China is improving in its attempt to teach English at all educational levels, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. In business, many companies do have somebody who speaks English, but it’s still usual to arrive to a factory where everybody, from the workers to the general manager, speak only Mandarin. Never take it for granted that English will be spoken; before any meeting try to find out if somebody really speaks English and remember that Chinese are reluctant to admit that they can’t do a task. In case of doubt, take a translator with you.
That said, the common language for cross-cultural business in China is English. When Chinese managers conduct business with counterparts from Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, the business language is English. When the Chinese deal with other Chinese from different provinces, then Mandarin Chinese is used. The languages common to Guangdong province or Shanghai or Sichuan province are too different from each other to be used nationwide. Therefore, Mandarin Chinese allows them to converse and to do business.
It is difficult to say whether one can get by on English alone because, in Shanghai, the answer to this depends on the individual, his tastes, the places he likes to visit, and the means of travel he chooses. For example, an expat who spends all his time in up-market areas like the French Concession and Xintiandi, traveling only by taxi and living in a serviced apartment can get along fine without speaking a single word of Chinese, as the staff in most of these places tend to be more or less bilingual as there is a high concentration of foreigners.
Conversely, if you choose to eat in local restaurants, travel by bus and live in an area with a low concentration of expats, you will need at least a basic level of Chinese to get by comfortably. Second only to Hong Kong, Shanghai has the highest concentration of English-speaking Chinese people, so your chances of being able to ask for directions or order a meal in English, and getting a response, are relatively high.
The truth is that you have to learn Mandarin if you want to take advantage of all the opportunities – not only in business – that country has to offer. Of course you can live in an “expat bubble” and spend ten years in China without learning a word of Mandarin; many people do that. But this is not only a way to waste a wonderful experience, it also implies a lack of respect to the culture which has welcomed you. Learning Mandarin is not easy at all, but you can make it a pastime for the rest of your life.
Most new learners of Chinese face the challenge of being confronted with a new set of characters completely unlike their native alphabet. On top of that, there are a wide range of tones with which to contend. These cause characters that look nearly identical to have up to five different pronunciations. It is no wonder that most expats opt to only learn oral Chinese, and not reading and writing. How long it takes is dependent, of course, on the frequency with which classes are attended and the level to which the speaker exposes himself to the Chinese language.
Most Chinese are reluctant to allow foreigners to practice Chinese with them, as they themselves are so keen to improve their English. It is therefore very easy to fall into the trap of communicating in English rather than clumsily fumbling through the myriad of tones and sounds that comprise the Chinese language. The determined learner, however, will find no shortage of opportunities to practice and improve his Chinese in Shanghai. There are plenty of private language schools, tutors and universities offering courses suited to learners at every level of proficiency.
Top Rated Chinese Language Schools in Shanghai
- Mandarin City
Phone: +86 21 53062960
No.40,Lane 56 Yandang Road
Luwan District (Close to Fuxing Park)
1376 Nanjing West Road, Suite 720 – 721
- Mandarin House
Phone: +86 21 61371987
650 Hankou Road, 12 Floor, Asia Mansion
- Easy Mandarin
1851 Xinzha Road – Room 604
- Mandarin Rocks
Phone: +86 21 62550715
1266 West Nanjing Road, Suite 3901-3903, Plaza 66
- Accent Mandarin
Room 1, No. 185, South Chongqing Road
- Mandarin Today
Rm 802, No.16, Zhong Tian Bi Yun, Lane 333, BiYun Road, Pudong
English Language Schools in Shanghai
Some expats may want to learn or improve their English-speaking skills.
- City English
700 Lane, Daning International Community