When to Speak Chinese

“I’m a student from China studying in the U.S. Lots of my friends are Chinese too, but it feels weird speaking either English or Chinese to them, when there are others around who don’t speak it. When should I speak Chinese?”

Short answer: never. Long answer: speak your language when you are certain that no one who doesn’t speak it will join your conversation. Your success in life will be largely determined by your ability to speak, your ability to write, and the quality of your ideas, in that order. The only way to become a better speaker is to practice, and the only way to practice a foreign language is to speak it all the time.

Examples when you should not speak Chinese:

  1. You are chatting with your Chinese office mate while your American office mate seems to be working. (They may find your conversation interesting and join you.)
  2. All your non-Chinese office mates are gone. (They may come in any moment and join your conversation.)
  3. You are surrounded by Chinese researchers at an academic conference. If you start speaking Chinese, you will be surrounded by more Chinese researchers and no one else.
  4. You are discussing a difficult technical problem with your colleague, or a homework problem with your TA. If you can’t learn to think in English, every time you discuss technical topics you will have to translate your ideas from one language to another. That’s like dancing with handcuffs.

Of course you shouldn’t avoid having friends from your home country, and even when I hang out with my Chinese friends I speak Chinese (when I know no one who doesn’t speak the language would join us, like when having dinner in a restaurant). But if you find yourself hanging out with only Chinese friends, you should ask yourself why you came all the way here.