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How to overcome the language barrier in China

By interdasglobal ( Updated: 2014-08-12 15:52

The language problem impacts on every facet of life here and I recommend that before any foreigner is posted to China they are sent on an intensive conversational Chinese language course, because the problems start almost immediately you get off the plane.

Trying to get the taxi driver to understand your destination is not the best way to begin life in China but it is in the apartment where the size of the problem rears its head.

One of the most endearing social norms in China is that everybody wants to assist the foreigner and even moderately competent English speaking total strangers will go out of their way to help. They will make phone calls, draw maps, explain to shop keepers, instruct taxi drivers and even carry out transactions on your behalf.

For example, I went to a nearby bakery to buy French bread and in the course of buying it noticed my phone had no credit. The sales lady, with the help of several shoppers, finally understood my questions about how to top up my phone and went on line to top it up for me; remember I just went to buy a baguette.

Would this happen in New York – I am not sure; it would be nice if it did but I don't think so.

Now let me look at some solutions to this problem, none of which will work unless you are totally open minded, upfront and honest about your lack of experience of all things Chinese, not just language

Number 1 –Try to learn language basics – it is not only respectful to address people in their own language it breaks down cultural and trust barriers.

Number 2 - Don't rely on phrase books because if you can't pronounce the words you just become a clown

Number 3 – Get a good mobile phone app that allows voice and written instant translation and conversation.

Number 4 – Go out of your way to make friends with Chinese people around you, pick a local coffee shop and use it regularly, be open and simple and you will find the willingness of Chinese people to talk to you and their appetite for knowledge of things foreign will amaze you.

Number 5 - Remember to make friends with business colleagues before making business.

Number 6 – Try to use whatever new words or phrases you learn – smile if you get it wrong and listen carefully when you are corrected.

Number 7 – Never ever assume that you know what you are doing in China, always listen to the advice of Chinese friends and colleagues, they live here.

Number 8 – When going to a business meeting always take an interpreter, this avoids misunderstandings that can lead to mistrust and failure

Number 9 – Never refuse hospitality, it is rude and leaves Chinese people with an impression that you are not a friendly person. Try every food that is offered by your host and don't be afraid to ask about ways to eat it and culturally distinct table manners – always with a smile. No one will blame you for mistakes. 'Watch, learn, do' is the rule.

Number 10 – Whenever you can, attend local events, festivals etc, this will help you absorb and assimilate local culture in a very interesting way.

Finally, if possible attend a Chinese language course before you set out on the very enjoyable adventure of living and working in China.

At this point I want to say thank you to all those kind helpful Chinese strangers who have helped me during my time here, every day has been worth living with some new experience that reminds me that human kindness and consideration is still alive in a world that is fast forgetting our inter-dependence on each other, after all, that is how the human race evolved.

Well it's time to go to work, so I say “ 再见,直到下周”. No! Please don't laugh if I got that wrong. I will welcome more tips on how to immerse myself in the language and culture of China. Bye.

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