How much Chinese is enough for beginner students to have a good trip to China?

Many people have visited China and had a good time when they could not speak a single Chinese word. They rely on tour guides, gracious friends or business partners. Would they have better experience if they spoke some Chinese? Absolutely. 

But it might not be guaranteed. I have read upsetting stories that some guy went to China after learning Chinese for a period of time, only to be devastated by the fact that he could not order a coke in Chinese, which he considered as the simplest thing on Earth. 

When reading stories like that, I always wonder what went wrong. Perhaps he spent too much time learning 1000 Chinese characters which he could not really use. Perhaps he memorised all the scripts in his textbook which turned out to be different from what people say in real life. Or perhaps he did not do any substantial listening exercises, so he could not understand the simplest thing Chinese people were speaking to him. Or it was very unfortunate that he was in a place where people speak Chinese with heavy accents. The possible causes for his devastating experience are countless. 

To avoid such failed trips and have a great time in China, I have some interesting observations. These are based on what my students told me after their trips to China. 

You don’t have to learn Chinese characters

While learning how to read Chinese certainly opens your eyes, it is not an absolute must for your first trip to China as a beginner student of Chinese, provided that you are going to touristic places where you’ll find English in the major transportation system, and where English menus are available in restaurants. 

After these essentials, travelling, lodging and food, are taken care of, you are free and at ease to use your Chinese to talk to people in the restaurants, in the train, and to the hotel staff. You’ll be thoroughly delighted and rewarded for every effort you have made in learning Chinese. 

You don’t have to study for years before you make your first trip

At MSL Master, there are four Chinese courses for beginner students, Mandarin Express Intro Level AMandarin Express Intro Level BMandarin Express Basic Level A, and Mandarin Express Basic Level B. 

For students who start at Mandarin Express Intro Level A, if they have no intention to learn how to read and write Chinese, they graduate after they finish Basic Level B. For any students who take regular weekly lessons and do their homework, they can finish these four Chinese courses in one year. 

Some students went to China during their first Chinese course, others went to China after they reached Basic Level B, while a few had multiple trips to China during their study. And their experiences were very different. 

For students who went to China while they were completing Mandarin Express Intro Level A, their experience was primarily about basic information exchanges, time, location, and price. They were always happy with the trip, and amazed that they could actually get something done. Perhaps they did not have high expectations given the fact that they had not studied Chinese for long, hence they were happy with very small progress made.

For students who went to China while they were on their fourth Chinese course, the stories were vastly different. After the initial adjustment, they could talk to people quite freely about their work and life and their confidence in their Chinese abilities increased tremendously.

The most difficult thing is listening

Although the goal for a China trip is to speak Chinese with Chinese people, it turns out that, to have a good conversation, listening is more important, and more difficult, than speaking. 

While Basic Level students can speak Chinese quite a bit, if they do not understand well what other people are saying, they feel bad. When they do have a complete grasp of what other people are speaking, they feel exhilarated. 

Sometimes it seems to them that Chinese people gradually know their Chinese level and thus speak to them using a set of vocabularies which they have learned. Thus, if they have repeated interactions with the same people, they get to understand them better and better. 

It also helps that they have done their listening exercises right at home.

Don’t be shy

Regardless of your level of Chinese, speak Chinese when possible. Don’t be shy. 

Also, understand that many times speaking English won’t help a lot because many Chinese people may not understand your English for the same reason you don’t understand their Chinese. You may use words they have not learned, you speak too fast, or you speak with a heavy accent.

The recommendation is, speak Chinese as much as possible. Repeat yourself if people do not understand you, and try to use a different way to say the same thing. 

Don’t be shy, have a good laugh, and you’ll have a great time!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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