This is an elaboration of my answer to a question on Quora but the topic is very suitable here since some readers of this blog are interested in living in modern China.
It is definitely possible to live and work in China without speaking Chinese. Many foreigners arrive in China speaking little or no Mandarin (standard Chinese). I spoke only a few words of Chinese when I arrived and I am still far from fluent.
Many of the Chinese people you will meet can speak to you in English. Remember that English is a required subject in Chinese schools. It has been mandatory for many years. Thus, lots of the people you will meet have some degree of English fluency. How much fluency? It depends on how much they use English in their daily life. Briefly, I will say don’t count on it but there will be some occasions when you will be pleasantly surprised. And some people – especially high school and university students – will be quite eager to speak English with you so they can practice what they learned in their English classes.
However, while it is possible to get along while not speaking Chinese, this deficiency will severely limit your mobility and your ability to form relationships. Therefore, let’s explore some steps you can take to live in China without speaking Chinese.
I have been in China since 2004. Here are some of my measures for getting through a typical day:
1) Find a friendly interpreter to accompany you. Without speaking Mandarin, you will be much more dependent upon people to help you with even the simplest activities: ordering food at a restaurant, buying clothes and food in stores or outdoor markets, traveling to another city, explaining your problem to a policeman or doctor, etc. They all become much more complicated without an interpreter. Fortunately for you, there are always students, neighbors, or coworkers who are eager to help and become friends. Why? They get more English-speaking practice with a native speaker, plus the status of having a foreign friend. You get an interpreter and a guide… and a new friend.
2) A cell phone makes you much more independent. (Getting and using a cell phone in China is a subject for another post.) If you have a local Chinese friend who speaks English well, you can venture out solo. Why? You will feel confident because, if you have a problem, assistance is one quick phone call away. Over the phone, you tell your English-speaking friend the situation then let the friend talk to the clerk, waiter, or taxi driver in Chinese. Even better: Have a friend send a message to your phone with the destination in Chinese characters. Then, you can show that message to taxi drivers so they will know exactly where you want to go.
Additionally, many phones now have translation apps. Sometimes, their translations of idioms or long passages are gibberish; they are best when used for translating simple words and phrases. The translation apps are not always perfect but recent improvements have been impressive.
3) Pantomime within the context. Need to buy a toothbrush? Go into a convenience store, find a clerk, and mimic brushing your teeth then do an exaggerated 180-degree visual sweep of the store; your intention is pretty obvious. The clerk will then show you where the toothbrushes are displayed. When it is time to pay, no problem. You can see the amount displayed on the cash register. If there is no cash register, the owner or vendor can write on paper or use a calculator to show you the price.
In most situations, the context makes it easy to understand the general idea of what you mean. For example, in a restaurant, you can point out the food you want to order from photos in the menu or on the wall or on someone’s table and your intention is obvious. Even better: When shopping, bring a sample if possible. Pantomiming a toothbrush is easy; pantomiming a rechargeable size AAA battery and its charger is a little more challenging.
4) When traveling within your city, as you find places (a club, restaurant, store, coffee house, etc.) you will visit repeatedly, ask for a business card when you leave. (In China, they are usually called “name cards”.) In the future, just show their card to a taxi driver.
5) You can be proactively helpless. Stand in a mall, at a bus stop or train station, or the entrance to a restaurant. Act lost and confused. Shortly, someone will stop and try to help the foreigner.
6) Many Chinese people can read English even if they cannot speak it. Show them a note written in English of what you want and they may be able to understand, even if their spoken English is inadequate.
All these are things that I do on a daily basis but it is irrefutable that you will have a more meaningful, smoother, and more pleasant experience in China if you are able to speak at least a little Mandarin. Ideally, get some lessons before you arrive in China. But even this isn’t essential before you get to China. Once here, you can easily get Mandarin instructions (classroom or online). Or, you can find someone with sufficient English skills to become a language exchange partner. They teach you Mandarin; you teach them English. Win-win.