I'm bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, and I'm planning to go backpacking around Asia (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, etc). It seems that these countries have varying degrees of English fluency, but what about Chinese?

Assuming that I know nothing of the local language, for which of these countries am I better off asking for directions in Chinese?

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    You can probably get around with Mandarin in Malaysia, but that's it. What's worse, in many of these countries, English would not help you much either.
    – xuq01
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 17:02
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    Do you count Chinese expats? Or limited to locals?
    – Blaszard
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 17:44
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    I'm not sure I understand what is "too broad" about this question. Can one of the close voters please explain?
    – reirab
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 18:39
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    This is a pirmary-opinion based, as there is no evidence about English speaking level. It's all about context, which is not presented in this question.
    – VMAtm
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 19:54
  • @reirab I'm not sure that "too broad" is the right closure reason but, for me, the question is unsuitable for the site because it's asking about specific list of mostly unrelated countries. That strongly restricts the question's usefulness to future visitors of the site ("Oh, darn. I wanted to know about Bangladesh and the Philippines.") Commented May 27, 2017 at 9:01

4 Answers 4


For that list of countries, the answer is none: English is more useful than Chinese in all of them.

The only country in Asia outside greater China where Mandarin is an official language or spoken by a majority of the population is Singapore, but even there English is the lingua franca spoken by all.

While there are significant Chinese-speaking minorities throughout the rest of South-East Asia, and in some areas directly bordering China you will likely encounter more Chinese than English speakers, the only countries in Asia where Chinese is more commonly spoken than English are mainland China and Taiwan.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 12:21

I just spent a week in Seoul and many stores there seemed more fluent in Mandarin than in English. This was especially noticeable in touristy areas such as the Myeongdong area and Noryangjin fish market -- in fact, nearly every vendor at the Noryangjin fish market spoke Mandarin (I look Chinese so everybody tries to speak that to me) and it took quite a while to find someone who could understand at least a bit of English. I think this is because of the large number of Chinese tourists that are present in these touristy shopping areas. In general, however, there were more signs in English than in Chinese and a lot of Koreans (especially older ones) have a more positive view of western countries than they do of China.

I imagine it's pretty similar in other countries -- you'll likely find a lot of Mandarin speakers in tourist areas trying to sell stuff to Chinese tourists, but English is likely more prevalent than Mandarin outside of these areas. There are probably exceptions to this -- Singapore is definitely one of them, as a large majority of their population is ethnically Han Chinese.

On a side note -- for the Korea part of your trip, you may want to spend a few days learning Hangul as it is an incredibly simple alphabet to learn. Even though you won't know what most of the words mean, you'll find that a lot of Korean words are very similar sounding to their Mandarin counterparts, and you may even be able to figure out what some Korean signs are saying when there are no English/Chinese translations available. As such, if you're speaking to someone in Korea who doesn't know any English or Mandarin, you might have some luck saying a few nouns in Mandarin and hoping that the Korean counterpart of those characters sound similar.

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    Singapore is not one of the countries, since English is the working language and is almost 100% understood everywhere.
    – March Ho
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 7:40
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    You can definitely get by in Singapore with just English, but I'm sure there are many nontourist areas in Singapore where Mandarin is "more prevalent" than English, especially with older ethnic Chinese. According to Wikipedia "Singaporean Mandarin is the language that is spoken as the native tongue by the greatest number of Singaporeans, with 1.2 million using it as their home language."
    – nukeguy
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 17:03
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    @nukeguy While Mandarin is indeed the most common first language, that 1.2M is only around 25% of Singapore's population. English is the lingua franca spoken by all, Chinese, Malay or Indian. Also, older Chinese tend to speak southern dialects (Hokkien, Cantonese, etc), not Mandarin (which is based on northern Chinese). Commented May 27, 2017 at 21:22


At least in Singapore there is a huge difference between an official language and what people actually speak and understand. Although English is the first official language, many (especially working class) people have a very very limited English level and barely speak a few sentences with terrible pronunciation. This e.g. includes taxi drivers, people working in a hawker center or a supermarket.

Questions like "Excuse me, do you have poultry?" have to be reduced to "Hello. Where chicken?". I was not able to ask for an acid based detergent in a super market because nobody could understand "acid". Often these people only speak their original language (Mandarin or Malay) properly. This is additionally hindered by the strong Singaporean dialect.

Even many educated people have a strong accent, make grammar mistakes often and will fail to understand you, if you speak British or American English. Your conversations will be much more fluent and hassle-free, if you can switch to Mandarin.

Recommendation: If you approach a Chinese looking person, which are the majority of people in Singapore, speak Mandarin.

(Source: I have been living in Singapore for two months)

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    Singlish is not "English with terrible pronunciation", but a language (creole) of its own: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish And yes, it can be difficult to understand if you're expecting the Queen's English. Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 4:26
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    While you are factually right of course, people expecting to understand and be understood will be profusely disillusioned and that is what I wanted to express. Also from your link: While English is one of Singapore's official languages, Singlish is commonly regarded as having low prestige. The Singaporean government and some Singaporeans alike heavily discourage the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English. The government has created an annual Speak Good English Movement to emphasise the point. Singlish is also heavily discouraged in the mass media and in schools. Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 17:36

You would be surprised to visit Malaysia and Singapore. Not only they can speak Mandarin, but other dialects too (Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien ...etc.).

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    On the other hand according to Wikipedia, around 63% of Malaysians and 83% of Singaporeans speak English, so it's still not necessarily clear that Mandarin is more useful there.
    – reirab
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 18:53
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    If someone dosen't speak english, and is a 'native' - chances are bigger than they speak chinese dialect, malay or tamil. The mandarin push for chinese was only in the 70s or so. Commented May 27, 2017 at 14:43
  • It should be noted that with the Chinese family of languages whet most common people call "dialect" linguists call "language" because the difference between Hokkien and Mandarin for example is roughly the same as the difference between German and English (English is after all a member of the German family of languages). How many people in England will understand you if you speak German to them?
    – slebetman
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 1:30
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    Yes, of course. What I meant is that the people in there are multilingual and it's fascinating. Every time I meet a Chinese Malaysian or Singaporean, English and mandarin will be obviously a staple, but they speak Cantonese and hollowness too, in addition to Malay. But not all Chinese are English speaking, some would be more comfortable with Chinese language (mandarin). Knowing that KL is mostly Chinese (Malay and Indians live mostly outside KL, so mandarin will be quite useful). Commented May 28, 2017 at 1:33

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