One of your biggest concerns about moving to Beijing will be how to communicate. Chinese is notoriously one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn for Westerners, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn enough to get around, chat with your employees, bargain and order food. The official language nationwide is Mandarin, derived from the revolutionary officialdom of the Beijing area, which became mandated nationwide in an effort to unify China’s disparate regions. Fortunately for expats, English is also broadly spoken in Beijing, though admittedly less so than Shanghai.
Most Chinese will not expect you to know much Mandarin, so you’ll be greeted with surprise and delight if you can communicate beyond simple greetings. This effort sends a powerful message of respect, interest and goodwill. Learning some Mandarin will not only improve your interactions with locals, it will help you get better deals, get around more efficiently and, because language and culture are intricately linked, help you understand the culture. Additionally, as Mandarin grows into a world language, you and your children will be able to take advantage of this language opportunity far beyond your time in China. However, if you’re a beginner, it’s best to stick with English in business and administrative situations. Starting off with a few recently practiced Mandarin phrases could give the impression that you understand more than you actually do.
Mandarin Chinese has no alphabet, using characters instead. There are over 50,000 different characters, but you only need to learn about 3,000 to read a basic newspaper. Fortunately for expats, Chinese grammar is simple and the Pinyin system – a phonetic transliteration system that uses the Roman alphabet – makes conversing in Chinese accessible to expats. In Pinyin, each character is assigned one of the four basic tones (there’s also a neutral tone). Symbols placed over each character represent the tone, so non-Mandarin speakers know how to pronounce the word so that it will be understood. Depending on the tone, one Pinyin sound can have numerous meanings. For example, the sound ‘ma’ can mean ‘mother’, ‘horse’, ‘hemp’ or ‘to reprimand’, among other things, depending on the tone you use.
There are plenty of ways to learn Chinese. Most expats recommend starting with a basic course at one of the main universities or specialised language schools. If your children attend an international school, Mandarin will certainly be part of the curriculum. Language schools vary in price and quality, so it’s best to check a few out in person and ask other expats before committing. The larger universities offer inexpensive Mandarin classes to expats, though there’ll be less one-on-one support. Otherwise, use the resources around you. Chinese are generally friendly and eager to help you practice your language, even when you feel like you’re butchering the pronunciation! Practicing with your driver, local shopkeeper and domestic help can take you a long way towards reaching conversational fluency.
English is spoken in most central neighbourhoods, particularly in establishments that cater to Westerners, though the average passerby will not speak it well. Hotels, banks, cafes, bars, restaurants, fitness clubs and boutiques normally have English-speakers available. However, don’t expect to find English in taxis, buses, local restaurants, local markets or in non-expat neighborhoods outside the city.