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Language Difficulties And Getting Around Them

Travel in China for non-Chinese speakers

For more information on the Chinese language, see the Beijing Made Easy Chinese Language Guide and Phrase Book

The Chinese language is the number one difficulty for foreign visitors to China, so what can be done about it? Is it possible to travel independently if you don’t speak any Chinese? Are there possibilities with guides and interpreters? What about phrasebooks?

If you were to go to China on your own without any knowledge of Chinese, no phrase book, and no interpreter then you wouldn’t starve, but you wouldn’t have a very relaxing enjoyable trip.

Signs are generally not written in English, most taxi drivers, bus drivers etc don’t speak English, and Chinese characters are utterly indecipherable unless you’ve learnt them beforehand.

However, you shouldn’t let this put you off. Independent travel in China is very possible indeed. Put in a little effort and you will be well rewarded. Many travellers get by with the help of a phrasebook, but hiring an interpreter or travel guide will also not break the bank.

Chinese people are incredibly friendly and keen to help ‘foreign visitors’ and will take it as a personal compliment if you manage to utter any intelligible phrases in their own language.

Beijing Travel: How to get by if you can’t speak Chinese

A Chinese phrasebook will be a great deal of help. All decent Beijing travel guides have a short phrasebook in the back. The phrasebooks in the back of Lonely Planet and Rough Guide country and city guides are quite sufficient, but you might consider investing in a more in depth one to be on the safe side.

There are several phrasebooks to choose from – but we recommend you get one from a travel publisher. Don’t tie yourself up in knots worrying about tones, but pay attention to the basic pronunciation.

Other cunning tricks:

Your hotel staff will be able to speak English. Make them write down the names of the places you want to go in Chinese and the name of the hotel you’re staying in. Think ahead.

Large railway stations, though not bus stations, generally have a designated English language ticket booth. From there it’s just a question of showing your ticket to anyone that looks friendly so they’ll point you the way to your train.

If you need to find someone who can speak English, try people of university age. Speak really, really slowly and don’t rush in with your question, start off with a simple ‘hello, can you speak English’ so they have time to get their bearings.

Smile and be patient. People will help you if they can.

Interpreters and Travel Guides

It won’t be this way forever, but at the moment it’s possible to hire the services of a guide or interpreter for a very reasonable price. Doing this will not only remove a lot of the stress of travel, it’s also a way to get to know China and Chinese much better.

Although their guides are not travel professionals, we can recommend the following for reliability and value for money:

Personal China Helper

There is also Free IVA – they’re not remotely free so the deceptiveness of the name is quite off-putting, but they’re a pretty good company.


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