By Jaap Grolleman
I've spent three years in Shanghai, 300 hours of which I spent in a classroom learning Mandarin. Aside from learning vocabulary and grammar, it taught me that Shanghai becomes so much more fun if you are able to speak and read Mandarin.
Shanghai is the most international city in China, and yet learning Mandarin makes life better. Despite translating apps or baristas that speak English, here are some benefits summarized.
Makes it easier to find a place or thing or dish you're looking for. This applies to a restaurant, taxi, shopping, basically anywhere
Makes it possible to make friends with Chinese people who don't speak English well
Makes it easier for colleagues or neighbors to like you
Makes it easier to return products online or ask specific questions
You start to have deep conversations with people in their language and you rely less on second-hand knowledge from books
The job market opens up for you with so many more opportunities for work
You can study at a Chinese university in a Chinese program
You can consume Chinese media such as movies, podcasts, or even novels
HSK1 to HSK2: Ordering coffee and food
When it comes to learning Mandarin, beginnings are easy. HSK2 and especially HSK1 are short and quick courses that immediately teach you the basics. You'll be ordering coffee in a few days. Of course, those conversations aren't very difficult: they take place in a coffee shop where the only real options are Americano and latte, hot or cold — so the barista knows what you're going to say.
But those small conversations are thrilling. Soon you'll add how to order rice and other dishes, and you'll be introducing yourself or your nationality. You’ll notice that people are just friendlier to you when you speak their language.
HSK3 and HSK4: Time to make Chinese friends
With HSK3 you can really have conversations in Mandarin. You still need to do some improvising, for instance — you may not know the word for ‘president’ (总统) but then just say ‘国家老板’ (boss of the country). If your mind is flexible like this, you can almost talk about everything — so this is the time you can make friends with Chinese people who don’t speak English.
Here you can also read some restaurant signs, such as 牛肉面 (beef noodles) or 水 (water) on a manhole cover. And once you get to HSK4 you can read more and more, such as traffic signs or products on Taobao.
The most meaningful to me is that with HSK4 I can have deep conversations with Chinese people, about our lives. And suddenly all the things I read in books — from Evan Osnos to Hao Jingfang — start making sense. Not that these books were wrong, but it's just that now the understanding of Chinese culture has become my own. I rely less and less on second-hand knowledge — and I think you cannot fully understand a country's culture if you do not speak the language.
For instance, I'd love to read《白鹿原》by Chen Zhongshi, but it's not translated into English.
HSK5 and HSK6: Work or study in China
I've not reached this level yet, but after passing HSK5 or HSK6, working or studying in China (using Mandarin as a main language) becomes possible. From some foreign friends who work in China and can speak the language, it seems amazing and it further advanced their Mandarin and cultural understanding of China too.
Then there's also the opening of so much knowledge, such as podcasts I can listen to or movies without English subtitles I can suddenly watch. Books are even further on the horizon. But I am considering a long future in China, so a few years of language classes as an investment isn't too much to ask. I look forward to all the other conversations and opportunities and doors that will open to me because of being able to speak Mandarin.
Jaap Grolleman, from the Netherlands, works and studies at GoEast Mandarin, a Chinese language school in Shanghai. He has been living in Shanghai since 2018.