How to Survive in China Without Speaking Chinese

Dan Agar
Dan Agar

 / Aug 21, 2017

Even though learning a new language will help you immensely with integrating and getting around while living anywhere abroad, you may have never learned a word of Chinese -- and that's OK. You can definitely survive in China those first few weeks even months without speaking Chinese.

The Opportunity to Learn Chinese While in China


Mandarin Chinese is a skill you may want to bring back home, and there are plenty of Chinese language schools in every major Chinese city. However, the Chinese language is difficult to learn, and arriving in China without speaking any Chinese can be scary. Even if you choose to learn Chinese, you may still be intimidated about those first few weeks or months.

But no worries!  There are some basic Chinese phrases that you can learn which will go a long way in helping you survive and feel comfortable while in China!

Looking for a Chinese teacher? Check out Elementary Chinese!


Top Must-Know Chinese Phrases Before You Get to China

In all honesty, it’s possible to live and travel in China without speaking the language. However, you’ll definitely want to pick up as many phrases as you can in the first few weeks. Despite years of English classes, many Chinese people are unable to communicate effectively in English. Learning a few basic phrases will make your life easier, and it will bring a smile to the face of Chinese locals.

The first thing to learn to say is ‘I don’t understand’. This is wo ting bu dong (war ting boo dong) 我听不懂. Using this will reduce frustrations both on your side and on the speaker’s side

Basic Helpful Chinese Phrases

Chinese Numbers

As well as knowing these phrases, it’s always good know your numbers!  They make shopping and negotiating so much easier.


Counting on Your Hands in Chinese

Whilst walking round Chinese markets and shops you may notice a lot of the tenders will keep waving their hands around in your face when trying to tell you the price of an item. These hand gestures represent numbers. But counting in Chinese on your hands is a bit different than what you may be used to in your home country.

Most Chinese restaurants in China have a picture menu meaning ordering food becomes pretty easy with just one phrase “that/that one” (Nà ge, please see above) alternatively whilst looking round the restaurant you see a dish that you fancy. You can point and use this phrase. The server may ask you questions about the dish but use your trusty 我听不懂 phrase and this should void any embarrassment on both sides.

Even if You Don't Speak Chinese, You Can Survive in China! 

(and Smartphone Apps make it even easier!)

The key thing to remember is if you familiarize yourself with a few of these basic Chinese phrases and know your numbers in Chinese, then that will be a HUGE help.  You can also take some Chinese classes or ask your co-workers for help when you are in China.  Lastly, many expats in China use language apps on their smartphone -- which are super helpful!  Some of the best apps for China include Pleco and WayGo for language help (remember, Google won't work without a VPN for China - so Google translate won't work either).

Get more great advice on living and working in China! Read The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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Dan Agar