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September 17, 2012

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Foreign-language services in city better but gaps remain, expats say

Editor's note:

As the city recaps its achievements in the past five years and maps out the blueprint for the next period, Shanghai Daily will run a series of reports exploring how expat life has evolved accordingly.

The series, "Expat and the City," will focus on many aspects of expat life, ranging from the city's English language environment, visa applications and employment to medical services, children's education and social adaptation.

We welcome our readers to participate in our interactive polls and surveys on our website: or write to us through:

NOT so many years ago, going out alone in Shanghai could be an adventure fraught with panic for expatriates.

Lacking Mandarin, most foreigners were confronted with street signs they couldn't read, bus stop announcements they couldn't understand and menus they couldn't peruse. It was easy to feel lost, and even when helpful Chinese residents approached and tried to offer assistance, language remained a barrier.

"I often got lost in the city at first," said Steven Weathers, a video producer, TV host and lecturer at the Xie Jin Film and Art College of Shanghai Normal University. He came to Shanghai about six years ago. "I relied on my students," he said. "I called them, saying 'Help me! I'm lost. What should I do?'"

Herve Philippe, 54, a French businessman living in the city for eight years, doesn't have such a reliable backup system.

"I always have to be very careful to plan my business trips in order to be as self-sufficient as possible," he said. "When I need help, language is a terrible barrier.

There have been improvements, however. English has been mandatory curriculum from kindergarten through college for more than two decades.

"I find more and more Chinese are able to speak fluent English, and even Japanese," said Serizawa Naoko, a secretary at a local law firm. She first came to Shanghai in 1994 as a tourist, relying on a tour guide to navigate language barriers. In 2010, Naoko came to work in Shanghai. Now, she said, there are more road signs in English and more native residents able to communicate with expats.

The emergency police hotline 110, which was formerly only available in Chinese, now offers services in nine foreign languages, including English, French and German.

Media, too, has expanded beyond just Chinese. Shanghai Daily, the first regional English-language newspaper in China, was launched in 1999. Local television started to produce English-language news programming in 1986, and the city launched a foreign-language cable channel in 2008. The channel offers a 24-hour English service, with two hours weekly in Japanese.

Shanghai's modernization into a more global, multilingual urban center has not been without its humorous elements.

The city's initial efforts to communicate with foreigners often produced oddities from direct translations. "Caution: Wet Floor" became "Slip Carefully." Before the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the city undertook the task of eliminating "Chinglish" from signage to ensure that foreign visitors would find an intelligent linguistic landscape, said Zhang Ripei, a language work committee official. An English-language usage standard was issued in 2009. Work is underway to adopt similar standards for signs in other languages, such as Japanese, Korean and Russian.

"Shanghai is much more advanced in terms of signs and guides now, and that makes it much easier in a foreigner's daily life," said Philippe.

English language services are usually best in shopping and dining areas commonly patronized by foreigners. In other sectors, such as public transport, medical care and government services, barriers remain.

Italian Marco Scaioni, 43, who came to the city in December to work as a professor at Tongji University, said he finds Shanghai much more English-friendly than other cities in China, including Beijing.

"Still, more has to be done to provide decent services to people coming from abroad," he said. "Sometimes you just feel helpless. I had to go to the hospital and needed a colleague to do translation for me with the doctor. That can be a bit embarrassing."

Philippe also said he would like to see more English-language assistance in medical facilities. "I think that doctors and their staff are quite good and experienced, but that doesn't help much if you can't communicate with them," he said.

Taxi drivers generally rate a thumbs-up from expats.

"Shanghai cabbies are willing to work with passengers who don't speak Chinese," Weathers said. "The drivers will look at a card or will take a call on the passenger's mobile phone to find out the destination." Scaioni said cabbies would be wise to learn basic destinations in English, like People's Square or Science and Technology Museum.

Shanghai's Metro, Weathers said, "is user-friendly, with lines in English as well as Chinese and color-coded, but just try taking a bus and you have to be able to read route information in Chinese."

The high-speed rail booking office doesn't offer any English services. Most expats said they have asked Chinese friends or colleagues to buy tickets for them.

In many cases, expats can't lodge complaints or suggestions with city agencies. Half of Shanghai's principal government-sponsored hotlines don't have English-language service, according to a previous Shanghai Daily survey of 26 hotlines.

"Except in shops and some commercial services, it's usually difficult to find people who can speak English with you," said Scaioni. "Have you ever tried to deal with the Tax Department if you don't speak Chinese?"


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