How to communicate in China
Travelling to China can present many barriers between you and the people, especially when you are not familiar with the local language. Depending on what kind of traveller you are, this can either be an exciting challenge or daunting problem. Either way, there are many different ways to communicate with locals while traveling around China.
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Firstly there are the gestures. Thankfully there are many universal hand and facial gestures that can be useful if you are stuck. Granted, this can get confusing culturally as not all are universal, but basic actions such as pointing to your stomach when hungry, asking for the bill and finding a place to sleep are usually understood.
Secondly, bring along a pocket dictionary, a phrasebook or a guidebook with you. Guidebooks can get rather bulky, but most have a handy dandy phrase book in the back with plenty of basic phrases to help you out. If you are just looking for words and sentences, a small pocket dictionary/phrasebook might be a better option. The tricky thing with Mandarin is that it is a tonal language meaning the pitch varies in each word making it difficult to learn from a book. If all else fails though, you can at least point to the word or phrase right there on the page to get your point across.
Thirdly, technology comes to the rescue every time. If you are planning on traveling with a phone or tablet then you can download the Google translate app that offers over 80 languages, traditional Chinese included. The beauty of this app is that it is not Wi-Fi dependent meaning you can use it absolutely anywhere. Google Goggles is another helpful Android app. Simply take a photo of something, such as a menu, click translate and voilà, you now understand your food options! The app is great for providing information on things like as the landmarks and paintings you encounter as you travel through China.
A final option is finding a local translator. This can prove to be easier than what you might imagine. English is an extremely popular language for students to study in China but because they learn in an academic setting where the focus is on grammar, any opportunity students get to practice conversational English will be seized. So if you are walking on the street and someone starts speaking to you in English take the opportunity to make the situation mutually beneficial by having them be you personal translator while you are out and about in China.