Why a Chinese Girlfriend or Boyfriend Will Not Improve Your Mandarin Level

I’m no expert and I’m certainly not in the business of giving people relationship advice.

That said, I think it’s safe to say it’s difficult to have a meaningful relationship with someone you can barely communicate with. So if you’re still at a basic level of Chinese then you’re girlfriend/ boyfriend is going to need a good level of English (or whatever language it is you can communicate in.) The problem is, once you’ve established the language upon which the relationship is based it is then very difficult to change. Even if your Chinese level eventually surpassed your partners English level it would still be difficult, if not impossible, to change something as fundamental as the language you use to communicate. Since people tend to spend a lot of time with their boyfriend or girlfriend that means you’re going to spend a lot of time not speaking Chinese.

A lot of people, myself included, will have at some point during the learning process tried to force a native speaker to talk to them in the language they are trying to learn. You can try and do this with your partner but, speaking from experience, it can be very annoying to have someone with a low language ability insist on speaking to you in that language unless you are their teacher and your aim is to help them improve. To make your partner talk to you in Chinese you are therefore either going to force them into using a language that is ineffective for communication or, perhaps worse, turn them into your Chinese teacher. Again, I’m not a relationship guru but I can guarantee doing either of those things will result in frustration and arguments on both sides.

girlfriend selfie

a Chinese girlfriend often means less time studying and more time taking selfies

Another thing is that your partner (consciously or subconsciously) may not even want you to learn Chinese well. People are always stronger when speaking their mother tongue, so if your relationship is based in English then the English speaker is probably going to do more talking, more explaining (perhaps even ‘mansplaining’) and more easily dominate conversations with groups of friends (whether they realise it or not). Changing the language would change this dynamic. Furthermore, if you are living in China then the dominance of the English speaker within the relationship is somewhat cancelled out by the fact that the English speaker will often be extremely reliant upon their Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend in a great number of daily situations. If you learn Chinese really well then you will be more independent and the much less reliant upon your partner while living in China, and that would effectively weaken your partners position in the relationship.

But what if your Chinese is better than their English from the start?

In this case you’re probably going to have a relationship based on Chinese. Although this almost certainly won’t do your Chinese level any harm, I think the benefits are often completely overrated by people who have not learnt a foreign language. I don’t know any exact statistics but most people will be surprised to hear just how few words are needed to get by with almost all basic everyday conversation. It’s probably somewhere around 500 words, perhaps less. One of my Japanese colleagues, who is married to a Chinese lady, summed this up quite well when he pointed out to me that “talking to my wife about what to have for dinner this evening and whose turn it is to do the laundry isn’t going to improve my ability to translate a formal contract form one language to another or follow what is being said when watching the news.”

The fact is there is no short cut to learning a language. It takes a lot of time and dedication. When you have a boyfriend or girlfriend you basically have another very important commitment and so might not be able to spend as much time studying as you would if you were single.


Whether you agree or disagree with me I’m always happy to hear about the experiences of other learners, so this post is open to comments below.


10 thoughts on “Why a Chinese Girlfriend or Boyfriend Will Not Improve Your Mandarin Level

  1. I’d disagree Lewis. We don’t need a high level of language to be in a relationship we’re not writing some kind of academic paper. If that’s the case, many Australian-born Chinese can never have even a family relationship with their parents, since the parents and children speak a totally different language.

    • Thanks for the comment. I completely agree with you. Towards the end of the post I also make a point about people only needing very minimal language to communicate effectively on a daily basis. What I had in mind when I made the comment at the start was a native English speaker who has only learnt a very little Chinese such as numbers and greetings etc. From my experience it would be difficult to have a boyfriend/ girlfriend relationship if even the most basic of everyday communication is very difficult. That said, there are a lot of people in this world and every relationship is different.

      • I do agree with Lewis, it is relative to the sort of relationship you are trying to pursue. If you are looking to pursue a relationship on relatively superficial levels then basic communication, everyday terms and simple description of emotions are sufficient. But, if you are looking for someone to understand on a much deeper level in terms of philosophy of love, religion, spirituality etc, it is hard even for two native english speakers to understand each other on that term, let alone speakers of different languages.

        But in terms of language learning, I have dated several Chinese girls and it definitely helps to a certain extent. You can learn a lot from just getting your message across but there are a lot of boundaries and restraints in a relationship that will hinder your language learning. For example, when it gets too annoying to correct all of your mistakes, they are afraid to hurt your feelings, efficiency etc.

      • Yeah I agree with you, but it depends what your expectation of a girlfriend/boyfriend is. For me, I don’t think a relationship of that sort needs to have a such a deep level of communication, and therefore basic communication is enough. I think it’s like a family relationship, where mum and dad and the children communicate in basic, superficial terms rather than have a deep discussion about philosophy. If you want to talk deeply, maybe try getting together with a bunch of philosophers rather than getting a girlfriend/boyfriend.

  2. I agree with this post. I was at work and began talking to the intern in Mandarin and my Indian colleague said “wow! that’s what happens when you have a Chinese Girlfriend”. I thought hell no actually a Chinese girlfriend if she can speak English is worse than nothing. She barely taught me shit I learnt it all my self through night classes, textbooks and tutors and when we went to China everyone expected her to do all the talking. When you are in a relationship and worrying about bills, life, jobs and come home from a 10-12 hour day it is difficult to expect your partner to then began a language program for you. It boring and tiring for them and they might just dinner and bed or Netflix and chill.

    However I think in her defense she is a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong with imperfect Mandarin so for her it is really understandable why she is not enthusiastic to teach me. Also I think it is much harder to find a lover that won’t drive me crazy than a language teacher

  3. It’s very little use, IMHO. I was told ‘I had to’ learn Mandarin. Went to classes for 18 months.

    He teaches me complex and interesting Mandarin words by saying them once or twice and then crossing his arms and looking pleased with himself.

    These ‘rare seeds’ dry up in the sun. They occur in no context, with no relation to any words I do know, and with no chance to use them, I’ve forgotten them a few minutes after he’s said them. They take root nowhere and exist for no other purpose other than for him to illustrate his knowledge.

    Apart from that, it’s just baby talk, the most basic phrases. He doesn’t do anything to correct my accent, as he understands the words, but it’s obvious from using these basic phrases with others that they are not right and no-one has the first clue what I am saying. I may as well be speaking Swahili. I think he changed mind about me learning as my attempts to have an hour of daily conversation where we would only use Mandarin, to embed and expand my learning, were dismissed. The guy clearly doesn’t want to.

    So, after devoting 18 months to Mandarin, we now speak entirely in English. I actually did ten lessons in Mandarin years ago, and after my partner’s efforts, I actually think I know even less Mandarin than I did before we got together. Some kind of achievement !

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t have much success in learning Mandarin. I like to think of it as a journey, not a destination. It can be extremely frustrating for some people, especially if they don’t enjoy the process of struggling with the language and slowly improving over a long time.

  4. A journey with no clear destination, and which has now ceased, is the way I see it!

    I went all out and I still have pages covered with the Chinese characters which I wrote rather nicely. That was the one thing I was OK at.

    But I never said even one Mandarin word that a native speaker could understand, and no one I have ever talked to, has a suggestion. Not even language teachers seem to know.

    • Hi, really sorry to hear that you were not so successful in your language learning journey. I completely agree that learning a language is a journey with no clear destination, so you just have to try and enjoy the ride! I think people often have trouble with pronunciation in Mandarin because most Chinese speakers are so unused to hearing English speakers speak Mandarin. I remember when I first when to China and I had a similar problem; my Chinese colleagues would be talking and talking at me in English and I would just have no idea what they were saying. I had to ask them to repeat several times and often just gave up, smiled and nodded. Now I have no such problems because I’m much more used to hearing Chinese people speak English. Another problem if you’re self studying is that you rarely get feedback on pronunciation (this was my problem). A good teacher will give your feedback and help you improve your pronunciation, but if you’re just trying to chat to someone then they’re not going to give you any feedback, they will just either understand or not. If you’re talking to a Chinese person and they’re not used to your accent and then you make grammatical or lexicalal mistakes then the problems will be multiplied exponentially. Basically, it sometimes comes down to the listeners ability to understand a non-native speaker (or willingness to try and understand a non-native speaker). From my experience, English speakers are generally much better at understanding a non-native speakers of their language than Chinese people are. This is perhaps one of the cultural aspects that makes learning Chinese difficult.

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