Can I teach English in China if I don’t speak Chinese? Yes!
Do you speak English? Congratulations! You can train to be an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher!
How can I teach without speaking the local language is one of the most common questions we at The TEFL Academy get asked. It seems future TEFL teachers are especially concerned about this when it comes to teaching English in China – a popular TEFL destination. Can I teach English in China if I don’t speak Chinese? you might be wondering.
Teaching in China but not being able to speak Mandarin (or Cantonese) is not only doable, it’s actually the norm. You might think Mandarin is a very challenging language to learn but when you think about it, living and working in China is the same as living and working in any country.
Just as most TEFL teachers don’t speak the local language of wherever they are teaching, so too the majority of TEFL teachers in China don’t speak Chinese. After all, we’re English teachers!
But let’s look at how you can teach in China if you don’t Chinese in more detail.
English in China
Research has shown that less than 1% of China’s population can speak English at a conversational level or above. EF’s English Proficiency report of 2021 rated China’s English proficiency as moderate, ranking them 49 out of 112 countries.
Despite the fact that English is mandatory in Chinese schools from Grade 1, this is not the case in many rural schools. At the same time, the English instruction is not of a high standard, and many Chinese students opt for vocational schools – where English is not taught – rather than mainstream high schools.
This is why there is such a huge demand for TEFL teachers!
What this means is that in China you are more likely to hear Mandarin than English spoken. Of course, while the level of English is higher in big cities, even in cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will still find yourself overwhelmed by Mandarin. Also don’t forget that there are many local dialects which are still spoken in different parts of the country, which are different to Mandarin or Cantonese.
So the question remains:
How can I teach English in China if I don’t speak Chinese?
The concept is the same as for living in any country where you don’t speak the local language. It won’t affect your teaching but it will affect your everyday living.
- You will generally find more English speakers in the bigger cities and more urban areas, especially places that are popular with tourists.
- Transportation hubs e.g. train stations, subway stations, and airports, should have signage in both Mandarin and English.
- Restaurants in cities should have menus in Chinese. Restaurants in smaller towns probably won’t, but they may have images next to the menu items. We can’t guarantee that the image is of the exact same dish but we can always hope!
When it comes to teaching English as a foreign language, immersion learning is the name of the game. This is when only the language being taught i.e. English, is used in the classroom, even when explaining concepts or giving instructions. Translation is used sparingly. For this reason, you don’t need to be able to speak Mandarin to be able to teach in China.
Bear in mind that our language learners largely want to be able to speak in English. Because of this, the focus of your lessons is on speaking in English!
You might need some Chinese to communicate with other teachers and staff members, but hopefully the teachers in the English department can speak English! For official business – a visit to a bank or government office, for example – your school will send someone with you.
Top tips for living in China if you don’t speak Chinese
- Have a business card or letterhead from where you are staying. You can show this to your taxi driver, rather than relying on your Chinese pronunciation or their English.
- If using hand gestures to communicate, don’t point with your finger as this is considered rude. Rather point with your whole hand.
- Make sure the translation app you want to use is available in China.
- WeChat has a translate function for messages.
- Learn a few basic phrases to help you get around.
Why you should learn Chinese
On the other hand, if you have the time and motivation, you should try as best you can to learn some Chinese. Being able to communicate in the local language, even at a basic level, shows respect for the person you are talking to. Knowing the language will help you understand the culture. Plus, it will give you empathy for your learners as you realise just how different the two languages are!
A TTA alumnus in China
Andreas is from the Netherlands and decided to go to China when he was 18, where is now a primary school teacher in Chengdu. He says:
In many ways China is completely different from my home country, The Netherlands. That’s what makes it so exciting to live here. The people are different, the culture is different, the food is different. When I first came to Chengdu I didn’t know anyone here. It’s like I was starting a new life.
When I first came to Chengdu (China), I started as a kindergarten teacher. At the school I started teaching I was the only foreigner. And only a few of the staff spoke English. On the first day they just put me into a classroom and told me to start teaching. They didn’t give me any instructions but […] I had a teaching assistant. Even though it was demanding, it was also a lot of fun. The students are sweet and lively, and the content was easy to teach.
I would really advise teaching abroad to people who would like some change or excitement in their lives. Teaching abroad is a really good way to give your life a new direction, and to have a new start.
Keen on teaching English in China? Sign up for one of our courses to get you started in teaching English as a foreign language. If you’re qualified already, keep an eye on our jobs boards and internships page for teaching opportunities in China.