How I started speaking Mandarin in public

I'd like to share the story of the day I realized people could understand my 普通话 pǔ tōng huà.


For years I've been interested in Mandarin. The language is ancient, unique and the characters themselves intricate and beautiful. I've learned by myself, learned from both Chinese friends and Chinese-speaking colleagues at work. I delight in picking up new words and trying to tack on little bits of knowledge where I can. My ears would always perk-up when I hear people speaking Mandarin on the train/underground. (thats the subway for you American folk :)


The big hurdle for me though is speaking, it just wasn't getting any easier for me. My friends and colleagues would often fail to understand me even though they knew what I was likely to say. My vocab was limited and the context of the situation generally narrowed down what I was trying to say to very few possibilities. It wasn't looking promising.


In addition to pestering Chinese friends and colleagues with questions on Mandarin, I would make regular visits to the Lanzhou Noodle Bar in near Leicester Square in London. One for the noodles and two because 90% or more of the patrons where Mandarin speakers. I would sit enjoying my noodles and passively listen to people chatting away at high speed in Mandarin. It was very good for my listening, sometimes I would be able to recognize pieces of what people would say. Other times nothing would seem to make sense to me. What I didn't know at the time was that this was improving my speaking too. By listening to lots of free-flowing natural conversation you absorb the pacing, sounds and correct emphasis almost by osmosis.


Despite eating noodles there over a couple of years, I never struck up conversation with any of the other patrons. In my mind, I didn't really believe anybody would understand me clearly. My friends struggled, so random member of the public? No much hope I thought.


One evening after work, I went over to Leicester square for some noodles. I made my usual order and when the dish arrived, I was inexplicably handed a fork and a spoon. Somewhat perplexed, I motioned to the waitress and as she came over I softly said "筷子吗" without thinking. "chopsticks?" She smiled at me and returned moments later with a set of chopsticks. It clicked in my head, that I was understood just as clearly as if I had spoken in English. Grinning as I stirred my noodles with my newly requested cutlery, I knew I'd be trying this again.


Ever since then, if the opportunity arises and I'm seated next to Mandarin speakers at the noodle bar I'll try to strike up a conversation. Its always basic conversation but it almost always brushes up against some new words or concepts. I almost always walk away learning something new. The language feels more subconscious now when I speak, it doesn't require 100% of my attention when trying shape the words. I'm now thinking about the meaning of the words as they are spoken not which tone they are.


If you are fortunate enough to have a venue in your city frequented by Mandarin speakers, go there regularly. Pull up a chair, order some food and strike up a Mandarin conversation with the friendly stranger next to you. It's the best language school you'll find.




Alan is a Mandarin student and software developer, he builds learning tools such as

What was your experience like speaking Mandarin in public for the first time?

Add your stories in the comments below.




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Comment by Gillian Law on November 12, 2013 at 9:03pm

Ok, this is making me think I have to take the plunge. I'm regularly in Chinese grocery shops and noodle bars near my flat and I always chicken out from speaking. I must pluck up courage!

Comment by imane on September 20, 2013 at 4:41pm

I'm studying chinese at university, I've always been very shy when it came to talk a foreign language in public, last year I finally decided to talk english in front of the other students and with the teachers, and it turned out that my accent wasn't as bad as I thought, this year I'm slowly trying to talk chinese with my teachers, I even managed to overcome my shyness by talking to a waitress in a restaurant (a chinese one of course) :D To be truthful, when you feel more confident, it helps you A LOT

Comment by Bob Conrod on January 15, 2013 at 9:57am

I'd also like to encourage those of you who wish to learn this language not living in China to practice, practice, practice!  Just make sure the person you are going to speak with is Chinese.

 I am a helicopter pilot and once, about 18 years ago when I was avidly learning Japanese (much easier for me at least than Chinese) and I was doing sight seeing tours in New York, something funny happened. 

Usually, because I was pretty nice to the ground staff they were pretty nice to me and always tried to seat the pretty girls in the front seat next to the pilot ;-)  I chose my shifts carefully and was often on shifts that catered to Japanese tourists. So, I was very happy to practice my Japanese with whatever cutie they put up front with me.

Well, one day they seated a real cutie there. I gave her my spare headset and as I started saying hello and all the other niceties to her I saw her face go very dark... And she immediately, in a very deep and somewhat angry voice told me in English, "I NO JAPANESE !!!"  Turned out she was Korean. And since the Koreans and Japanese are not known to like each other very well she was not happy with me.  Once I'd explained that we don't get very many Korean tourist at that hour only Japanese and that I was very sorry she was happier.

So, by all means practice. Just make sure the subject you would speak with is in fact of Chinese decent.

Comment by Bob Conrod on January 15, 2013 at 9:41am

Ha ha thanks Alan, Well lucky for me I didn't need to do that. I'd have never learned any of it! 13 years in Guangdong (Canton) for me was the equivalent of being in gastronomic Hell.

Everyone has their own tastes. I for one live for the intense flavors of HuNan and SiChuan provinces. I've been to SiChuan and ChongQing many times and delight in the local dishes. Plus, my wife is from DongBei while not a hot food place it still has stronger flavors.

I like living in Beijing because I can eat things from anywhere.  LanZhou la mian (lanzhou noodles) or flavorful XinJiang or Mongolian foods, lots to choose from. I would suffer in Shanghai, and I cringe whenever the wife says she'd like to go to Dim Sum at a Cantonese restaurant.

Comment by Alan H on January 15, 2013 at 8:01am

Thanks for the links Grace.

Great story Bob. I think if I was learning Cantonese I would need to spend about half a decade visiting Cantonese restaurants before I could speak it :) 7 tones, too much for me

Comment by Bob Conrod on January 14, 2013 at 11:29am

Thanks for sharing Alan, Great story.

By the time I started to use my Chinese abilities, those shaky kneed first steps into speaking Mandarin I was already married to my wife, a mainland DongBeiRen. So, this is going back about 16 years...

Soon after we first married, I took a job in New Jersey and she continued at her university in Connecticut. We were able to live together during this time but with our schedules both so busy we hardly ever saw each other it seemed so learning Mandarin was far down on our priorities list.

We did after a while manage to join a Chinese Church, a Church started and attended pretty much exclusively by Chinese living in that area. We attended services there every Sunday not so much for a religious need as for a social one and it was here where I really got to hear Mandarin being spoken on a regular basis. I was happy, and became determined that I would learn this language.

Through the Church we found an ethnic Chinese grocery store. And after several visits I really was enthralled by so much mandarin being spoken around me. I would strain my ears trying hard to listen to what people were saying when say, a Chinese kid would pick up something in the store and ask his Mom to buy it, etc.

My own test came a different way. We'd already gotten out to the car one time with our bags of frozen JiaoZi (Dumplings) and the like when my wife said she forgot to buy a newspaper. She asked me, if I could go back in and ask the checkout lady "you zhongwen baozhi ma? 有中文报纸吗?“ I did, very cautiously go back in and uttered the words, the lady smiled at me, then offered me a choice of several papers! She understood me, wow! I turned and there was my wife who'd followed me back into the store without me seeing her. She was smiling, and I remember thinking, I can do this!

Well, that was great and soon after I would start speaking a little bit with people at the church but my real test was still to come. I very soon afterwards took my first job in China. The problem was that the job was in Macao. Maybe you've heard of the place, its gained notoriety in the last half dozen years due to its out pacing Las Vegas as a gambling hub but in 1998 I couldn't find anyone one who knew anything or had even heard of the place. The move went fine, the job was fine too. I'm a Pilot and the international language of aviation is English so I never had a worry there. But when we settled in both the wife and I were in for a bit of a shock. Although it may be China, it was at that time still managed by the Portuguese, so the Chinese people there were not, as there mainland brothers were, obligated to speak Mandarin. Like Hong Kong, these people spoke Cantonese! So, even though we were in China both my wife and I found ourselves needing to learn a new dialect.  Seems it was harder for my wife than for me this time. She picked up the reading without too much trouble even though they use traditional old style characters there instead of the mainland simplified ones but the tones really got to her as they do all of us yes?. Cantonese has 7 compared to the Mandarin 4.

Anyway, my Mandarin still improved in Macao. While I did learn enough Cantonese to be polite and ask for some simple things I did note sometimes that I could hear people in the outdoor markets speaking Mandarin sometimes. And together with my wife we'd go shopping and both her and I would buy things asking prices in Mandarin and getting answered in Cantonese!  These people for the most part could understand us quite well but couldn't speak it back to us! There was some confusion sometimes. When you didn't know if a vendor was answering in Cantonese or Mandarin, if something was two dollars or twenty dollars, etc because whereas Yi means ONE in Mandarin, Yi means TWO in Cantonese! Confusing but Such fun! I could not only practice my Mandarin but also learn Cantonese at the same time!

Macao has changed a lot since then. It got handed back to the Mainland in 99 and now a lot of Mandarin is spoken there. I continued to work there until we moved to Beijing in 2011 but we lived on the mainland side of the Border for about half of those years down there. And while a lot of Cantonese is also spoken in Zhuhai, Mandarin dominates thank goodness. Sorry, but personally I find Cantonese to be hard on the ears. Comparing Cantonese to Mandarin is like comparing German to French. The first is rather harsh the second soft and soothing.I'm not a morning person and one of those first days at work I thought I'd died and gone to the wrong place! I'd walked into the hangar in the morning and the Mechanics were blaring Cantonese Rap music over the loudspeakers!

Either way, it is my life in Macao and Zhuhai that really turned me into a Chinese speaker through practice, confusing practice. 

I also want to encourage all of you. You can do this.  Don't be embarrassed. They're going to see your white face and not expect you to say it perfectly. But they will be very happy that you are trying! They know its a difficult language to learn and they won't expect perfection.  Also, give them sometime to adjust. Sometimes, their brains are not ready for you.  Often now, when I go back to the states for a visit, I'll pop in to a Chinese restaurant when I visit Mom in Florida or my Sister in Connecticut and I will start ordering in Chinese. I remember seeing the blank stare several times. The girl's brain was not ready for Chinese to come out of my white mouth. Then I'd stop and ask again slowly in Chinese Ni Jiang guo yu ma? then English, You speak Chinese? and the girl would shake her head quickly as if to clear her mind...then smile broadly and say yes and start speaking with me. Usually calling a few relatives out to join in... What I'm trying to say though is, don't assume that if someone doesn't answer you right away that you said it wrong. Often its just a fact that their brain failed to 'switch gears'. They don't expect you to talk Mandarin so they don't actually hear it when you say it.  Be patient, not embarrassed and maybe lead with something simple.  Either way, have at it and have fun.

Comment by Brandon on January 12, 2013 at 9:45am

great story Alan - I would encourage all beginners, especially those not living in China/Taiwan, to strike up conversations in Mandarin as often as possible. I have always found strangers to be supportive & enthusiastic that you're learning.

Comment by Grace on January 12, 2013 at 1:45am

Thanks Alan for sharing your interesting story. I agree the first step is usually the toughest, though in your experience, it came out quite naturally :-D

Guess now you're far more confident in starting a random mandarin conversation? I do like your idea of sitting in a Chinese restaurant and perk your ears up. That exactly simulate a living experience in China in terms of language immersion. 

Some tips though: if you don't understand a word they say and you believe it's Chinese, then probably it's not due to your listening level, but they are actually talking in local languages (dialects).

I actually collected some Chinese dialect samples here as a comparison with mandarin: (just for fun)


Comment by Worawit Sakda on January 11, 2013 at 11:45pm

Thank you for your sharing experience.  I agree .  I had the experience like you.

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