list of Chinese learning tools I’ve put together), I’ve met quite a few travelers who can speak nothing more than a few words here and there. What’s worse, I know many expats who live here and can’t speak more than enough to order food or take a taxi home.
Is it possible to visit China without Mandarin, the official Chinese language? The answer depends on which part of the country you plan to see, but in general it is advisable to learn as much as you can before you leave. Thankfully, learning basic Mandarin is possible!
The truth is that speaking Mandarin isn’t a “must” in order to travel out here to China…but it helps.
It’s easier to get around bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai without speaking Mandarin – or any other major tourist city for that matter. Taxi drivers are trained to know enough English to get you where you need to go and most restaurants have menus in English.
The trouble comes when you want to travel outside the city, into the countryside, or to anywhere where tourist aren’t as common. It’s at this point that you need to consider how you’ll be able to communicate with those who have absolutely no ability to speak English.
How to Travel in China Without Chinese
So if you don’t have the time to learn Mandarin Chinese but you still want to explore parts of China that go beyond cities like Beijing or Shanghai, there are still a few options for you to consider. Taking advantage of these options will enhance your visit to China by giving you access to more of the China culture and in many cases earn you the favor of those you speak with.
Option #1 – Bring a Mandarin Phrasebook
The easiest and probably most often utilized fix for not speaking Mandarin Chinese is the Chinese Phrasebook. Most of them come in pocket-sized editions that are light to carry, simple to use and cater to those who know very little language.
Oftentimes there will be a language section in whatever China travel book you choose, but if you’re looking for something more detailed and specific, I can personally recommend one of the following:
- Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook: LP does a good job of giving you the most practical phrases you might want to use as a traveler. Topics include “Sightseeing”, “Social”, “Emergencies” and “Eating”. There is even a menu decoder that is quite useful. They also offer this phrasebook with an audio CD for listening along to the correct pronunciation.
- The Most Basic Chinese: this is a great phrasebook for those who plan on taking a longer trip. It’s also nice because not only does it offer downloadable audio files and an ebook option, it is also by far the cheapest phrasebook on the market!
Option #2 – Use a Flash Language Courses
I call these “flash” because they’re not meant to be a long-term solution to learning the language. These courses are meant to be consumed usually via audio but sometimes on a computer. If you start these about a month before leaving on your trip and remain diligent in your studies, you should be more than competent enough to get around China. Here is what I have personally used along with my thoughts:
- Pimsleur Mandarin: Conversational – I used Pimsleur before I left for China and I think it gave me an excellent head-start on learning the language. Why? Because in the all-audio format it forced me to learn a Chinese accent without worrying about the characters. Pimsleur also offers a full Chinese Level 1 Course which is excellent for someone coming to live here but would be overkill for a traveler.
- Rosetta Stone Mandarin – unlike Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone functions either on your computer or mobile device. I love their learning method, but one negative side is that they don’t focus on useful traveling phrases.
Option #3 – Use a Tour Company
If you don’t think your brain can handle attempting another language or you just want your trip to be a relaxing experience, consider just joining a tour group here in China. It’s not always the cheapest option, but at least in this way you’ll have the option of a guide who can speak English and will take care of all your needs. Speaking a word of Mandarin won’t be necessary at all.
The good news is that you’re not alone. There are enough people who just want to travel to China without speaking the language that many companies have catered extensively to you. There are day trips, 10 day trips and longer available to pretty much any place that you might want to go.
The bottom line is, these companies will charge you for a pleasant trip in China – one that doesn’t require you to speak Mandarin Chinese.
Option #4 – Use Your Smartphone
Finally, one of the more popular ways to get around China without a deep knowledge of the Mandarin language is by taking advantage of your smartphone. There are literally hundreds of app and podcasts designed to help you either quickly learn Mandarin on the go or just have a conversational dictionary at your fingertips.
For study, I use an awesome app called Pleco that is free. For those apps more geared toward the traveler I would check out Learn Chinese for the iPhone or Learn Chinese for Android. Both will work just fine for the most important tasks you need to accomplish while traveling here.
So that’s it! Do you agree with me? What else might you recommend for somebody traveling here to China who can’t speak the language?