Is it possible to travel China without speaking Chinese (Mandarin)? The answer depends on which part of the country you plan to see, but in general the answer is “yes”…although it is advisable to learn as much as you can before you leave! Thankfully, learning basic Mandarin isn’t as hard as you might think.
While I’ve spent a lot of time and effort personally learning Mandarin (check out my list of Chinese learning tools I’ve used), 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.
The truth is that speaking Mandarin is not 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. Additionally, most restaurants have menus in English.
The trouble comes when you want to travel outside the city. Whether into the countryside or to anywhere where tourist aren’t as common, the language barrier seems to get higher. It’s at this point 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 Speaking Chinese
What if you don’t have time to learn Mandarin Chinese, but you still want to explore beyond China’s big cities? There are still a few very good options for you to consider.
Taking advantage of these options will enhance your visit to China by giving you access to more of Chinese culture. In many cases, it will also earn you the favor of those locals with whom you speak.
Option #1: Use Smart Phone Apps
Currently, one of the most popular ways to get around China without a deep knowledge of the Mandarin Chinese language is by taking advantage of your smartphone. There are literally hundreds of app and podcasts designed to help you learn Mandarin on the go or have a dictionary at your fingertips.
I’ve already gone into great detail about my favorite apps to help you learn how to read Chinese as well as my favorite apps to help you learn how to write Chinese. That’s not really what I’m referring to here, though.
There are specific apps that are designed to translate to/from Chinese on the go. I’ve already gone through an extensive review of the best voice translation apps for China, but for the purpose of this article I’m going to condense it to two my favorites:
iTranslate Converse is one of the best translation apps on the market today and the one I recommend you try. You speak into your phone and it translates what you’ve said into Chinese. Likewise you can have a Chinese person speak into your phone and it will translate back to you in English. The only downside is that this app is only available as an iPhone app.
Google Translate is an excellent app that translates on the fly using the network connection on the phone. The only problem here is that since Google is blocked in China, you’ll also need a VPN to use it. Still, it’s a great app that offers amazingly accurate translations. Google Translate is available for both iOS and Android.
There is one very important thing to consider if you plan on using your phone as a translation device. In order to use these apps, you’ll need to have internet access on your phone.
Perhaps you’ll sign up for international roaming on your phone or you can try to purchase a Chinese SIM card for your phone. Another option is to use your own phone while connected to WiFi. Believe it or not, there are some great ways to find reliable WiFi connections in China.
Whatever option you choose, make sure that your phone can connect to the internet before relying on smartphone voice translation apps to travel China without speaking Chinese.
Option #2: Bring a Mandarin Phrasebook
The easiest and historically popular fix for not speaking Mandarin Chinese is the trusty 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 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. LP gives you access to audio files to listen to pronunciation. If you’re the kind of person who needs a CD, the older version includes a CD.
Rough Guides has managed to produce one of the nicest phrasebooks available on the market today, with over 7,000 words and phrases you’ll need while traveling to China. Best of all, it comes with an app you can download to listen or use the correct pronunciations. If you’re looking for a good Mandarin phrasebook to keep with you, this is an excellent option.
These are just two of many different phrase guides on the market today. If you’d like, you can read through a more comprehensive review of the best Mandarin phrasebooks for your China travel.
Option #3: Use a Flash Language Course
I call these Mandarin language courses “flash” because they’re not meant to be a long-term solution to learning the language. These courses are meant to be consumed quickly, 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:
I used Pimsleur Mandarin 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.
Unlike Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone Mandarin 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. Plus, you’re forced into a subscription service for what ends up being a very expensive product (they’re very proud of it!).
There are plenty of other such courses you’ll find at your local bookstore or online. My only suggestion is that you concentrate on those that teach you via audio instead of learning how to read/write. As a short-term travelers, this will be the most important.
Option #4: 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 joining a tour group. It’s not always the cheapest option, but at least in this way you’ll have 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.
For example, you can try to navigate around Shanghai on your own, or you can explore some of the most under-appreciated Shanghai destinations with an English-speaking guide to provide historical context. It’s only a one-day tour and it’s quite affordable!
The bottom line is, these companies will charge you for a pleasant trip in China. However, it will be one that doesn’t require you to speak Mandarin Chinese.
Final Thoughts | Travel China with No Chinese
In short, you can rest assured that a trip to China does not require you to speak Chinese. It is possible to get around China sometimes using only English and most certainly using voice translation apps on your phone or Mandarin phrasebooks.
I encourage you to take some time to learn as much as you can before you leave, though. Even something as simple as some greetings and numbers will help you get better prices when you’re bargaining.
Do you agree with me? What else might you recommend for somebody traveling here to China who can’t speak the language?