilst Mandarin (or Standard Chinese) is the country’s official language, its vastness and, subsequently, huge population means China has 302 individual living languages, the majority of which are indigenous.
You shouldn’t let the prospect of a language barrier hold you back, however. There are many steps you can take to break through the language barrier, whether your itinerary takes you to the country’s largest cities or to the heart of rural China. We explore a few below.
Get to grips with the basics
In the countdown to any trip overseas, you’ll be busy planning your itinerary and stocking up on the essentials. We recommend finding some time to learn the basics of Mandarin in preparation for your trip too. Mandarin is seen as an extremely complex language, and it is, but even those with no experience speaking a foreign language can learn a few phrases.
Making Mandarin a part of your daily life is the best way to learn. With the latest technology, the resources you need are easily accessible both at home and on the go.
Tuning into a Chinese speaking TV show as Christine Tan recommends is another way to help you become accustomed to hearing this foreign language:
“Consuming Chinese pop culture is an enjoyable way to build your vocabulary just by sitting on your tush, and a great chance to test your listening and comprehension away from the classroom syllabus. I suggest focusing on just one particular show or mini-series to start with. I find I get emotionally involved with the storyline, which gives me added incentive to keep watching, and it helps my listening skills to focus on the accents of only a handful of people.”
Pack the right supplies
As well as arming yourself with some basic Mandarin phrases, adding a few extras to your China packing list is a must. Phrasebooks will be invaluable when travelling to China and exploring the depths of its cities, towns and villages.
Making sure your smartphone has the necessary VPN setup so you can access Google Translate is another essential that will serve you well if you need help fast or with expressions that aren’t covered by your phrasebook.
Body language and gestures – or charades as many travelers like to refer to them – may not be the most accurate way of breaking through the language barrier, but it’s an age-old system that’s been relied on by foreign tourists for as long as we can remember.
Making sure your body language and gestures aren’t offensive however is the key to getting the information you need without upsetting the locals.
Pointing, for example, is a useful tool to discover the answers to many queries if you can’t rely on verbal communication. You can get the right directions, indicate a tasty dish to eat or direct yourself to your preferred seating area all with the point of a finger.
But beware, in China, pointing with a single finger is considered impolite. To avoid any Chinese etiquette fails, point with your chin or your full hand.
Remember the locals are happy to help
Despite the obvious language barrier, locals in China are generally friendly, especially in rural areas, where foreign tourists are less common.
In many villages and towns, tourists are treated with the utmost respect, with the majority of local people keen to invite them for a cup of tea or dinner. Locals are aware of the language barrier just as much as you are, and tend to be patient and helpful as a result.