Learn Chinese in China – avoid the Expat Bubble!

This will be a two part post. I will write about why the Expat Bubble is so damaging to your language ambitions. I’ll also and about some of the ways to escape it.

The main issue is one of immersion. If you want to learn Chinese, or any other language, you want to be immersed in it; morning, noon, and night. You want to spend as much time as possible around the language. Working and socialising primarily through English, many expats never learn Chinese in China.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. And once you’re in, it seems impossible to escape. It’s not uncommon to meet people who, after several years in China, barely speak a word in the local language.

This can be embarrassing, and frustrating. Every time you go home, people ask how your Chinese is coming along. “You’ve been there for years, you must be fluent by now…” An awkward silence ensues when you confess your sins. I’ve been there, it sucks.

The math

Most people have jobs. And the overwhelming majority of foreigners in China are English teachers. They work in English orientated schools, English environments. This is bad. Here’s why.

As I mentioned above, when you’re learning a new language; immersion is key. You want to be surrounded by that language day and night. You want it to follow you everywhere. You want to hear it constantly. Spending 40 hours a week in an English language environment doesn’t help achieve this goal.

Let’s do some quick math. There’s 24 hours a day, you need to sleep for at least 8 of them, so let’s say you’ve got 16 waking hours a day.

16 X 7 = 112 (waking hours a week)

112 (waking hour) – 40 (working hours) = 72

Hey that’s not too bad. That still leaves 72 hours a week of complete Chinese language immersion, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.

Work bleeds into life

Losing a third of your waking hours to compulsary English time(work) is not actually the main problem. The main problem is that those 40 hours bleed into the remaining 72. That 40 hour chunk affects who you make friends with, and how you interact outside of work.

The students, or their parents, are paying for an immersive English environment. You have an obligation to enforce this. As a teacher you must encourage students to speak English, and English only. In your spare time, as a student, you must encourage the people around you to speak Chinese as much as possible. Flipping that psychological switch is difficult.

It is frustrating. You spend your whole day telling students to stop speaking Chinese. Then, at night, you switch gears; telling all your friends to stop speaking English!

This is doubly frustrating when you teach adults. Adult students are often interesting and fun to hang out with. You become friends, hang out after work, and never learn a word of Chinese.

Relationships continue in the language that start. If you make friends in English: English will be your primary language of communication. Everyone you meet at work, if you work in an English language environment, will be introduced in English. Therefore, you will communicate primarily through English for the rest of your relationship.

Many teachers have fallen into this trap. It’s the much maligned, greatly feared, and actually-quite-nice-if-you-just-accept-it EXPAT BUBBLE! (dramatic music)

Life in the Bubble

Imagine this scenario: you work at a training center for adults, you have two days off a week. Let’s see how you spend your 72 hours of Chinese immersion.

It’s Friday night. You go for dinner and beers with your co-workers to celebrate smashing(or just surviving) another week. There is a mix of local and foreign workers at the school, but because a majority of expats don’t speak any Chinese, everyone speaks English at dinner. From work, to dinner, to home; you have not spoken a word of Chinese on Friday.

Day Off 1

You lie in because it’s your day off, that’s a sneaky 2 hours right there. You treat yourself to breakfast at the local expat restaurant. It’s your day off, you want a taste of home. All the waiters and waitresses speak English, it’s an expat spot after all.

After breakfast, you meet up with some co-workers or friends for a game of pickup basketball. You might get to use a few words of Chinese here and there. But you’re hardly debating grammar points while the game is going on.

After basketball you retire to the expat bar, the one you started off in, to deconstruct the game in detail. Anyone who’s ever played a team sport knows that this is the most important part of the game: the part where average men become giants; reputations are built and broken; and nicknames are handed out. There will be heroes and villains, but no Chinese language lessons.

You’re tired now, too tired to study. No Chinese was learned on Day Off 1.

Day Off 2

A little stiff today. But determined to do something with the weekend.

An adult student invites you out to lunch. They take you to a really cool, really local, restaurant. You meet their family and get to say ‘hello’ to them in Chinese.

You try to use more Chinese over lunch, but it’s difficult and a little awkward. They speak too fast. They speak with an accent. You don’t get the jokes. You want to give your student face, by letting them show off their English skills. The conversation flows so much easier when you let someone else translate for you. It’s my day off. I’m tired. Excuses, excuses, excuses….

After lunch you pat yourself on the back. Today was a good day, you say, ‘I spoke some Chinese’. The reality is that you barely spoke any. Either way, it’s back to the grind tomorrow. You use that token effort as an excuse to plop down in front of the TV, and relax for the evening.

No Chinese was learnt on Day Off 2.

And then it’s back to work. Something always gets in the way of study. There’s always some emergency. And when there’s finally a bit of peace and quiet, you need a break.

There’s no time during the week, and you have learnt nothing over the weekend. Repeat this for years, and it’s easy to see how so many foreigners in China never learn a word of Chinese.

There is a better way

The trap can be avoided, and it’s not even that difficult. If you are stuck in the trap, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can make small, conscious decisions to escape the Expat Bubble.

Thre are simple things you can do to avoid or escape the expat bubble. I’ll go into more detail in another post, but here’s some general advice right now:

Set up regular ‘Chinese time’

If you’ve tried and failed with informal language partners; hire a professional. Go to classes.

Study every day. People argue over whether you should use the Pomodoro method, or one minute a day. I’ve used both. Both work if you show up and do the work. Every. Single. Day.

If you’re struggling to commit, use a commitment device like Beeminder. I’ve used it for years, and love it.

Make friends with people who don’t speak English.

This might take a bit of courage. But you need to be proactive about cultivating an immersive social life. Join a sports team, or activity club where nobody speaks English. Soccer, basketball, table tennis, badminton, dancing, and hiking are all popular activities in China. Find a group that meets regularly, show up, make friends.

Don’t play sports? Join a fan club. I’m a member of a soccer supporters club, which is admittedly sports related. But there are lots of different groups out there; video games, movies, art, dancing. China is huge. Whatever you’re into, I gauruntee there’s someone else into it too. You just need to find them.

Introduce yourself in Chinese. Be stubbourn if you have to. Take linguistic control of your life. The relationship that starts in Chinese, stays in Chinese.

Go on adventures.

Many of my big Chinese language breakthroughs have come by way of neccessity. I backpacked all over the North East on my own. Trust me; you’ll find a way to order noodles at 7am, in Inner Mongolia, after a sleepless 12 hour train ride.

You’ll figure it out if you have to. Put yourself in a position where you have to figure it out.


The Expat Bubble is real. It will suck you in. And it will ruin any chance you have of learning Chinese.

But there are alternatives, there is a better way. You just have to make the decision to get involved in the non-English speaking world.

I hope you find this helpful, please leave a comment below to tell me about your experiences in the Expat Bubble.

2 thoughts on “Learn Chinese in China – avoid the Expat Bubble!”

  1. You build confidence in me that I too can learn Chinese much as I think it is one of the most difficult languages out there.
    I like the formula your highlighted on time management to learn, plus the stubbornness I need to have to get there.
    It leaves me wondering if there is an application designed to help me learn the language.
    Keep the posts following.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *