Do People Speak English in China?

China is the largest country in the world by population. The population stands at around 1.4 billion people. The country has a long and proud history and is a fascinating place to visit. Obviously, when people travel to China they want to know how widely English is spoken by the local people in China.

In China there are around 1.4 billion people. Of these around 82 million speak English to conversational level. This is around 6% of the total population. These people are usually young people who studied English at school, are rich enough to travel and study abroad, and who live in the major urban centres of China. The poorer, less educated people in the countryside rarely can speak English. 

English Use in Major Cities in China

  • Beijing – Beijing is the capital city of China and has around 21 million residents. People visit Beijing to see the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden city, Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace. It has modern restaurants and bars, shopping districts, western hotel chains and countless other tourist sights. A large section of the local population can speak basic English. The younger people learnt English at school and anyone involved in a international company or working in the tourist industry can speak English quite well. As the capital city, there are many embassies here and so English is often spoken because of the large expat community.
  • Shanghai – Shanghai is the finance and business centre of China and has around 24 million residents. The major sights in Shanghai include the Bund, the former French Concession, Jingan and Jade Buddha temple. There are countless shopping districts and there are many international restaurant chains and bars in the centre of town. There are also many western hotel chains. Shanghai is probably the most international city in China other than Hong Kong. It has a long colonial history and these days is very open to outside influence. This has meant that the local population have lots of experience with English. The young people have learnt it in Schools and there are many foreigners living in the city who speak English.
  • Shenzhen – Shenzhen is probably most well known as the city that was a fishing village in the early 80s and is now a high tech world manufacturing hub. With a population of 12 million people the city has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. It was one of the first Special Economic Regions set up by Deng Xiaoping during the reform period in China. The local people are well educated, and the young people studied basic English at school. The city is also bordering Hong Kong and with the British influence of the past the people have familiar with English more than other regions of China. The service industry employs many people who can speak basic English in the hotels, restaurants and bars.
  • Guangzhou – The city of Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province and is the 3rd largest in China with a population of 13 million. It was previously called Canton and was a centre for commerce and trade with the outside world. It was also the sight of much rebellion and revolution in China under the Qing dynasty. These days it is a global manufacturing powerhouse and since the 80s has grown in economic might. Many foreigners visit this city to visit the museums, galleries and cultural sights. Many of the local people can speak English well and the young people have learnt English at school. on top of that lots of international businesses are based and interact with the local people in English.
  • Hong Kong – Hong Kong has a very different history to the other cities of China. As part of the British Empire, the city grew up influenced heavily the economic interests of the UK. The city was returned to China in 1997 but is still influence heavily by its long history as a colonial possession. There days the city is an international melting pot of different cultures. Many of the local people speak English as a first language or second language. The city is also a tourist hotspot and so the local restaurants, bars and hotels almost always have someone who speaks English.

What Languages are Spoken in China?

  • Mandarin – Mandarin is spoken by around 2/3 of the people living in China. It is the official language and there are 4 varieties spoken across the country. These are Northern, North Western, Southern and South Western. In China, in total around 1.1 billion people speak Mandarin.
  • Wu – The language family called Wu is spoken by 82 million people in China. This language family is found in the region of Shanghai, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Fujian and Anhui. This is the eastern region of mainland China. Shanghainese is the most popular of these languages.
  • Cantonese – Cantonese is also sometimes called Yue. It is spoken in the regions of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Hainan and Hong Kong/Macau. In total around 62 million people speak it in China. This language is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin.

Is English necessary in China?

  • Tourists – If you are travelling to the major cities of China you are going to find someone to speak English in the major restaurants, bars and hotels. The quality of the English spoken can be limited but for basic requests, directions and small talk you should be fine. In the major cities there are also translator available to hire for more complicated conversations. Also, a lot of the local people like to practice their English so you should be able to find someone to help. If you travel to less well travelled locations you are going to find a need to speak more of the local language. Rural people are still quite poor and don’t have the time or money to study English.
  • Locals – People in China have been learning English at school since the 80s and so a large section of Chinese society can speak basic English. Learning English can also help in your career, especially if you are dealing with international clients and businesses. Many Chinese people travel overseas to travel and study especially to locations like the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and so they have had a lot of opportunity to practice.

English vs Mandarin

Mandarin is the most spoken language in China, followed by Cantonese which is spoken predominantly around Guangdong province and Hong Kong/Macau. Given how prevalent English is in China, it would make sense to have a look at how English and Mandarin compare.

  • Vocabulary –In Mandarin, words are single syllable words or formed by joining together these single syllables into new compound words. Take the word for train which is huo che. This breaks down into the words for fire huo and vehicle che. Other words are formed by adding simple prefix words to existing words. In terms of English loan words, there are quite a few from business, technology and sport. But the Mandarin pronunciation mapping onto these words can make the original pronunciation quite different.
  • Grammar – In Mandarin the word order is the same as in English, subject-verb-object. Also the verbs don’t change for tense, aspect or subject. You have to get familiar with classifiers but thankfully there is no case system or gendered nouns.
  • Speaking/listening – Mandarin is a tonal languages with in total 4 tones and a neutral tone. There are also some different phoneme sounds that you should spend time becoming familiar with.
  • Writing/reading – The mandarin in mainland China is written using a simplified Chinese script. This script has 214 base radical symbols which combine to form over 50000 characters which can function as words but can also combine together to form new words. This is one of the most difficult writing systems in the word and can add considerable time to the learning process.

English and Mandarin are very different languages. The most difficult part of learning Mandarin is the pronunciation the writing system. That being said, if you are going to spend any time travelling in rural areas of China, Mandarin would be worthwhile learning.

Basic Phrases in Mandarin

  • Good morning – 早上好 – Zǎoshang hǎo
  • Good afternoon – 下午好 – xià wǔ hǎo
  • Good evening – 晚上好  – wǎn shànɡ hǎo
  • Yes – 是 – Shì
  • No – 没有 – Méiyǒu
  • Please – 请 – Qǐng
  • Thank you – 谢谢 – Xièxiè

Final Thoughts

China is a fascinating country to visit. The people are very friendly and if you attempt to learn some Mandarin the locals will be very impressed when you attempt to communicate using the language.

That being said, English is increasingly used in the major urban centres of the country. The Chinese learn basic English at school so you should be able to have a basic conversation with most people in the cities. In fact many Chinese people really enjoy the opportunity to speak English with a foreigner.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article!

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