How do you overcome the language barrier?

Well, I have lived in China for many years now, and have some personal experiences to share with you.

While you’ll find some basic tips online to help you overcome language barriers in China (like this one), I think you’ll find my personal experience a lot more interesting.

If you’ve ever wondered what language barriers there might be when a foreigner dates a Chinese person who can’t speak English, please keep reading.

And, as always, let me know what you think in the comments section below.

My love life in China

When I started teaching in China back in 2013, I almost gave up hope of ever being able to find love. If I met a girl back home, she might not be willing to come to China.

On the other hand, if I met a girl in China, she might not want to follow me when I decide to go home for good.

Chinese girls also tend to expect potential suitors to buy or own an apartment in China. A man needs to be wealthy to court a Chinese woman!

(I’ve dedicated a separate blog to Chinese girls which goes into more detail about that.)

In the seven years that I’ve been teaching in China, I’ve had three Chinese girlfriends. The first two were fluent in English but my current girlfriend can’t speak English at all.

Is it possible to have a relationship when there’s a language barrier?

I have to admit that a language barrier is a turn-off for some Chinese girls.

In the past, I’ve met various girls whom I was attracted to but they weren’t interested in me due to my rudimentary Mandarin skills.

Sometime in the summer of 2019, I met my present girlfriend, Wang Hong Hu. She was working in one of the thousands of little shops that can be seen in any Chinese city and I was her customer.

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Unlike many other Chinese girls, Hong Hu was very chatty and I found her irresistibly attractive.

We exchanged WeChat IDs and started messaging each other regularly but I soon had to fly to the UK for my summer vacation. So we didn’t have our first date until September.

(Note: WeChat is the most popular app in China.)

Hong Hu can be a hot-headed woman with a fiery temper so the relationship has been hard work at times. But, with immense patience on both sides, we have now been together for a year and three months.

Dating by instant messaging

Hong Hu and I have had many dinner dates.

Our dates have been a source of great amusement to the waiters – a man and a woman at a table in a restaurant, silently tapping on their phones and not saying a word.

To anyone who didn’t understand the nature of our relationship, we looked like total strangers!

Overcoming language barrier with my Chinese girlfriend

Me and my Chinese girlfriend. Image by Kim Ooi.

Some problems with text chat and translation apps

Like any other couple, Hong Hu and I have had some blazing rows but this was made worse by the language barrier.

Here are some of the misunderstandings that we’ve had:

She once sent me this message: 昨晚出去吃饭,回来被骂了. According to my WeChat translator, this meant “Last night, I got called out for eating out”.

I thought she was merely mentioning the fact that we had dinner together the previous evening. So, I sent her a ‘thumbs up’ emoji.

Boy, did I get into trouble for that one!

What she actually meant to say was, “I was on call last night when I was having dinner with you. I got an absolute scolding from my boss when I got back and you liked that?”

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Then there was the time when she sent me this message: 离婚不离家,小孩子还在. My WeChat translator said that this meant “No divorce, no kids”.

When we got together, she told me that she was divorced and had a son. When I saw that translation, I thought that she was still married.

So, I accused her of cheating on me!

An English-speaking Chinese friend later told me that what she meant was that she was working hard to raise her child on her own.

She also liked to use this phrase a lot: 现在老火. Literally translated, it means “Now the old fire”.

You can imagine the amount of confusion that would cause to a native English speaker. In English, an “old flame” means a former lover.

But in Chinese, it has multiple meanings. It could mean that someone is very angry. But it could also mean ‘prosperous’ especially when used in the context of the economy, for instance.

WeChat on phone

WeChat can help, but watch the translations. Image by Jirapong Manustrong on Shutterstock.

Finally, there was a time when she sent me this message: 今天朋友又吹我了. My WeChat translated this to: “My friend blew me off again today”.

To all the dirty-minded people who may be reading this, no, it doesn’t mean what you think it does. It meant that she owed her friend some money and her friend was pressuring her to pay it back.

So, please remember to take electronic translations with a pinch of salt. This is especially important when communicating with someone who likes to use colloquial or idiomatic speech.

Busting the language barrier

To overcome the language barrier, I did several things.

Firstly, I increased the frequency of my Mandarin lessons from twice to three times a week.

I have to admit that initially, I wasn’t keen on learning Chinese. I found it terribly difficult.

Before I met my girlfriend, I was surrounded by my fellow expat teachers and students who were majoring in English.

Chinese English communication

There are ways you can overcome language barriers. Image by Lars Poyansky on Shutterstock.

I thought I didn’t need to learn Chinese. At one point, I even considered giving up learning Chinese altogether.

However, my father kept on telling me how important it was for me to learn Chinese if I wanted to live and work in China.

(Find out how to learn basic Mandarin here.)

I asked my girlfriend to text me whenever I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I then showed the text messages to my Mandarin tutor and asked her to explain the new words to me.

Also, I asked her to speak standard Mandarin and not her local dialect and to speak more slowly. This is very important.

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I now attend a local Chinese and English Corner group. This has given me an opportunity to practice my Chinese with the locals.

And, as I’ve already mentioned, instant messaging apps like WeChat can be very useful in breaking the language barrier.

As a result, I can now understand more of the things that she says.

How our relationship strengthened over time

Actions speak louder than words.

Unlike my ex-girlfriends who were spoilt, my current girlfriend has had a tough life and is very independent.

Soppy declarations of never-ending love and empty promises didn’t impress her. I had to prove to her that I was really willing to help her out when she needed me.

This meant literally putting my money where my mouth was. Money is a universal language that most women in China understand very well.

I supported her financially whenever she needed me (if I could) and in return, she provided me with emotional support. This is the deal that we have to this day.

Over time, her temperament slowly improved. She had never dated a foreigner before but she gradually came to understand that she needed to be patient with me when I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

Inter-cultural relationships require patience and mutual understanding

Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that it’s hard work. There’ll be disagreements, arguments and even big fights.

If you have a language barrier to overcome as well, it makes the situation even more difficult.

It’s hardly surprising therefore, that many expats in China are single.

However, as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. If I could overcome the language barrier, anyone can.

You can keep reading about my adventures (and misadventures) in China. Check out the article I wrote about dating in China. I think you’ll like it!