When people say “pick up’ a language they are usually referring to what the linguist Stephen Krashen calls “language acquisition”, as opposed to “language learning”. “Can I just pick up Mandarin by living in China?” is a common question about any language (I mean language/country combination, of course there are not many people asking “can I pick up French by living in China?”) I have a short answer to the this question: “yes you can, but you won’t”.
This is because it’s not the act of living in a country that will make you learn the language. Syntax and lexis don’t seep up into your brain when you touch foreign soil. The reason why people can sometimes “pick up” a language is because they are exposed to enough of that language so that, from context, they start to understand bits of it.
For this to happen you need to be exposed to a huge amount of the language, and that correlates with living in a foreign country. You are more likely to be exposed to enough of the language if you actually live in a country where people speak the language, but the real causative factor is being exposed to the language in situations where you can guess what is meant.
This is why children who immigrate to a foreign country often seem to have an easier time learning the new language than their parents. The amount of language that a child is exposed to at school is quite a lot, and when people speak to children (or when children speak to other children) they usually use simpler language and are more patient. In other words children are usually exposed to more language and, just as importantly, the language they are exposed to they are more likely to understand from context.
Unfortunately, adults usually have a much harder time finding people who are patient enough to make themselves understood form context. As Krashen points out “in the second language classroom we have the potential of supplying a full 40-45 minutes per day of comprehensible input, input that will encourage language acquisition. The beginner […] may require days or even weeks before he or she can “pick out” that much comprehensible input from the barrage of language heard. The beginning student will simply not understand most of the language around him. It will be noise, unusable for acquisition.”
What if I find Chinese people willing to talk to me?
The problem of trying to “pick up” Mandarin by living in China is that you simply won’t get enough input. Chinese people are often so desperate to practise their English that they will try to speak to you in English even if your Mandarin is fluent. If you don’t speak Mandarin at all it is even less likely you will find people willing to negotiate meaning with you using just Mandarin.
You could try to find people who don’t speak any English at all. But it is unlikely people will try to communicate with you verbally. Go to MacDonalds in China and they will give you a menu and expect you to point at what you want with no verbal exchange at all. Go to a small shop and ask how much a packet of crisps is and the shop keeper will simply hold up the corresponding number of fingers. If someone thinks you can’t speak Chinese they will often try to find someone who can speak a bit of English. Other times they will just make no attempt to talk to you at all. You simply won’t be exposed to the language.
Are you saying no one will talk to me?
Obviously I’m not saying it’s impossible to get language input. There are a nearly one and a half billion people in China. Search hard enough and you will be able find someone patient enough to make themselves understood by speaking slowly and clearly, using single words and utilising context and the environment. The problem is quantity. It’s almost impossible to get enough of this type of input if you don’t do any “studying”. One person asking to take your order in Starbucks and one person giving you directions to the bathroom is not going to be enough exposure to enable you to miraculously “pick up” a language.
If you’re working in China and don’t speak Mandarin then the chances are you have a lot of Chinese colleagues who speak English, or English speaking colleagues who can speak Mandarin. Either way, it’s unlikely that an expat adult working in China is going to need Mandarin in the same way that the child of an expat studying at school in China will need it.
Although the big cities in China aren’t exactly cosmopolitan by western standards there are usually strong expat communities, even in second and third tier cities. If you don’t make a conscious effort to learn Mandarin then it’s quite possible that you will have almost zero exposure to the language. You will almost certainly have zero exposure to comprehensible language. And it is the quantity of comprehensible language that is the crucial factor in “picking up” that language.
So what can I do?
You need to work hard and study the language (language learning). It’s not essential to take classes, but you need to build up a vocabulary that enables you to try and communicate. Once you have this foothold in the language and you can communicate a little bit people are more likely to talk to you. This will expose you to more language that you might understand and enable “acquisition”. That said, it can still be difficult to find people who are willing to try and talk to you. If you don’t study, if you try to just “pick it up” then that difficulty will be magnified exponentially. You can get more language input by joining mandarin corners, taking classes and reading children’s books. You need to study and seek out language input even if you’re living in the country.
Is it possible to just pick up Mandarin by living in China? In theory yes. In reality no.