How do I get Chinese people to speak to me in Chinese? I’m in China right now teaching English, and learning Chinese. Unfortunately, outside of class everyone speaks to me in English.
Kevin D. Aslan, Entrepreneur, Author, Podcaster
You have to play the language war.
The concept is simple. When you meet someone new, and if they’re speaking to you in English, an elaborate dance commences. You speak in Chinese, they speak in English, and both stick to their guns for as long as possible.
Eventually, one of you will break - not because you’re tired or you give up, but because you encounter a word you don’t know how to say in that particular foreign language.
“Do you like to, um, go, um, 怎么说 ,游泳? [how to say, swimming?]”
BOOM. That’s the moment where you’ve won the language war. Stick to your guns and helpfully provide the missing word, and from then on, the language spoken between the two of you will be Chinese. You’ve proven that it’s the easier one of the two for you to communicate in.
Now you’re going to tell me: wait - but what if his level of English is better than my Chinese?
Well, then first, you need to up your Chinese level, and second, you’re talking to the wrong people.
When I first started to learn Chinese, I was limited to but a few topics. But I found the unlikeliest (and free) of language partners: my compound’s security guards.
These guys have NOTHING to do all day, are bored out of their minds, and - best of all - have a terrible english that’s usually limited to “Hello” and “Obama”. It doesn’t matter how bad your Chinese is - you’ll be speaking in Chinese with them no matter what.
This guy! Best language partner ever.
Just be careful that they’re not teaching you too much dialect. I ended up unintentionally using Shanghainese words for a while… and didn’t realize it for a full year.
这些家伙整天无所事事，百无聊赖，最糟糕的是，他们的英语很糟糕，通常只会说“你好”和“奥巴马”（“Hello” and “Obama”）。不管你的中文有多糟糕，你都能和他们说中文。
Edward Smith, Serial sucker for cultural punishment
Instead of bashing you like everyone else is apparently taking joy in doing, I’m going to show a little empathy and actually try and help you out.
I lived in Japan (teaching English) and China (learning Chinese) for a year each and this was by far the most infuriating aspect of language learning. But there is hope.
OK, so first a quick story.
My Korean friend and I are walking through a local mall in Shanghai. I asked a 保安 (security guard) “请问，厕所在哪里？” “Excuse me, where’s the toilet?”. The security turns to my Korean friend and he says “我不讲英文..” - “I don’t speak English..”. I’m thinking “What. The. Fudge. I worked this hard for people to not know I’m speaking Mandarin?!”
It took my a long time to get my head around that, but let’s break it down.
First the why of why they’re speaking to you in English, not Mandarin. A lot of this comes down to empathy but first comes knowledge:
Are your tones good?
You don’t really know a word in Mandarin unless you know their tones. Imagine if a Chinese person came up to you with incomprehensibly accented English. If you spoke their language, you would default to it because screw it, right? You have better things to do!
Same goes for them, because not everyone is willing to give you a free conversation class, just like you’re not happy about giving them one.
#2: “Is he really speaking Chinese?”
Like me in the mall, the security guard had a hard time comprehending that a white fella was speaking his language.
As I’ll touch on below, depending on where you are, most foreigners suck at Mandarin so bad it’s hard to get their head around the fact that a few might actually be half-decent.
It’s hard for native English speakers to understand this, because bloody near-everyone speak English. We expect people to speak English. They do not expect people to speak Mandarin.
I met lots of foreigners in China who thought their Mandarin was better than the average Chinese person’s English. Often, they just weren’t self-aware enough to realise that that just wasn’t so.
Kendra Brock, lives in Wuhan, Hubei, China (2014-present)
I agree with previous comments about the importance of speaking in Chinese first and making it obvious that you are learning Chinese (either by studying in a public place or by teling your friends/students that you are learning Chinese). The majority of Chinese people I know are very proud their language and will enjoy sharing it with you. It is, however, sometimes difficult to get people to chat with you. Here are some people and places I have had good luck with:
Generally, you should try to find people whose English is worse than your Chinese but have had some exposure to English/language learning. I have found that people with some exposure to English are better at understanding a foreign language in Chinese.
An exception: people preparing for the IELTS (For whatever reason, I’ve had good luck with language exchanges with IELTS learners. They're usually good at explaining the language and willing to just chat with you in exchange for you chatting with them in English and giving them a few pointers.)
Children (they are use smaller words and are also likely to point out your pronunciation errors)
The grocery store, particularly the yogurt, oil, and rice sections
Outdoor/semi-outdoor vegetable markets