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It can seem like a daunting experience to travel overseas to work in a country where you don’t know the native language. But don’t let the fear of not being able to speak Mandarin keep you from teaching English in China.

Do I need to learn Chinese to teach English in China?

The short answer is – nope!

It’s not necessary to speak any Mandarin (or Cantonese) to be hired to teach in China. In fact, it’s actually preferred that you don’t speak anything aside from English to your students.

Most, if not almost all, overseas English teachers working in China don’t speak more than a few words of Mandarin. Elibility requirements for English teaching jobs in China, like Teach Away’s very own Explore program, are usually English fluency, a bachelor’s degree, a TEFL certification and not a whole lot else.

If you’re looking at teaching in an ESL or language center pretty much anywhere in China, not speaking the native language will be seen as an advantage by your hiring school. Schools will want their students to be fully immersed in the English language when they are in the classroom. (As you probably know, this is the most effective way to learn a new language.)

Yep, you heard that right – not speaking Mandarin is an asset when it comes to applying for English teaching jobs in China.

As the teacher with native English language skills, you’re expected to communicate to your students fully in English, although you may have a local teaching assistant there in case of an acute language barrier. More often than not, your students will know at least some English, so you will likely not be starting from scratch anyway.

Recommended reading:

How to cope with language barriers while teaching English in China

So you’ve got communicating with your students in the classroom covered, but what about getting around outside school hours on your own? With locals that may not speak a word of English? Does the thought strike fear into your heart?

We get it, Mandarin isn’t necessarily the easiest language to pick up. But just as your students will find it easier to learn English by being forced to listen and communicate in the language, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to learn the basic Mandarin phrases you need to get by!

Before you go, take time to memorize some basic phrases and their pronunciation. If you can show that you have a basic grasp of the language, locals will be much more open to helping you out if you need it! You’re bound to end up in a situation with a communication error, but take these experiences in your stride and learn from them.

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Cheatsheet: Essential Chinese phrases for English teachers

English phrase

Chinese translation

Phonetic pronunciation





Bù shì




Nee how

Good morning






Thank you



My name is

Wǒ jiào

Wuh jeow

How much?

Duō shǎo?

Dwuh shauw?

Where is the bathroom?

Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ?

See-sow-jian zai na-lee?

Check, please

Măi dān

My dahn

A few other things to put your mind at ease when it comes to your less-than-stellar Mandarin skills:

  • Banks will usually have someone who can speak English to help you out. In fact, many ATMs in China have an English language option.
  • Restaurants will typically provide a picture menu to make ordering easier.

There are plenty of language apps that can help you communicate on the go. We’re big fans of WayGo for that purpose.

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