Overcoming Language Barriers in China

May 29, 2015
Overcoming Language Barriers in China

After graduating college, I was at a loss figuring out what my next move would be. I knew I didn’t want to waste away at a 9 to 5 job that I didn’t feel fulfilled in, and I knew I wasn’t ready to jump into more schooling. What I did know was that I wanted to travel but didn’t have the means to start jet setting immediately.

During my job search, I came across a small non-profit organization based not too far from where I went to school called Chinese Culture and Education Center. It was hiring teachers for their schools in various cities in China. I didn’t know much about China at the time and knew even less Chinese. However, I jumped at the opportunity to 1) have any job at all and 2) be able to travel with said job.

How do you ride in a taxi if you don’t know how to say where you’re going?

My enthusiasm wasn’t without its drawbacks, however. I assumed traveling to China would be like my past travels to places where finding someone who spoke English was as simple as stopping someone on the street and asking. Instead, I encountered a huge language barrier that made the simplest of tasks difficult. How do you order at a restaurant if you can’t read the menu? How do you ride in a taxi if you don’t know how to say where you’re going?

The problem was made worse by being placed in a city that rarely sees foreigners. Maybe if I had lived in Beijing or Shanghai, both used to tourists who don’t speak Chinese, it would have been easier to get around. However, I lived in Handan, a city about 250 miles southwest of Beijing that was known more for its steel plants than tourist attractions.

At first my fellow American teachers and I managed well enough with the help of our Chinese coworkers. However, as the school year progressed and we got used to things, their involvement in helping us get around became less frequent and we had to get more creative.

Overcoming Language Barriers in China

Modern technology helped a lot, especially when translating from English to Chinese. I downloaded Pleco on my iPhone by recommendation of a friend of mine who studied abroad in China. It translates English words into the Chinese symbols, which then allowed me to at least give someone the general idea of what I was after.

I once hopped in a taxi and showed the driver the symbols for “train station” hoping there wasn’t more than one I would end up at. (There wasn’t, thank goodness.) It was also handy at taking pictures of any meal I liked so ordering it again was as easy as pulling up the picture and showing it to the waiter.

Overcoming Language Barriers in China

I enlisted the help of my students, too. I was there to help them improve their English but luckily most of them already had some sort of a base and could help translate. At times, I would ask them to write down an address that I could show to a taxi driver. Then I would double check with other students to make sure it was the correct place and I wasn’t being tricked. (We American teachers learned this lesson the hard way, after one class taught us, “Did you just fart?” instead of “Where are the books?”) By the end of the year I had a notebook full of these destinations, written out in Chinese with labels like “grocery store” or “school” or “restaurant that serves duck.”

Overcoming Language Barriers in China

One resource that was most helpful was simply the kindness of strangers. Countless times my coworkers and I would try our best to communicate with someone only to end up going around in circles with no clue as to what the other side was saying.

I’d draw pictures, use hand gestures, pull out my phone, you name it. But every time, whoever we were with would patiently try to decipher our antics and help us. One time, two old men at a restaurant actually called one of their daughters who had studied abroad in the States to translate for us. Whether we got the point across or not, we always had a good time trying to figure out how to communicate.

I still don’t speak much Chinese, even after a year. I can tell you “I don’t understand,” I can identify myself as a teacher and I can order rice. Beyond that, I’m still a novice. But now I know that though a language barrier may seem to be as huge an obstacle as climbing the Great Wall, it’s really not.

I’m glad I didn’t let a language barrier stop me from moving to China for a year and I’d encourage anyone else to give it a shot, too. Besides, it’s through experiences like these where you learn the most about yourself and the culture you’re immersed in.


Overcoming Language Barriers in China photo credit by Carson P. 

About Carson Poplin

Carson Poplin has three goals in life: to visit every country in the world, write a book and attend the Academy Awards. She’s got a good start on the traveling, but the other two will be a bit tougher to make happen. To read more about her adventures, visit www.carsonpoplin.com/ or follow her at @carsonpoplin.

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