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We Use Chinese All the Time

Why Chinese Is a Key Language for Reaching International Students in China

From the series International Students in China--An Interview

This is the second in a series of three blog posts based on an interview with “Tim,” an international student in China.

Tim, it was challenging to listen to you share your passion for international students in China to hear the gospel. What languages do you use when relating to other international students? Don't they all speak English?

I normally use Chinese and some English. Most of the international students come from countries where English is not their primary language of communication therefore it is hard to communicate. However, most of them learn Chinese and use Chinese on a daily basis, so we end up resorting to speaking in Chinese. Examples include friends from East Timor and Nepal. Even though we can speak English together, we prefer to use Chinese. Countries whose students struggle to use English include Myanmar, South Korea, Bolivia (Spanish), DR Congo (French), Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau (Portuguese) and some Arabic speaking nations.

Should Christian international students in China really bother with learning Chinese if they're studies are all in English?

Yes! I think it’s very helpful for Christian international students in China to learn Chinese even if their studies are in English. They can then use their Chinese to share their faith with the other international students or even share with the locals when the opportunity presents itself.

What are the most useful languages for engaging with international students in China?

English, Chinese, French, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, and Korean.

Why those languages?

English is most obvious. Most people are trying to learn English, so you can reach them more easily. For Chinese, most foreign students are trying to learn Chinese and resorting to using Chinese on a daily basis, which means it’s a way of reaching them. There are a lot of French speakers. They tend to associate in groups. It’s much easier to penetrate if you can speak French also. It’s the same for other languages like Arabic and Spanish. From my own experience they normally associate in groups. For students from Nepal, Pakistan, and India, many of them have Hindi or something close to it. So someone speaking Hindi can reach out to students from those countries.

French, Arabic and Spanish are spoken across multiple countries and even continents. Do these people congregate in multinational groups, or along country/ethnic lines?

French speakers from Africa tend to mix freely across nationalities. It’s common for someone from, say, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon to hang out together. Spanish is like French—it’s also multinational. But Arabic speakers are different. They associate with their own country-mates; they stick to themselves. They can interact with other Arabic speakers, but it’s not as common.

What languages do South-east Asians use?

They mainly use Chinese on a daily basis because most of them can’t speak English. So they use Chinese. And they look Chinese, so people here automatically use Chinese to relate to them, like the Burmese from Myanmar.

Do the Burmese stick together?

Burmese girls prefer to be in groups, speaking only Burmese. But the Burmese guys can associate with people from other places. So, if you’re a female who can speak Burmese you can reach those female students. But for guys it’s easier to reach them even if you’re using Chinese, because they associate with other international students.

If you’re walking on a campus, can you easily tell who are the international students?

For Africans and Americans it’s easy (except Chinese Americans, of course!). For Koreans you can tell by the way they dress. Most of them wear spectacles, so you can tell by their fashion and style. By spending more time with Asian students I’m now able to tell, just by looking, if someone’s Chinese or not Chinese. Cambodians and Burmese are also easier for me because I’ve spent time with them.

Why do you resort to using Chinese?

It’s easier for me, and more useful. International students want to improve their Chinese, so it’s good for them. And the more we use it the more comfortable we become in using it. It’s also weird to switch back and forth between English and Chinese. It’s easier to dig deeper into other topics in Chinese. It also becomes easier to relate in day-to-day matters in Chinese instead of other languages.

So, even if you didn’t have the “learning language” reason, you’d still use Chinese?

Yes. I’d still use Chinese.

Can you tell me about some of the Arabic-speaking students you’ve met?

I’ve met some guys from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Those are the more common ones. The Yemen guy was my classmate. He couldn’t speak English, so we used Chinese all the time. With the Saudi guy we mostly use Chinese also.

I know you’ve wanted to learn how to share the gospel in Chinese with other international students.

Yep. I didn’t know the terminology itself. Even Chinese people may not know the terms. Like 罪 (zuì) for example. It normally means a crime in Chinese. But they think "I'm not a criminal!" So you need to explain to them that it means sin, and what sin is.

So you're giving a known word a theological or Bible meaning?

Yes. But international students’ Chinese level is not so high, so you need to simplify it for them to understand what you’re trying to say.

How have you learned “gospel-sharing” Chinese?

The first thing I did was really understand the gospel in English—the key ideas. Then take those points and simplify them and translate them into Chinese. And then try to make them as simple as possible. For most foreigners, their level is like a 12-year-old Chinese student. So if I can explain to a 12-year-old, then a foreigner might be able to get it as well.

Did anyone help you in this process?

Yes, thankfully I had a mentor who gave me materials on how to simplify those terms, and pointing out those key points within the gospel. I found this person through the ministry internship at my international fellowship. So I’m making progress in “gospel-sharing” Chinese.

Phil Jones

Phil Jones (pseudonym) and his wife have been working amongst international students for over twelve years, both in their home country and for three years in China. They are becoming aware of the opportunities to reach the nations who have come to China.  To contact Phil, email View Full Bio

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