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I'm moving back to China again in a few weeks, and I've already got a few friends planning visits - this brings me to my problem: I can't always be around to translate, and I find people have a more enjoyable experience when they have even a few words to express themselves.

What sites/sources/books etc should I recommend to them so they can have even a little foundation when they arrive? Does anyone have any particular phrase books that they would recommend? What have you suggested for friends and family traveling to China for the first time?

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closed as not constructive by fefe, this.lau_, Don Kirkby, Alenanno Sep 18 '12 at 11:41

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4 Answers

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I have seen a few things that work well:

  • Hand-held electronic device that will speak out the Chinese words for you (these are hard to get outside of China)
  • Personally write down some key phrases such as 'where is the toilet' etc on a piece of paper in both English and Chinese so they can point to what they are after if they can't pronounce it themselves
  • Previous versions of the Lonely Planet guide for China that I have seen have some key phrases in the back in an appendix
  • Many tourist spots provide free audio guides in English and other languages
  • Many tourist spots have younger people standing around who are happy to act as guides for a few dollars
  • Suggest to them if they get stuck try to find someone in the 14 - 18 age bracket as they are most likely to be able to speak some English
  • I also write down the characters for pork, chicken, beef, rice and noodles. This is usually enough for someone to pick something reasonable off a menu.
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I would suggest a short intensive course in Chinese done through Comprehensible Input (that's a theoretical framework for language acquisition). You can also search for TPRS-based courses or teachers of Chinese -- that's the name of the language teaching method that uses this approach. Problem is, there aren't that many out there yet.

The problem with a phrasebook is that it's just that -- a book of phrases. It doesn't build the ability to understand or create with the language. Doing a CI-based course, even a very short one, will give your visitors a lot more flexibility with the language. I've had people go to China after 8-10 hours and get along quite comfortably (able to buy things, eat, talk about themselves, and so on.) They're not going to be UN interpreters the next day but this kind of preparation goes a lot farther than memorization.

Traditional lessons or textbooks also fall short for short-term classes because they are not really much different from a phrase book. The student focuses on one "pattern" or a dialogue for a couple of hours, and doesn't develop much ability to use the language within the time they would have to devote to Chinese study before their trip.

In the US, Albany Language Learning or Fluency Fast do this sort of course. These are both Western-student-oriented organizations in the US, and will focus on the highest-frequency words and structures in the language. Full disclosure: I work for Albany Language Learning. But if I knew more sources I'd point you to them. People just get a lot farther in a shorter time when preparing for travel in this way.

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I found the old edition of Routledge's Colloquial Chinese excellent (though somewhat socially outdated, e.g. it suggests using 同志 = comrade).

This book was so successful that it is still in print even years after the completely rewritten new edition (by a different author) came out.

Still, I believe using this book will require a lot of effort and dedication, and it's for those who are serious about learning the basics, and don't just want to pick up a couple of phrases, but wish to truly understand the language.


For memorizing useful phrases with relative ease, Pimsleur's Mandarin course should be useful. My experience with another language Pimsleur course (Greek) was that if one invests enough time (e.g. listening to it every day while going to work/school), this is a relatively effortless way of memorizing a lot. But it did not help, and was in fact misleading about the structure and grammar of the language. For this reason I did not bother much with it when starting Chinese.

I believe that listening to Pimsleur daily for ~1.5 months should be very helpful in quickly memorizing many phrases, but I wouldn't recommend it to those who are serious about continuing to learn the language.

This answer is subjective and based on my personal experience as a learner

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An Optical Character Recognizer like Pleco would be helpful when your friends want to order food at a restaurant on their own for example. There are also lots of free beginner materials available for Chinese. I used Chinese Pod and Living Language Language Lab and Pocket Travel Guide. I found that even in Shanghai you could not always rely on someone speaking English so they should definitely come prepared with at least a few phrases or a pocket translator.

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