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LAST WORD: The Afforded Privilege of Speaking English
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The Afforded Privilege of Speaking English

By Tracy Hall

I have been meaning to pen something about this phenomenon for some time now. But before I do, I have to admit that I myself am far from a Mandarin aficionado. Nor do have I dedicated anywhere near as much time as I should have during my time in China to learning the national lingo (or perhaps even 'lingos'). So with that said, I would like to highlight an intriguing issue that has a number of dimensions - some of which have a rational basis, some of which are simply symptomatic of a one-sided world view. This is namely the ubiquity of long-term foreign residents who, for a multitude of reasons, can hardly string a coherent sentence together - let alone have a basic conversation - in the local mother tongue.

BT 201602 140 51 Last word 001If you are reading this article thinking "well my Chinese is awesome, I can... I passed HSK level..." and so on, then congratulations on your efforts, but sadly you are still in the minority amongst the Tianjin expat community, and probably China as a whole. While your Mandarin might be highly proficient, take a moment to think about how many foreigners you know that have lived here for more than a six months to a year and still rely on you to order the food when you go to a restaurant or tell taxi drivers where you are going. Unless you completely avoid other members of the foreign community for some reason, then the chances are you will know, or will at least have met a fair few people, who fit the bill.

Just from my personal experience, after living, working and travelling in various parts of China for a little over three years, I can honestly say that I have met dozens upon dozens of what I would consider to be fairly long-term expats whose Chinese is abysmal. Being a non-native speaker myself, I'm not saying they sounded abysmal because their tones were way off - that would be incredibly hypocritical on my part - but because they lacked even the most basic functional ability despite the fact that in some cases they had been living here for several years.

If you spend enough time hanging out in the social hotspots of Tianjin you will inevitably hear a range of excuses from people who openly admit that they have very little or no interest whatsoever in learning to speak Chinese. Perhaps the most commonly cited justification for not bothering to learn the local lingo is the good old "everybody here is learning English" defence. The argument goes that if everybody in the world is spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars per year trying to reach fluency in English then why should native English speakers bother to put themselves through the painstaking process of learning what most Westerners consider to be the world's most difficult language? Although it is true that millions of Chinese people have at least a conversational level of English, this line of reasoning might carry a bit more weight if it was being used by tourists or businessmen. Yet all too often it is used by lazy long-term expats who, despite having to interact with locals every day in order to fulfil their basic needs, are still content with getting by on "zhe ge", "na ge" and the use of smartphone translation apps.

BT 201602 140 52 Last word 003Another common sight are the expats who slip into a comfort zone called 'crutch mode' and never then lack the motivation to break themselves out of it. Namely these are the individuals who may or may not be interested in learning some basic conversational Mandarin but don't feel a very strong need to do so because they have a partner or a social network of friends and colleagues who are often on hand to bridge the language barrier for them. It's still a lame excuse, but admittedly there is something to be said for being single when it comes to having enough will power to learn a language.

Other justifications include: "I'm too old to learn a new language", "Chinese is too difficult", "I try to practice as often as I can but everyone just wants to speak English with me", and "I don't plan on living here for the rest of my life". The first one, which not surprisingly is common amongst older members of the expat community, has nowadays been exposed by a number of prominent studies as a complete fallacy; adults are on the whole much better language learners than children for a number of reasons. The idea that Chinese is too difficult often comes from the assumption that if the tones are tricky and the writing system looks like chicken scratches on first glance, then the rest of it must be incredibly difficult to learn. While the writing and pronunciations take a long time to master, the grammar, numerical system, building up vocabulary and a whole range of other features of the language are undeniably much easier to learn than most other languages. For those of us who always get pestered by people wanting to practice their English, you've got to remember that there's nothing to stop you speaking Chinese back to them and you can easily put yourself in situations where the likelihood of bumping into a proficient English speaker are much slimmer: taxis, cheap restaurants, bars orientated to the older local crowd and so on.

BT 201602 140 50 Last word HighlightThe final example is probably the one that best sums up the mentality of all-too-many foreigners who come to China. The question is: if we don't plan on spending the rest of our lives here then why bother to study the language when we are probably going to forget it at some point anyway? This kind of short-sighted and lazy attitude is one of the major things that prevents plenty of native English speakers from making the most of their experience in China and any other country whose people speak another language. Not only is learning a foreign language good for your mind, body and soul, it opens up a world of opportunity - experiential, financial, marital and so on - that would otherwise be off limits. If anyone reading this finds themselves in the excuse maker camp, I urge you strongly to get out there and at least try to improve your Chinese. Take it from a reformed 'crutch moder', you won't regret it!


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