In Beijing, foreigners sharpen their language skills with help from locals

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-11 18:53:01

Poppy Huang (right), one of the organizers of the Chinese language corner, talks to a participant. Photo: Li Hao/GT

It's early on a Saturday evening, which in Sanlitun usually means that local revelers are preparing for a night of partying. But in this cozy café in Sanlitun SOHO, the only sounds you hear are the cheery buzz of conversation as dozens of foreigners and Chinese chat over coffees.

In one corner, an American man and a British guy are talking to a Chinese girl, earnestly trying their best to follow the rule of the evening - Chinese language only.

Welcome to the "Beijing Happy Zhongwen Jiao" (Chinese Corner), a Chinese language group that recruits members through the Beijing page of the global social networking website With over 1,500 followers, the group is one of the largest and most active Meetup groups among both foreigners and Chinese people in Beijing.

"Zhongwen Jiao was established half a year ago when I was unable to find a local gathering devoted to making friends as well as practicing and improving my Chinese language skills," said American Daniel Rodriguez, who started the group.

"In Beijing there have been English and half-Chinese, half-English speaking events, but none exclusively dedicated to Chinese."

The past decade has witnessed  the spread of "Chinese language fever" around the world, thanks in large part to China's rapid rise as a world power, both politically and economically. According to a 2014 Xinhua report, the number of Chinese language learners across the world has seen a dramatic increase from fewer than 30 million in 2004 to more than 100 million in 2014.

"A city like Beijing very much deserves to have a Chinese language corner like this," Rodriguez said.

Growing demand 

When Rodriguez, who has lived in Beijing for six years, and works in the IT and English-training industries, first launched the group in 2014, it only had three participants - all of whom were his friends. Over the past couple years, though, that number has grown, so that their weekly event now draws around 30 people, usually half Chinese and half foreigners.

Each meeting begins with a brief round of introductions, followed by casual, often meandering conversation. Participants then divide into small groups to chat about their favored topics.

Poppy Huang, another organizer of the event, works as an interpreter with a local IT company. For Huang, Zhongwen Jiao is a reminder of the great efforts that a generation of Chinese people (mostly those born in the 1970s and 1980s) made to learn English. "We are very familiar with 'English language corner' because when we studied English, we wanted to have a group where we could communicate only in English," said Huang. "Now we are creating a platform for foreigners who want to practice their Chinese as well as make Chinese friends."

Over the past few years, Chinese language groups have seen a growing presence all over the world. The majority of them have been organized by educational groups and universities under the support of the Confucius Institute, a non-profit educational organization under China's Ministry of Education that aims to promote Chinese language and culture around the world.

Chinese-language social networking events organized by foreigners are also on the rise. A search of's global events uncovers a number of Chinese-language social gatherings in cities such as Washington DC in the US, and London in the UK.

"There is definitely a demand for such events in Beijing, as an increasing number of foreigners are passionate about learning Chinese and interacting more with local people," Rodriguez said.

Zhongwen Jiao provides a platform for foreigners to communicate with locals in Chinese. Photo: Li Hao/GT

 Shall we talk?

It isn't just students who are attracted to Beijing's Zhongwen Jiao; according to Rodriguez, the weekly event draws people from all walks of life, including software engineers, doctors, accountants and more.

Tim Vangardingen, who originally comes from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is a college student majoring in Chinese and German at the University of Leeds. Currently on an exchange program with Capital Normal University in Beijing, he has visited the group several times.

"I like this event. How could I practice my oral Chinese without events like this?" he said.

Vangardingen said he hasn't yet decided if he will come back to China for a career after graduation, but said he believes his Chinese skills will enhance his competitiveness in the UK job market.

Vangardingen firmly believes that talking with locals is an even better way of learning the language than studying textbooks. He recalls an incident years ago when he was at a restaurant in a small Chinese city where no one could speak English, and he couldn't even order a bowl of beef noodles.

"I said [in Chinese], 'I want a niurou mian,' and the waiter replied [in Chinese], "Which type of niurou mian?' I couldn't read the Chinese characters on the menu so I didn't know how to order. I was just sitting there, wishing someone would bring me a niurou mian!"

After that, he learned the Chinese names of many different kinds of niurou mian.

Vangardingen said he's found it a bit hard as a foreigner to make Chinese friends in Beijing. "In my opinion, local people are kind of shy [about communicating with strangers], or [maybe it's because] I am modest and shy, because if I feel people are not willing to talk to me I will stop talking too."

Dinesh Yenneti, a recent transplant from India who works at a software company in Beijing, also hopes to make more Chinese friends at Zhongwen Jiao.

Yenneti first started studying Chinese three years ago while attending university in India. There, he started making Chinese friends via the Chinese instant message service QQ to practice his Chinese with them.

At Zhongwen Jiao, he's gotten the chance to gain a more diverse picture of China. "I've met people from many different provinces in China and from many different countries. The people are from all walks of life."

He's even had brushes with romance at the group - or chances at romance, anyway. One time, he recalls, an older Chinese woman he met at the event was so impressed with his Chinese that she offered to set up a date with her granddaughter.

"Sadly, I didn't see her again after that," Yenneti laments.

Becoming a local

Many foreigners flow in and out of China, but for those who are intent on staying long term, Zhongwen Jiao is a place they can not only practice their language skills but also gain a deeper understanding of Chinese life and culture.

Bernard Szlachta from Poland, who works at a start-up specializing in providing artificial intelligence training, is a regular at Zhongwen Jiao. Szlachta, who started studying just one year ago, can already speak fluent Chinese.

"I don't consider myself an expat," said Szlachta, laughing. "I want to live in China for 100 years!" 

The reason Szlachta doesn't consider himself an expat is that he's more interested in local culture than many foreigners who live here. "Some of my expat friends have just lived in hotels their entire time in Beijing. They are not interested in understanding the locals and how they live; they just want to travel. That's not how I want to experience my time here. I want local friends who I can meet up and talk with," he said.

Szlachta tries to get most of his information from locals, ranging from small things like how to pay his utilities to bigger questions like how to start a business.

Of course, it can be tricky balancing real friendship with the goal of improving your language skills. In China, there is a popular joke about a foreign man crying in the subway while talking over the phone with his ex-girlfriend, protesting, "You only wanted me to practice your English!" While both Chinese and foreigners sometimes complain about superficial relationships based solely on the other person's desire to learn Chinese or English, that is not always the case.

Page Luo, who works in the HR department of a local company, has attended the group several times. She said in the beginning, she came with the goal of practicing her oral English, but she later found that the communication itself was more interesting and meaningful.

"By talking with foreigners, I can learn a lot of things about the world without traveling," she said. 

"Meanwhile, I am glad to find that some foreigners' Chinese has really improved greatly since I met them last year in the group."

Newspaper headline: Chinese fever

Posted in: Metro Beijing

blog comments powered by Disqus