Do you need to be bilingual?
Anna-Lina Helsen, from Germany, attends the Western Academy of Beijing and is articulate in English, German and Chinese.
David Ngonyani, from Tanzania, goes to Harrow International School Beijing and is fluent in English and Swahili.
Tiffany Tan, from Singapore, attends the Western Academy of Beijin and can converse in English and Chinese.
Vergini Tzvetanova, from Bulgaria, goes to Harrow International School Beijing and can get chatty in English, Bulgarian and Chinese.
What do you make of expats who live in Beijing and make no effort to learn Chinese?
David: My dad doesn’t want to learn Chinese. We’ve been here for two years, and when he came he was like: “I’m not going to learn Chinese. If you want to talk to me, you’re going to have to talk to me in English, not Chinese.” I haven’t really taken the subject in school or anything; I’ve just picked up words. I just speak Chinese when I go shopping.
Anna-Lina: I think it is a waste of a chance if people don’t want to learn Chinese. If you come to China it’s the perfect opportunity to learn Chinese. I know that I’m not really the best example because when I first arrived in China I didn’t have to study Chinese and I feel bad because I should have.
Vergini: I feel the same way as Anna: if you have a chance, then take it. You shouldn’t waste the opportunity because it comes once in a lifetime.
Tiffany: I knew Chinese before I came here, so I didn’t really have that thing of not knowing the language. As an international student, most places that I go to people can speak English. You can get by without needing to speak it.
How much Chinese do you need to know to live in Beijing?
David: I think being an expat and living here, you could probably survive without learning a word of Chinese. For example, if you go to a shop you can just use a calculator to talk about the price. In most of the places that you go people do try and speak English to you. Sometimes, when you try to speak Chinese and they just respond to you in English, it’s like a crazy mix of the two languages.
Tiffany: For an average student, you would just need to know enough to be able to tell a taxi driver where to go. Maybe some words to use at shops or to order some food would be the least you would need.
Vergini: I’ve lived in Beijing for 14 years, so I don’t have this problem! I think people can get by on about 50 words, at least. That would be enough to get you to where you wanted to go.
Anna-Lina: Like Vergini, I’ve been here for a long time. I don’t think you need to learn Chinese in a classroom. To be able to get around, you can pick a lot of it up on the street – like street names and things like that. Things like “left” and “right” you just learn by spending time in the city.
Do you think learning Chinese will help you when you are looking for a job?
David: I think you should always try and predict what language is going to be useful in the future. With China developing so fast the Chinese language is getting more important, but I don’t feel it’s vital.
Anna-Lina: I just think it looks really good on your resume if you can speak it, especially if you work for an international company.
Tiffany: Well, I don’t really see myself as having a job where I would have to speak Chinese. Most Chinese people are actually learning English so that they can communicate with us, so I don’t think it’s necessary for us to speak Chinese.
Vergini: I think it’s an advantage because most people in America and in Europe don’t learn Chinese, so I think it helps a lot.
You guys are all part of the international community. What languages do you speak at home?
David: At home we have a mixture of English and my native language, which is Swahili. What language we speak really depends on who comes to the house.
Tiffany: We mostly speak in English, but my mom yells at me in Chinese. I speak to my grandmother in Chinese because she can’t speak English. Oh yeah, and I speak to my ayi in Chinese, too.
Vergini: I speak Bulgarian, English and Chinese at home. My sister doesn’t go to an international school so I try and speak to her in Chinese as much as I can so she can practice. With my parents I speak Bulgarian or English.
Anna-Lina: With my brother I speak English, because we both go to international school so we use it all day and it’s hard to click out of it. With my mom and dad I have to speak German. Sometimes we speak French for the fun of it, but we don’t get anywhere!