Should Expats learn Chinese in Shanghai?
Every year, more and more foreigners come to China, for studies or for the next step in their career. Some will stay for short time, others will be in China for long, and they have one point in common which is that most of them will learn Chinese at some point. However, for some of them especially expats coming for short time, and even more when moving to Shanghai, investing on Chinese or not remains a big question.
Here are some advices from foreigners who’ve lived in China for a while.
What you can do in Shanghai without any Chinese skills:
Partying: most of famous clubs or pubs will have English speaking staff, but not all of them and not all the staff. So for basic things you should be able to communicate without problems. Things might get harder if you have some special request, specific questions or if you get into trouble areas where freshly arrived foreigners are easy targets (guys or girls hooking you in the street asking if you want a massage or students proposing you to try some amazing teas in a small local shop while having a cultural exchange).
Eating, but mostly foreign food. Local restaurants usually have no English speaking staff in Shanghai, or the most expensive ones.
Travelling through the city, mostly in subway. Indeed, everything is translated in English which is quite convenient. However, if you want to take the cab you will definitely need to speak some Chinese, unless you just show some address in hanzi but the driver will probably still keep on asking you questions in Chinese all the way long and you may end up taking the longest road to reach your destination point.
Meeting people and making friend, but only with foreigners and the few Chinese who can speak English. That being said, those who really do not want to learn Chinese can be reassured because it already makes a lot of people. The bad side of this is that you will surely miss part of the adventure and live almost like you would have back home if you’re already from a big international city.
Working is of course not a problem neither, as far as you are in an adapted structure and environment.
What you can’t do in Shanghai if you don’t speak any Chinese
Generally speaking, making good deals on a daily basis, as shops with English speaking staffs are more expensive. And at the end, everything added together makes a substantial amount of money. You may buy food more expensive, same will happen with clothes, your flat rent will be higher, and you will often pay more for a drive than would have a Chinese speaking friend. This can be easily solved by acquiring a “survival” level in Mandarin, and you won’t have to learn Chinese in Shanghai for more than 30 to 60 hours to secure it.
You will not be able to ask your way, or simply ask questions and exchange with locals, which will make your daily life a little more complex and your experience less rich. Every time you need something you will have to ask a friend who speaks Chinese to help, and since you cannot do it all day long you will end giving up on less essential things. Many Chinese can speak English in Shanghai compared to other Chinese cities, but it still represents a very small part of the population and most of the time, you won’t have anyone close around you able to communicate in English in Shanghai.
You cannot reach a comprehensive understanding of local culture, as it requires daily exchanges with numerous locals at your work, school, in the streets, shops or anywhere possible. You will only be able to interact with those Chinese people who are already interacting with loads of foreigners, and they will naturally be less curious about you since they already got plenty of foreign friends, so less eager to share ideas with you. And as a matter of fact, they will also be much fewer. At the end, all this can make a big difference regarding the personal experience you will acquire, and for the professional side you may miss obvious information and good business opportunities.
In Shanghai, you will be able to survive for sure if you don’t speak any Chinese, which is not the case in all Chinese cities. But your life will be harder, things will take you more time, cost you more money, and the experience you will accumulate through you trip will be poorer. So naturally we recommend you to learn some Chinese, even just a little if you have no time, because you will surely quickly benefit from it once on site.
If you just want to make your daily life easier, pay things their real price and move quicker through the city, 30 to 60 hours of individual Chinese lessons are usually enough, as they will get you to a “survival” or “survival +” level. If you are among the lucky ones who already studied some Chinese at school, it makes even more sense to take few hours of lessons to refresh your mind and most importantly practice your daily oral Chinese, confirm it is operational. In that case 20 to 30 hours of class can be enough, but you definitely need to make sure your pronunciation is right with a professional and probe your oral skills, even basic ones.
For those who want to fully enjoy their Chinese experience, understand the culture, develop their local network and eventually use these skills for business purposes, they will need to learn Chinese in Beijing or Shanghai for a minimum of 150 to 200 hours (we use 1 to 1 training with a professional and experienced teacher as a reference here). And of course, it will take a lot of curiosity and practice to reach the highest level, but it is definitely worth it and relatively quick to get to.
One last advice, for those who want to make more local friends or do business in Shanghai, once you reached a small level in Mandarin don’t hesitate to learn few basic words of Shanghainese! ☺