Most foreigners who come to China don’t speak much Mandarin, if any, when they arrive. If you are one of them, you probably wonder how well you will be able to get by with English in Beijing. After all, Beijing is a capital city with a big foreign population, right? (Government statistics show that almost 180,000 foreigners were living in Beijing in 2011, according to this article in the City Weekend magazine.)
Overall, there are many Chinese people who speak very good English, although some are a bit shy in actually using their language skills. But whether you encounter those English speaking locals really depends on the specific location. (If you have read more of my posts, you have probably seen the “it depends” answer more than once and are now rolling your eyes…Sorry. Beijing is so big and so diverse that no one answer fits all.)
Naturally, you find more English being spoken in areas of Beijing that see many foreigners, such as the typical expat areas in Chaoyang and places geared towards foreigners. (See also my post on things to consider when deciding where to live in Beijing.)
Let’s look at different places you may frequent in daily life and the level of English spoken there.
You will probably do most of your regular shopping in supermarkets (read more about where to shop in Beijing). Personnel in Western supermarkets like Jenny Lou usually speak a little bit of English as it pertains to their job. For example, at the cheese counter, staff will typically understand the requested amount in English and things like “sliced”. But don’t expect English speaking help for finding the best red wine.
In Chinese supermarkets and big international supermarkets like Walmart, the staff doesn’t speak English. But they are usually very helpful, when you ask with very basic Chinese “Do you have …” (“yǒu méiyǒu …”). You can look up the item you are looking for on your smartphone dictionary app and even show it to them if they don’t understand your pronunciation. If you have more advanced Mandarin skills, the retail staff is often eager to share recommendations or best uses.
If you go to tourist markets like the silk market or Yashao market, the sellers will definitely speak English (and Russian, and probably a few words of French, German, etc.) to praise their wares and haggle with you over the price. But usually, the vocabulary and understanding is limited to just that. Which is fine. I’m just pointing it out so you know that any other kind of chit chat or explanations or questions are usually not understood. The same is true for the Sanyuanli fresh market (read more about this and other specialty markets in Beijing).
You won’t find much, if any, English in markets and shops that are not geared towards foreigners. Chinese often use hand gestures for numbers, which are useful to learn.
The property management offices of apartment houses that cater to foreigners have English speaking staff available. You can not expect that for other apartments. (Although sometimes your Chinese question may be met with an English answer – just don’t count on it.)
In my almost two years in Beijing I encountered two taxi drivers who spoke English. So better be prepared with at least some basic Mandarin or have your destination written down in Chinese characters.
Buying train tickets
You can buy train tickets at the main stations or at small satellite offices all over the city. At the main stations, your chances of having an employee who understands some English and pulls up a smartphone app to facilitate communication are pretty good. In the small ticket offices across the city, you will need at least some basic Mandarin skills, or the help of a friend.
People on the street
When you need directions to a place or other info, your best bet is to ask a younger person. Many of them speak excellent English.
As always, when you speak with non-native speakers who don’t have much practice speaking English, remember to speak slowly, enunciate clearly and use simple sentences. If someone does not understand what you are trying to say, try using different words. Sometimes, when a strong accent gets in the way of understanding (e.g. America and England, two countries divided by a common language), writing it down on a piece of paper may help.
You can get by in Beijing without speaking Mandarin but…
These examples show that in many daily life situations you can get by with English in Beijing, especially if you stick close to the expat areas. Still, you are in China and should not expect Chinese people to be able to speak English. Learning at least some basic Mandarin goes a long way in making daily life easier.