Language and Communication
Who speaks English?
The vast majority of Chinese people do not speak any English. Why not? The same reason so few non-Chinese can speak good Chinese—it is hard to learn and not widely taught.
In four- and five-star hotels, you will usually find that receptionists, managers, the concierge, and some wait staff can speak English, while less expensive hotels might have few or no staff members who speak English. However, don’t let that put you off lower budget hotels, because for many itineraries these help save a lot on the cost. Hotel staff are usually eager to help, so with some patience you will surely manage to figure things out.
When someone wants to communicate with you, it is amazing how much can be said without words. Language can be a major roadblock in China, but it can also lead to some interesting encounters and new friendships.
That being said, learning a few useful phrases in Chinese before you come to China can make a big difference in helping you get by. Rather than just buying a phrasebook, consider taking a few lessons online to help you better understand the language and pronunciation. Duolingo is another useful (and free!) way to learn some Chinese basics before your trip.
A good translation app, like Google Translate or Pleco, is a must while you’re traveling in China. You can read more about our favorite language apps here.
During your trip, you might get tired of having every meal planned for you. It might nice to go out to explore on your own without a guide, and be free to eat wherever and whatever you want at your own pace. If you’re concerned about the language barrier, you can always enjoy a meal in a hotel restaurant, where this won’t be a problem. If you’d like a reprieve from local cuisine, a snack or meal at a Western chain like Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Pizza Hut is an easy option in major cities.
If you feel like being a bit more adventurous, you’re sure to find a good restaurant if you explore on your own. Simply walk out of your hotel, turn left or right (remember how to get back and bring a card with your hotel’s name and address on it), and find a restaurant you like the looks of (the busy ones are often the best). Staff outside may be already trying to convince you to go in and sit down. You can ask for an English menu; restaurants around hotels that cater to foreigners may have one. Many restaurants have picture menus, as well. The image translation feature in apps like Google Translate is very helpful in restaurants, as it can help you get a sense of what’s in a given dish. In a local restaurant, it is not rude to point out and order dishes neighboring tables are eating if they look good.
Another option in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong is fine dining. There are areas of town aimed at Westerners and trendy Chinese who want to go out, shop, and dine. This can be a fun evening out on your own. Beijing, being a capital city with diplomatic staff from all over the world, has great cuisine from every region.
Taxi a TaxiWhen you leave your hotel, the doorman can often let your taxi driver know your destination. Having your destination written in Chinese, whether in a guidebook, magazine, or on scrap of paper, is also helpful, as is a phone number. Be sure to bring a card or piece of paper with the name, address, and phone number of your hotel in Chinese for when you want to come back to your hotel. You can get in a taxi after dinner and drinks, hand the driver the card, and be taken home.
Another option is to get in a taxi and call someone on your mobile, such as the hotel/restaurant you are going to, and ask them to direct the driver. Having a good map app is helpful, as this allows you to see how far you are from your hotel and whether your driver is headed in the right direction. If you’re worried about communication, you can always take the subway, as the signs are in English and it’s very efficient.
How a Guide Can Help
Having a good guide during your trip makes a big difference, since they are essentially your personal assistant and translator. From getting picked up at the airport, checking into your hotel, ordering dishes according to your tastes, acting as a shopping consultant and being a friend, a guide can completely change the experience of your trip. Teamed with a driver, your guide will take you from place to place, sort out tickets, and take care of any problems along the way. Your guide can also teach you some basic Chinese phrases, not to mention anything you’d like to know about Chinese history and culture. We select our guides very carefully to make sure they can do all these things well.