±A - Join Our Community

Learn from the experiences of other expats and make new friends in our disccussion forums and Facebook groups

±A - Cigna

±A - Read Our Guide

The Expat Focus Guide to Moving Abroad contains everything you need to know when planning an international relocation available now, completely free

±A - Compare Quotes and Save

Insurance, FX and international movers

±A - Listen to the Podcast

The Expat Focus podcast features interviews with expats living abroad and service providers meeting their needs subscribe today!

±A - Expert Financial

From our tax, investment and FX partners

±A - ExpatFocus Partners

Expat Focus Partners

Become a Partner. Click Here.

Speaking the Language

China - Speaking the Language

Guoyu is the official language of China. About 98 percent of the population of China are Mandarin speakers who also speak a second native dialect. Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn as an expat. However, with plenty of practice and exposure to the Chinese culture, you can achieve fluency.

The Chinese language is divided into several distinctive dialects. Han is the dominant dialect in Chinese. Outside China, Guoyu is spoken in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. Other languages spoken in China include Lolo, Mongolian, Tibetan, Tai, Miao, Cantonese, Hakka, Hunanese, Min, Gan and Wu.

Mandarin is the base dialect of the national language Guoyu, and is spoken in northern, western and central parts of China. Cantonese speakers are mostly found in cities such as Hong Kong, Hainan, Guangdong, Macau and southern Guangxi Zhuang. The Hakka language is spoken by Chinese natives residing in South West Fujian, Hunan, Yunnan and Hainan. You can also find Hakka speakers in Jiangxi, Guangxi, Taiwan, Guizhou, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Hunanese is spoken by Chinese people in the Hunan region. Min speakers are found in Hainan, Fujian, East of Guangdong and Taiwan. The Min language is also spoken in south-east Asia and parts of the Leizhou Bandao peninsula. Gan speakers are also found in Hunan as well as Jianzhi and South of Hubei. Wu dialect is spoken in South of Anhui and Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. The Wu dialect has many similarities with Mandarin and Gan.

Guoyu borrows from different dialects to form the distinct Chinese characters and their pronunciations. Most Chinese people who also speak a variant of the Chinese language can speak Guoyu fluently.

Written Chinese

The Chinese language is written in characters known as Kanji. There are over 3,500 Kanji characters that can be combined to form another 10,000 unique characters. Written Chinese follows the same pattern as English in that the characters are written from left to write. However, Chinese can also be written vertically from top to bottom or horizontally from right to left.

What makes Chinese a difficult language to learn is mastering the pronunciation of each character. With so many characters to master, it can be discouraging for an expat to learn Guoyu. Fortunately, the Chinese developed a phonetic system known as Pinyin, which migrants can use to learn how to pronounce each character correctly. Furthermore, many of the street signs and even labels on products are translated in both Kanji and Pinyin.

Luckily, one can live in China for years without needing to learn Mandarin. English is widely spoken in big cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Stores are mostly staffed with Chinese speaking personnel. However, these staff are trained to understand basic queries in English so that they can help non-Chinese speaking people. Foreign-owned stores in China often have English-speaking staff, so shopping there should be easy. On the other hand, it could be helpful to learn some basic Mandarin, and Google the words you might use most often. Speaking Mandarin can help you make connections with the local people.

Areas such as the Silk Market in China are filled with vendors that speak some English. However, the vendor’s English may be limited to a few words. There are few cab drivers in China that speak English, so if you happen to find one, take their contacts so that you can easily call for them whenever you need a cab.

If you are looking for housing options, search in areas where expat communities are congregated. This way you can get by without the need to learn the local language. If you need directions in the streets of China, consider asking directions from young people, since they are perhaps more likely to have learnt some English.

Learning Mandarin goes a long way in showing the locals that you appreciate their language and respect their country. Going beyond the usual greeting will earn you respect and even hospitality from the local people. In addition, fluency in Mandarin or Guoyu makes you more marketable in the Chinese job market.

Tips For Learning The Language

There are several ways to learn Mandarin as an expat living in China. How quickly you will reach fluency depends on your learning ability and how much you practice. Generally, you only need one to two years of practicing Mandarin to attain a good level of fluency.

One way to learn Guoyu is by practicing speaking and writing in the language. Watching television shows in Chinese is one of the fastest ways to grasp spoken Mandarin. Listening to local radio stations and reading local Chinese publications including newspapers and magazines will also help you learn Mandarin. For practice, go out and speak Mandarin to anyone you interact with, whether that is a shopkeeper, taxi driver, ticket vendor or your employer.

You can also learn the Chinese language by hiring a private tutor. Private Mandarin classes are helpful because of the one-on-one interaction with the tutor. If you can find a skilled, experienced teacher, you may be able to pick up the language quite quickly.

There are Mandarin teaching centers in China known as Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi or HSK. These centers are established in all major cities, and provide Mandarin classes for both local people and migrants. At the end of your classes, you will be issued a certificate of Chinese for passing the state Chinese proficiency test.

Another way to learn Mandarin is by enrolling yourself in a Chinese teaching school. Hutong school is one of the best learning centers for expats with branches in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Hangzhou. Hutong offers Mandarin classes, group and private Chinese lessons, as well as cultural activities such as calligraphy, painting and martial arts. You can contact Hutong School through their hotline number, which is +86 1 085 236 030.

Read more about this country

Expat Health Insurance Partners

Bupa Global

At Bupa we have been helping individuals and families live longer, healthier, happier lives for over 60 years. We are trusted by expats in 190 different countries and have links with healthcare organisations throughout the world. So whether you're moving abroad for a change of career or a change of scene, with our international private health insurance you will always be in safe hands.


Cigna has worked in international health insurance for more than 30 years. Today, Cigna has over 71 million customer relationships around the world. Looking after them is an international workforce of 31,000 people, plus a network of over 1 million hospitals, physicians, clinics and health and wellness specialists worldwide, meaning you have easy access to treatment.