Greg and friend by Zhang XiangThere are currently over 170 million people studying English in China. However, whether you’re disputing a bill at a downtown fanguan or trying to stop a friend from refilling your beer glass, it seems the Chinese just can’t understand native speakers. Here’s how to get your message across – without resorting to pictograms.

Take it slow
Stringing sentences together faster than a typist on a deadline will only confuse your poor listener. You need to slow down to about thirty words a minute if you want Mr. Zhang to understand “where you are come from,” so place a pause between words. Most native speakers spew forth a stream of continuous syllables. We can distinguish where one word ends and another begins, but Chinese English speakers can’t. They think “JustcallmeBob” is your name.

Keep the slang on the down low
You need to use standard English, if you want to be understood. ‘Crazy’ means ‘mentally disturbed’, ‘whack’ is something you do with a cudgel and ‘yo’ is one half of a trinket that was popular in the 70s, capiche?

Yank it up
Most Chinese study American English. If you despise wrestling, can’t stand Starbucks, and have never seriously considered suing somebody, you’re going to have trouble making yourself understood. They are familiar with these very American symbols. They also have more contact with the American accent. Swap that Irish lilt for a Californian cadence and people will get your drift much sooner.

Keep it simple
Leave that fancy prose at home, because English in China is a language of Sparton simplicity. “Excuse me, would you be so kind as point me in the direction of the lavatory?” becomes “Toilet where?” and Shakespeare’s classic couplet, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” translates as “You pretty girl. Very like you” Now that’s something everyone can understand.

Stifle those chuckles
The woman behind the counter answers your query with something like “When booking a ticket, you should pay the deposit half a month ago.” As absurd as that sentence is, please don’t laugh. English is a linguistic minefield for the Chinese and few dare venture out into the firing line of silent (but deadly) letters and booby-trapped tenses. Your harmless mockery may just spell the death of a student’s desire to learn. Besides, you need to keep in mind that as bad as the Chinese speak English, your Mandarin is far, far worse. So suppress that belly laugh and let the speaker save face. You can always chuckle about the blunder later.

The language barrier in China can pose a problem to travelers, but it doesn’t have to. By speaking slowly and clearly with a standard accent you’ll be able to capitalize on those lucky occasions when you do meet an English speaker.

Bio: Greg Foyster has worked as a copywriter, a travel writer, and according to his clairvoyant, a Tudor court jester. He currently lives in Xian, China. Email:
Photograph by Zhang Xiang.

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