How do you manage to speak Chinese with locals?

I'd be interested to get some feedback regarding this topic.
Those who live in China or any other Chinese speaking country must know that, unfortunately, when you have a white face, people talk to you in English by default.

In the last 1 year, I could say that I reached the "fluent" level in Chinese. I know this word has a lot of different meanings, let's say that for me, it means I can spend entire days speaking Chinese only, talk about any kind of topic, and no problem understanding either.

BUT I am very uncomfortable switching to Chinese when someone talks to me in English. Somehow I feel this is slightly rude to do so (maybe it is not really, but I feel it kind of means "hey, I refuse to talk to you in English, hence here is my response in Chinese").

Also, sometimes, I can have a 10 minutes talk with someone, I will stick to Chinese, and they will still reply in English. Feels super awkward.
Some other times, I go to the restaurant, and the owner is so uncomfortable seeing a foreigner and not sure how to behave, that instead of speaking normally, they will use sign language to communicate with me. Even though I was able to order from the Chinese menu which doesn't have any pictures, they still assume that I don't speak a word, so they use sign language. Of course, I could speak a few words to let them know that I speak the language. But deep inside, I just hope that people would come to the conclusion that this is Taiwan, hence the default language should be Chinese, by default.

The other day, I called a hotel in Beijing to clarify something regarding my booking. I did it all in Chinese, but the person on the phone was alternating between Chinese and English for a long time, before sticking to Chinese. So it feels to me that no matter the places I have been, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, everyone always uses English by default if you have a white face...

What do you guys generally do in this situation? Any anecdotes, experiences to share?


Hi François,

I'm not in a Chinese-speaking area, but I often take the easy route and just ask them at the beginning if we could speak Chinese. This worked fine almost every time, and it isn't awkward, since they already know you're a foreigner who would like to practice speaking Chinese. It's clear that when they see you, they would like to use the opportunity to practice their English. This happens less with tourists in the West, of course, since they have that much more people to choose from. People using sign language may have other reasons to keep a distance, so I wouldn't concentrate on them too much. I would simply try to assess the situation. If you see that the conversation partner would really like to practice their English, perhaps you could strike a deal to start with English, then end with Chinese. If, however, they don't seem to mind their English much, you could try my approach.


Yeah, I should probably be more understanding or patient, eventually I guess there's no other alternative really, unless someone has a really cool solution, like having a tshirt "我不會英文!" :)

But that thought of having to tell the person beforehand that I can speak Chinese makes me sad for 2 reasons:
- I am French, so speaking English in a Chinese speaking country with a local is kind of weird to me. I guess I would be more OK to speak in French.
- In 20 years, I may still be in Taiwan, and people will still speak English to me by default, and I will have to let them know that speaking Chinese is OK for me at the beginning of each conversation with a new person.

In France, hate it or like it, the default language is French. No matter what your face looks like, we'll assume that you speak French. It is probably frustrating for tourists, but my Taiwanese friends who have lived in France for some years became really good really quick, because they were forced to learn it quick. I wish the same logic could apply here.


Personally, I wouldn't mind, since you have to adapt to this very different culture in many other ways, as well. :) If you know a Chinese person for longer, there is also no need to repeat this wish.

It's interesting: The habit of the French to insist on their language, or the habit of a Chinese-speaking person to speak English to you, can both be perceived as different kinds of selfishness. They can also be perceived positively, like wanting to introduce you to their culture (for the French), or wanting to make communication easier for you (for the Chinese). It's also a fact that many Chinese still consider foreigners speaking their language as "a miracle". I would try to look at this from a deeper angle, perhaps then you will be better able to accept the situation as it is.



[T]his is Taiwan, hence the default language should be Chinese, by default.

I know quite a few Taiwanese who would violently disagree with you there. To them, Mandarin Chinese (I’m assuming that’s what you’re talking about) is just as much a foreign language as English is – worse even, because they see Mandarin as the language of an oppressive invader, a stigma which English does not share (at least not when it comes to Taiwan). And seeing as the chance to meet a foreigner who knows a local language is almost zero (unless you know where to look for them)…

That being said, I know what you’re talking about and have been annoyed by it more than once as well. In my experience one of the most subtle ways of communicating “I can speak Chinese” to strangers is being in the company of local friends and talking to them in Chinese. When that wasn’t possible I generally also had good experience with politely telling them: 我中文也可以囉. In restaurants I rarely ever had this problem because it was usually me who initiates the conversation by telling them what I want. The only groups who I found to be very persistent in speaking English – apart from those with the Taiwanese nationalist viewpoint described above – is some students (depending on the major though) as well as some middle class people who either want to show off their English or feel insecure about it and want practice. I tend to find these people not very likable because, like you, I don’t enjoy being reduced to just the foreigner dimension, so I didn’t have particularly much contact with them. When worst comes to worst you could always pretend to not speak English yourself on account of being from [insert little-known non-English-speaking country here] (maybe France would work, too, but probably only on people who have heard about the image of French people not liking to speak English but at the same time also don’t have any experience with actual French people).
I know quite a few Taiwanese who would violently disagree with you there. To them, Mandarin Chinese (I’m assuming that’s what you’re talking about) is just as much a foreign language as English is – worse even, because they see Mandarin as the language of an oppressive invader, a stigma which English does not share (at least not when it comes to Taiwan). And seeing as the chance to meet a foreigner who knows a local language is almost zero (unless you know where to look for them)…

OK, I took a shortcut there indeed, sorry!

I live in Taipei, and most of the younger people speak Mandarin. I have a lot of colleagues who don't understand Taiwanese, or understand it but can't speak it. But yes, there is a very large part of the population, in particular older people, or even young people who live in the south part of Taiwan, who don't speak Mandarin as primary language (be it Taiwanese, Hakka or another tribe language).
I think that in my perspective of being a western foreigner, I almost never had anyone talk Taiwanese to me. Even a grandmother working at the vegetable market in Kaohsiung would talk to me in Mandarin. Which is why I reduced this post as "speaking Mandarin VS speaking English".

Another reason for people speaking English is probably that there are not so many foreigners who can speak Mandarin. As a business owner, if a foreigner comes in, if English proved to work 90% of the time, and Mandarin proved to work in 30% of the time only, I can understand that they will use English at first.


I don't have much to say on this topic than if you are speaking okay Chinese and the listener uses some form of body language or uses English as a response then I would regard that as insulting. Having spent so much time to try to understand this language and yet be treated as if I didn't is to me quite insulting regardless of intent. If I was in this situation then I would directly bring it up and tell the person that it is more disrespectful to devalue the effort put into learning the language than it is to speak Chinese to a foreigner. Furthermore, in this situation it is not like they are assuming you can speak Chinese, they already know you can so there is no excuse to use the same techniques you would use with someone who actually couldn't understand the language.



I've lived out in Asia for almost 30 years, and let me tell you one thing I've learned. Chinese people are *certain* that Chinese cannot be learned by foreigners, so it is always a surprise and a never heard of before thing when you can speak it with them. My kids are native speakers and they are already tired of it.

I've gone to restaurants, ordered food in perfect Chinese (even down to the dialect where I practiced it), and had the waiter look at me as if I had three heads. I'd repeat myself three times before it finally dawned on the waiter that I wasn't speaking some foreign language, but actually speaking Chinese. Talk about cognitive dissonance! And yes, I'd check with my friends who overheard the exchange and they'd agree that I wasn't stuffing the tones or pronunciation. Even the waiter would agree, but he'd explain that because I was white, he was sure I wasn't speaking Chinese.

It's a Chinese conceit, and one that will not be changed anytime soon.

In some cases, people want to practice their English and we'd have the funny situation where the white guy is speaking Chinese to the English speaking Chinese guy.

In short, don't worry about it. Speak in whatever language you want, and let them speak in whatever language they wish to reply in (although sign language is a bit hard for me, so I won't go that far). And learn to laugh about it. My attitude is that there is nothing awkward about it, especially if real communication is actually happening.

It's like I tell new users of chopsticks - if you get the food in your mouth, you're doing it right.
Hahah glad to read your experience of living for a long time in Asia pdwalker!!
You are right, I won't be able to change the whole society, so I'd better learn how to deal with it and get used to it. The only people I can get to change (a bit) are my friends, in the end.

I'm going through lots of different phases since I moved to Taiwan 5 years ago, and this is probably just one of them.
- At first, I got annoyed when all my work meetings were in Chinese, because I couldn't understand, and our work performance is monitored. So I'd ask if people could speak English more often.
- Then in the last 2 years I spent a lot of efforts telling everyone during meetings that it was OK to speak Chinese. Because people's habits don't change easily, I literally had to start the meeting telling colleagues that they could go ahead and speak Chinese every single time.
- Now my goal is to get friends and colleagues to talk to me in Chinese during our private discussions. Some of them do it, but some of them, every new day they start speaking in English to me. And if I'm not careful and start replying in English, it propagates to other colleagues who were speaking Chinese to me, they start speaking English to me all over again.

But I still have to improve my Chinese. I am sure that when my Chinese is as good as my English, things will change for the better.
Before this happens, I'll still do my regular studying routine every day :)