Beijing City Wall Art Circa 2016

I knew Chinese when I lived in China. I’d been studying the language since I was nineteen. 

But ex-pats like me weren’t typical. A lot of the ex-pats I met didn’t speak of word of Chinese when they arrived. And when some of these people left, their Chinese was as good as mine.

Not every job abroad offers free Chinese classes. My job was one of those places that didn’t provide them. When I first started, we did have Rosetta Stone, but I’m not sure future hires had the same privilege.

Some of the best speakers don’t spend most of their time in a classroom

The best speakers spent time in a classroom, but they didn’t spend every waking moment there. These people took the language they learned and put themselves in situations where they could use it.

Classrooms weren’t the only place to learn but a tool to accelerate learning a new language. I know; it sounds like another way of saying, “put yourself out there.” 

I get tired of hearing that piece of advice too. It doesn’t take into account not everyone can start talking to random strangers.

As an introvert, I know how hard it is to go out there and talk to people. Every Chinese teacher I ever had would tell me I need to talk. It’s nerve-wracking trying to muster up the courage to speak.

After some time, I built up some courage and started talking. I didn’t start with random strangers on the street. I worked up to it.

First, I started asking street vendors and wait staff about the food they sell

Muslim Street in Xi’An circa 2016

I came to China knowing the language, but I wasn’t confident with it. I could understand a lot, but I had problems speaking it. 

I’d get nervous and frustrated when a local would say something different from how I learned it.

So I started small with restaurants. Most of the restaurants had pictures of every dish on their menus. When wait staff would ask what I’d want, I would point and say, “Wo yao zhege!” (Translation: I want this.)

Wait staff from my favorite restaurants started recognizing me when I walked in the door. They started teaching me the names of what I ordered so I wouldn’t sound like I had just come in from the States. 

The more Chinese I spoke, the friendlier the staff became. Sometimes, they would give me free food.

Street vendors taught me how to ask for different flavors. I knew how to say spicy (la) and sweet (tian). Other locals waiting for food would order salty (xian) and bitter (ku) for me. Once they left, I’d have the street vendors teach me how to say them.

Like the wait staff, street vendors recognized me and taught me how to say food names in Chinese. The more I did it, the more confident I got ordering food no matter where in China I went.

I started taking more rides from cab drivers and DiDi

ShiLiHe in Beijing circa 2016

When I first came to China, DiDi wasn’t a thing. If you needed to go somewhere, you had to wait outside for a cab. If you were on the right side of the road, cab drivers would stop. Otherwise, they’d say no and drive away.

Sometimes, they would look at a foreign face and drive by without stopping. It’s hard to believe that cab drivers would help you learn Chinese when they wouldn’t stop for you.

When you use a cab, you’re forced to use language to give them directions. I’ve only been in one cab where a driver spoke some English.

Cab drivers had no problems correcting your Chinese when you try to give them directions. If you point, they’ll tell you how to say left (zou) or right (you).

The more outgoing cab drivers started asking me about myself. Even if I didn’t understand every word they said, I could get the gist of what they wanted to ask me. I’d go as far as to say I learned more Chinese in a cab than I did anywhere else.

When DiDi started replacing cab drivers, it got harder to practice Chinese. The DiDi drivers had a GPS on their phones, so you didn’t need to give them directions. Few drivers were interested in trying to talk to the people in their cars.

In these situations, you need to be safe when you get in a car. If there weren’t a barrier in a cab, I’d sit in the back seat. DiDi drivers automatically have their passengers sit in the back.

I listened to my kids in class

Former students dressed up as Princesses for Halloween. circa 2016

I taught English in a training center in Beijing. My company had a strict English-only policy where we would encourage them to speak English. We would create a behavior system based on how much Chinese they talked in class.

I had kids as young as three years old. This age group didn’t get the same level of strictness as my other levels. I couldn’t speak Chinese back to them, for they’d never speak English to me if they knew I spoke Chinese. Listening to them taught me a lot of classroom Chinese.

I could tell when they needed the bathroom or wanted water from watching their movements and listening to them. It made it easier to teach the kids English words when they didn’t know what to say. It also made the kids more comfortable with speaking English.

You don’t need to talk to strangers to put yourself out there

Some of us will never be brave enough to walk up to strangers and start talking to them. It doesn’t mean we’ll never improve our language skills. We need to find other ways to practice our new language.

In China, I talked to wait staff and drivers being some of the fastest ways to practice the language. They were some of the country’s friendliest locals, and it made their day watching a foreigner learn a language.

When learning a language, anyone could become a teacher. Even little kids can help you learn how to speak.

I was in China for a year and a half before I finally paid for a teacher to help speed up my Chinese. Until then, I learned from doing my daily routine and having the people teach me along the way.



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Keara Hopkins