One of your biggest concerns about moving to Shanghai will be how you communicate. Chinese is notoriously one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn enough to get around, chat with people, bargain and order food. The official language of China is Mandarin, mandated nationwide in an effort to unify China’s disparate regions and a multitude of dialects. The local vernacular language is Shanghainese, a dialect of Wu Chinese. Shanghainese is unintelligible to Mandarin speakers, and is therefore an inseparable part of the Shanghainese identity. As millions of migrants have flocked to Shanghai from around the country for work, many of them have also had to get used to speaking Mandarin as a second language.
Most Chinese will not expect you to know much Mandarin, so you’ll be greeted with surprise and delight if you can communicate beyond simple greetings. This effort sends a powerful message of respect, interest and goodwill. Learning some Mandarin will not only improve your interactions with locals, it will help you get better deals and get around more efficiently; and because language and culture are intricately linked, it will help you understand the culture. Additionally, as Mandarin grows into a world language, you and your children will be able to take advantage of this language opportunity far beyond your time in China.
Mandarin Chinese has no set alphabet, using characters instead. There are over 50,000 different characters, but you only need to learn about 3,000 to read a basic newspaper. Fortunately for expats, Chinese grammar is simple and Pinyin – a phonetic transliteration system that uses the Roman alphabet to represent pronunciation – makes conversing in Chinese accessible to expats. In Pinyin, each character is assigned one of the five basic tones. Symbols placed over each character represent the tone. Tone is as integral to meaning as the core sound. For example, among the meanings of the sound ‘ma’ are ‘mother’, ‘horse’, ‘hemp’ and ‘to scold’, depending on the tone used. Each of these meanings, of course, has its own distinct Chinese character; there is no ambiguity in this sense in the Chinese written form, which is non-phonetic.
There are plenty of ways to learn Chinese. Most expats recommend starting with a basic course at one of the main universities or specialised language schools. If your children are attending an international school, Mandarin will certainly be part of the curriculum. Language schools vary in price and quality, so it’s best to check a few out in person and ask other expats before committing. Otherwise, use the resources around you. Chinese are generally friendly and eager to help you practice your language, even when you feel like you’re butchering the pronunciation. Practicing with taxi drivers, local shopkeepers and domestic help can go a long way towards helping you reach conversational fluency.
English is spoken in most central neighbourhoods, particularly in establishments that cater to Westerners, though the average passer-by will not speak good English. Hotels, banks, cafés, bars, restaurants, fitness clubs and boutiques will normally have English-speakers available. However, don’t expect to find English in taxis, buses, local restaurants or local markets, or in neighbourhoods outside the city centre that don’t contain expat villas.