I am currently travelling through China, and I get many messages asking how do I get by without understanding the language?
In China, there are 14 official languages/dialects, with Mandarin being the official language (supposedly) spoken throughout the country. Despite this, it is possible to reach some places where only the local dialect is spoken.
Despite this being my fifth time travelling in China, the truth is that I don’t speak nor understand Mandarin, nor any of the other Chinese languages. Yes, I am also familiar with Mongolian and the Cyrillic alphabet, but this is of little to no use for me here.
Travelling through China can be really overwhelming: not only it is an ordeal to penetrate the Great Cyberwall of China (the online blocking of our usual travel survival apps, such as Google Maps or Translate, Facebook, WhatsApp, and many others), but we are confronted with this series of strange ideograms, which forms can add up to the tens of thousands of characters. But, let’s start with the basics: eight characters have helped me to start learning many more characters from this complex language, as well as to appease my overall experience in China.
ShaoLan Hsueh, the founder of Chineasy, created this method of easy memorization, which teaches us to associate words with images so that our brain memorizes the meaning of each one in an easier way. This is the construction of words in basic Mandarin, and a fantastic way to immerse ourselves into the secrets of this beautiful language!
Naturalmente isto não nos vai ensinar a falar mandarim fluentemente, mas ensina-nos melhor o jogo da compreensão da língua, pois são caracteres que vamos encontrar inúmeras vezes nos textos comuns, e cujo uso combinado com outros caracteres resulta noutro significado, multiplicando assim a nossa compreensão da língua.
Pinyin is mandarin written using the Latin letters. It is particularly useful for phonetics.
It won’t teach us how to speak the language, but it will help us understand better the combination of words, syllables and tones. It is very difficult in China to make ourselves understood, because of the similarity of syllables in words.
For example, the letters “ma” has multiple meanings, and are only two letters:
妈 – Mã – means “mother”
唛 – Mà – means “mark”
码 – Mǎ – means “weight”, “number” or even “morphine”
马 – Mǎ – can also mean “horse”
蚂 – mā – means “dragonfly”
…and so on!
This proves that Pinyin can be crucial if we want to read things in a way that makes sense to those who are listening.
Most dictionaries and phrasebooks provide us with Mandarin, Pinyin, and usually English translations. Properly spelling Pinyin will make your life easier in China, so it’s always a good thing to practice!
Three incredible characters to make you fall in love with the language
The beautiful thing about Mandarin is that the characters are like little drawings, and they all tell a little story. In addition to the ones that ShaoLan shows in the Chineasy video, here are some of my favourites:
德 (dé) – Virtue, Ethics
In traditional Chinese, the word 德 combines the following characters/meanings: 彳 (walk, travel) + 直 (right) + 心 (heart). All together, they mean anything like “travel with the right heart” which turns out to be the values of ethics or virtue.
安 (ān) – Peace
It results from the junction of 宀 (home/roof), with 女 (woman), symbolizing perhaps the good sensation at the end of a hard working day.
雨 (yǔ) – Rail
This character also features the symbol 宀 (home/roof), with four little dash-lines representing the rain through a window.
If you are going to travel to China, you probably will want to connect online, so I’m sharing here what I think are the must-have apps to survive in China. All work without needing to connect with a VPN.
Microsoft Translator – Of all the translation apps, this is the one that works best for me. Translations are almost always reliable and are great to translate from images or direct conversations.
WeChat – the queen of all apps in China, a combination of PayPal, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc, all in one application, indispensable for travellers in China.
Amap – It’s the “Google Maps” of China. Despite being completely in Chinese, it is fairly easy to get your way around, and ideal for asking locals to ask for directions.
DiDi – Uber tried to penetrate into the Chinese market, unsuccessfully, so eventually it was bought by DiDi. You cannot do research in English, but you can always copy-paste or ask the hotel receptionist or store clerk to help you with this option.
If you want to use the apps you use in the rest of the world, like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Dropbox, etc, then I recommend ExpressVPN – this is the king of all VPNs in China, and the only one that lets you use Netflix too. If you travel a few days and you want a free VPN, which despite being loaded with advertising always works, then I recommend the VPN Master.