This is a very popular question that people ask when thinking about teaching abroad in China. Most would be surprised that you don’t actually need to be fluent in Mandarin to teach in China – in fact, you really only need to know a few phrases to get by!
Will I need to speak to my students in Mandarin?
If this is your first time teaching abroad, then it’s likely that you will be teaching at an ESL training center. Schools in China actually prefer that you not speak the language in the classroom because students will most likely try to only communicate in Mandarin. Even if you do understand what they’re saying, schools will discourage you from allowing extensive communication in the local language.
As a native English speaker, you’re expected to speak to your students in English. Studies have shown that the best way to learn a new language is through immersion, so this is what you’ll be expected to do by leading your classes in English. However, some schools will provide a Chinese teaching assistant to help you with the language barriers. These assistants are here to help with miscommunications and to clarify things, rather than to be leaned on by either you or the students. The main language of instruction will always be English.
Will I be able to travel in China without knowing Mandarin?
If you’re worried about getting around because you don’t know the language—don’t get in your head about this! We have experience placing teachers in schools all over China, and they have all been able to successfully navigate around the China as well as other nearby countries.
In Tier 1 cities like Shanghai or Beijing (Tier 2 cities as well), it’s easy to get around since there will be many other foreigners who speak English. In these bigger cities, important signs will often be in both Mandarin and English. However, before your journey to China, it’s a good idea to check out some of the basic phrases, such as ‘how much?’, ‘where is the bathroom?’, ‘thank you’, etc.
If you’re planning to teach in a more rurual area of China, you will be better off learning a bit more Mandarin than your counterparts that choose to teach in big, urban cities. You will have less English resources in smaller cities and towns and will therefore have to rely more on your personal knowledge.
Language learning resources
There are also dozens of language apps to download such as Memrise, Duolingo, FluentU, and Skritter. Remember, you’re in their country, and by making an attempt to learn the language while you’re there, you’ll show respect to the Chinese people you encounter.
Even though your pronunciation and grammar may not be perfect, being able to greet people and ask basic questions in shops and restaurants will earn you respect, and it will make your life easier in general.
You can also purchase a guidebook that includes some basic phrases that you can reference while in China.