Monkey Abroad

Videos and stories of the life abroad – food, culture, travel & work

don't speak chinese
don't speak chinese

Live in China but Don’t Speak Chinese? Here’s How to Fix That


If you live in China (or plan to live in China) but don’t speak Chinese, this article is for you. Although it’s technically possible to spend a long time in China without ever learning to speak or read 中文, your life here will be waaay more difficult that way. In about a year, I was able to go from knowing virtually nothing about this complex language to being able to converse in basic Chinese and read over 800 characters. Here’s how you can, too:

don't speak chinese

When I first arrived in China in 2013, the thought of actually being able to speak and read Chinese seemed like a joke to me. While some of my foreign friends who came to China already had a background in Chinese before they arrived, most folks I’ve met came fresh off the boat with little or no Chinese language proficiency (like me). But after about a year of intensive self-study, and with the help of a tutor and my Chinese friends, I can now speak and read Chinese fluently at the HSK3 level (汉语水平三级).

Using Chinese language apps

Cell phone applications make a huge difference in learning Chinese, particularly in learning how to read the complex characters. I strongly recommend an app called Pleco. This app has it all: dictionary, flash cards, audio (to help with pronunciation), and a ton of other features.

Whenever I sat in the metro or in a taxi for a long commute, I would open my phone to Pleco and go through flash cards and look up all the words I wanted to learn. After a few weeks of quizzing myself and reading over the same Chinese characters over and over again, this seemingly impossible language finally stuck in my head.

don't speak chinese

Making Chinese friends

This one is obvious. The more Chinese-speaking friends you have, the better your Chinese will become. The best ways to meet new Chinese friends is to get out and find people with similar interests in your city. Getting involved with clubs or sports teams will open doors for you to create language exchange opportunities.

don't speak chinese

I play for the Shanghai Warriors American football team, which is a team comprised of 80% Chinese players. Whenever our American coach is giving instruction to the team, one of our Chinese players or coaches will translate the message into Chinese for our players who don’t speak English very well. I listen to the Chinese coaches talk to the Chinese players, and this is a great opportunity for me to learn all the basic sports terminology and reinforce this knowledge each time I go to football practice.

don't speak chinese

Having a Chinese girlfriend

Perhaps the most effective way to learn Chinese is to date someone who is a native speaker. Spending hours every day with someone who speaks Chinese will immerse you so deep into the language that you’ll have no choice but to improve. Plus, if you really like or love the person you’re dating, you will feel an extra sense of motivation to improve your language ability so that you can become closer.

don't speak chinese

Attending Chinese tutoring

For very little cash, you can hire a private Chinese tutor. This will quickly accelerate your Chinese language-learning because you can customize your lessons to practice and learn the exactly type of vocabulary you want.

I had a private tutor for ten months last year, and she helped me improve my Chinese significantly. I studied with the goal of taking the Chinese proficiency exam (HSK), and my tutor specialized my class to help me reach my goal more quickly. We met twice a week for one hour each session (each session cost 85 RMB, which is about 13 dollars/hour). After 10 months of classes, I took the HSK3 exam, and I passed!

don't speak chinese

My tutor (Rita) and me!

Getting (a lot of) foot massages

Foot massages are incredibly cheap in China. Like, 7-dollars-an-hour cheap. Once your Chinese has gotten to the basic level where you can understand and speak a little bit, getting regular foot massages becomes like a second form of tutoring. Like the snowball effect, it just keeps getting better and better the more you speak and listen.

After I attended tutoring sessions, I would immediately go to the foot massage parlor down the road and for an hour-long foot massage, which costs 40 RMB (7 dollars). While I was sitting there enjoying the awesome massage, the masseuse or masseur would strike up a conversation with me. This was basically like doubling my tutoring hours because I would bring in my study materials and practice my newest vocabulary and pronunciation with the masseuses, all while getting a massage!

Check out my video about getting Chinese foot massages here in Shanghai!

don't speak chinese

There’s no excuse!

If you live in China but don’t speak Chinese, there’s no reason why you can’t become fluent in less than a year using the steps I listed above. It only takes a little bit of time every day, and before you know it, you’ll be having conversations with anyone from your waiter to your taxi driver.

Anything I missed? What other tips do you have for learning Chinese from square one? Leave a comment below and let me know!

Author: Kevin Cook

I want to inspire you to pursue your own dream of traveling and/or living overseas!


  1. Kevin: How about a public washroom vid from these towns you visit. Love your vids.
    Thank-you — Grandpa Good —

  2. Just found your blog and have been reading your posts. I’ve been in China nearly one year and a lot of what you’ve written I can relate to. To add to your list, using WeChat and TanTan: both great for meeting new people and I learned to read Chinese by interacting with people on those apps. Also setting up the PinYin keyboard is a must.

    • OH you’re totally right! I didn’t even think about that because it just seems like such a normal part of my life now. The pinyin keyboard in a phone is essential for communicating once you get the basics of pinyin down. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I assume having a Chinese girlfriend only works if you’re white.

Let me know what you think


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