Do expats lose language proficiency after they come to China?
Many expats who speak Chinese feel their conversations in Chinese do not match their real Chinese language level. Photo: VCG
Paul Fleck, an American from Las Vegas, has a Level 4 certificate in HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Proficiency Test). The highest level of proficiency is Level 6, so a Level 4 should have boosted his confidence in speaking Chinese. But Fleck still feels that his Chinese does not match his real language ability. According to him, he usually only speaks Chinese in “survival” situations.
“I think the conversations are very basic when I talk with Chinese waiters and waitresses, taxi drivers, cashiers, delivery drivers and other people,” said Fleck, who is a teacher at an international school in Changshu, Jiangsu Province. “It even makes me feel my Chinese language level is more like HSK 1 at times.”
Fleck speaks English when he meets Chinese who can speak English. But he has found that he uses simpler English words and speaks more slowly during such conversations.
Having lived in China for four years, he has also found that he uses a lot of “Chinglish,” a linguistic mash-up of Chinese and English. He says things like “Give you look” and “I no understand” all the time when speaking to a Chinese, which he would never say to a native English speaker.
“Chinglish is like a second language. I’d say my Chinglish level is HSK 6,” said Fleck.
Fleck is only one of many expats who feel their Chinese and English language skills have suffered after moving to China. Jimena Ortega Romero, a Mexican from Mexico City, is another one.
Ortega learned Chinese in Mexico seven years ago and attained an HSK 4 certificate. She then moved to China in 2015 where she bolstered her language knowledge by attending business Chinese classes at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
She told Metropolitan that when she speaks Chinese in Beijing, the vocabulary she uses every day is far away from what she learned. Also, when speaking English, she generally uses simple and repetitive words so that everyone can understand what she is saying.
Has leaving their home countries for China affected expats’ language proficiency? Metropolitan talked with four expats to get their take on the matter.
Chinese language proficiency
Fleck said most of his conversations in Chinese are very basic, and he only has in-depth conversations with educated friends that speak good English.
“Their English is usually much better than my Chinese, so that is what we use,” he said. He thinks his Chinese proficiency has improved but only a little. “I learn from daily life instead of studying. It is almost impossible for my Chinese to decrease because I need it to survive here. But it isn’t improving as much as it could have if I were more disciplined.”
In addition to his Chinese proficiency level, Fleck also has to contend the different dialects in China.
“I can jump into a taxi and have a great conversation that flows easily with one driver. Thirty minutes later, I can jump into another taxi with a different driver who can’t understand a single thing I say,” he said.
Fleck said it’s hard to say whether his conversations represent his real Chinese language proficiency level. “When I have a smooth conversation, I’d say yes. But so many times there is an inability to communicate, and I don’t always understand why,” he said. “I think a big part of it is that Chinese is tonal and many Westerners, including myself, have a difficulty in properly using the tones.”
Although what he encountered frustrated him to the point where he once stopped practicing Chinese, Fleck believes that his Chinese is still better compared with when he was back in the US.
“I am very fluent in survival Chinese now. I can order food and give directions because this is what I mainly use,” he said.
Switching to suit your listener
In 2016, the number of visits from foreigners who come to work on the Chinese mainland was more than 900,000, said Zhang Jianguo, head of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs in an April 2017 Beijing Daily report.
Among them, many expats who work in China are English teachers. H.T. McBain who comes from the UK is one of them. He works as an English teacher in Shanghai and says that simplifying his English language is essential for his job. The problem is that the habit stuck and he finds himself still doing it outside of work.
“Of course, sometimes it’s essential if the person you are speaking to doesn’t speak fluent English,” he said. “I assume the same may be true for anyone living overseas and teaching English.”
Although Fleck usually uses simpler English words in conversations, he doesn’t think his English proficiency has decreased. Instead, he has learned to “use more gears.”
“My English has become a lot more efficient. It’s a strange thing. For instance, in the West, we feel using the word ‘very’ plus an adjective is simple. Instead of saying ‘very good,’ it’s better to say ‘great.’ Instead of ‘very fast,’ we say ‘quick.’ But in China, it’s better to do the opposite,” he said. “Not all the English speakers here have a wide vocabulary so using ‘very’ and an adjective is more easily understood. So, I am often saying ‘very good,’ ‘very bad,’ ‘very this,’ ‘very that,’ using simple adjectives.”
Fleck thinks speaking simpler English is also useful when he speaks to people back in the US who have a basic education.
“I realize now that I was often talking above the level of many native speakers back home. Being here has helped me understand that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I also speak more slowly and deliberately now. Honestly, I think this might help me be a better communicator back in the US. I think my faster pace will return naturally, but it’s nice to know how to change gears now.”
Before coming to China, Fleck made a video of himself making popcorn. In the video, he spoke rapidly and joined his words together. For example, at the beginning of the video, he said, “You’re gointaneed.” He said if he made it now, he would have said, “You’re going to need.”
“I recently showed the video to a friend and couldn’t believe how I was speaking and how I hadn’t learned to change gears yet,” he said. “I have some students who want to speak that casual style of English where we mash the words together, but I tell them it is not necessary. In fact, it is better to be deliberate and say each word individually.”
Blaze Miskulin, an American in his 40s, spent six years in China before moving back to the US recently. When he was in China, he worked as a marketing director for a German-Chinese joint venture.
Miskulin also found that his English proficiency was unaffected, but the way he used the language changed.
He said speaking to people with a limited English vocabulary meant that he had to become more precise in how he spoke.
“I would use simpler words or phrases in order to be sure I was understood, and I stopped using idioms and ‘casual’ words. For instance, ballpoint, felt tip and fountain pen all became just pen,” he said.
“[However,] on the negative side, I would often stay in this ‘simple mode,’ even when speaking with Europeans, Brits, or even fellow Americans. It’s a common problem with expats. We get so into the habit of speaking at a lower level in order to be understood that we sometimes forget that we’re talking to other native speakers. We haven’t lost the ability to speak complex English; we’ve just gotten out of the habit.”
Ortega, who now works as the event manager at CHEERS Wines in Beijing, can speak five languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Italian and Chinese. For her, all her languages improved due to the awesome international environment in the capital.
“I use at least three languages every day in the same percentage: Spanish, Chinese and English,” she said. “My master’s degree in China was taught in English, and that was the language used by all my foreign friends. I can also speak Italian and Russian, and having people around speaking them helped me remember and practice.”
To ensure that they can be easily understood, many expats in China use simpler English words when conversing with Chinese colleagues and friends. Photo: VCG
How to maintain proficiency
Fleck said he is not worried about his English proficiency level decreasing because it’s easy to go back to his natural pace and vocabulary. He said being in China has helped him understand that he can’t always speak at the same level.
Before, in the US, he always spoke the same way no matter who he talked to. Now, he feels he is more aware and can easily shift gears to simpler or more complex English depending on who is talking to.
“But Chinese proficiency is a completely different thing and completely dependent on how dedicated the person is,” he said.
Miskulin thinks using simpler words has merit. “The purpose of language is communication. If simple English on the factory floor gets the job done correctly, then it’s good. However, we should always strive to improve our language skills whether it is English, Chinese, or something else,” he said.
Ortega recommends reading as the best way to maintain fluency in a language. “For the Chinese language, as an expat, you always have to study. There’s no magic trick, even when you are surrounded by Chinese people. Learn new vocabulary so that you don’t just say hao, shenme, zhege and dongxi. I know these words meet our needs, but we also need to express ourselves better than a 3-year-old kid,” she said.