A Year in China – Using Translator Apps – by Matthew Breeze. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

A Year in China – Using Translator Apps – by Matthew Breeze. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

[My roommate Tyrone trying to buy a phone using only translator apps, facial expressions and hand signals.]

One important aspect of going to a new place, especially a new country, especially when living in a new country, is to be able to communicate with other people. Communicating with other people is one of the most important parts of being human. I am living in China for ten months and I do not speak Chinese. I am taking Mandarin classes while I am here in Zhuhai, a small Chinese city of about 2 million people, but I do not speak nearly enough Chinese to talk to the average person on the street. Yet I still must talk to people. I need to go to the market and buy food to cook, I need to buy water to drink and food in restaurants to eat. All of this requires communication.

Using translator apps on my smartphone is one very convenient and accessible way to talk to people who do not speak the same language as you. Here in Zhuhai I use translator apps almost every day. Google translate is useful if you can get it on your phone, Pleco is another amazing English-Chinese translator app. This app allows you to write Chinese characters and see what they mean, it allows you to speak into the app and then it translates it into spoken Chinese and of course it allows you to write words or phrases in one language and translates them into the other language.

The speaking functions is especially useful when trying to buy things whether that be fruit or phones. My roommate Tyrone needed to buy a phone about a week after we arrived in China. His phone that he brought from home would not accept a Chinese SIM card and thus he needed to buy a Chinese smartphone. Luckily my phone was able to take a Chinese SIM card and thus I was able to use my translator apps soon after arriving in China. These apps became absolutely necessary when Tyrone and I went to one of the local phone stores to try and buy a Chinese phone for Tyrone.

The store that we chose to try and buy a phone is near to where we live in the Zhuhai neighborhood or district called Tangjia. When we arrived at the store there was a lady behind the counter who was immediately ready to help us. She spoke no English and after being in China for only about a week, my friend and I spoke no Chinese. We were able to express through hand signals and pointing that we were there to buy a phone, but from there on out we needed translator apps. I took out my phone and the woman behind the counter took out her phone, she also had a translator app that was very helpful, and we began to communicate via our phones.

My roommate and I struggled with the translator on my phone because we needed to phrase things in a certain way to get a proper translation. There were many times where we would write something or say something and then translate it and show it to the lady and she would read or listen to it and then have a puzzled look on her face. She would then speak or write something into her translator and show us and we would be equally as confused. Luckily both she and my friend and I found the humor in the difficulty of this scenario and there was much laughter during the whole process. Eventually we were able to effectively use our translator apps to figure out how much things cost, what the best phone was for what we were looking for and a number of other crucially important things a person wants to know when buying a phone.

[My roommate Tyrone and a street vendor lady with looks of joy when buying stuff using translator apps goes well.]

Using translator apps to communicate, in this instance and others since I have been in China, has been a first for me. The simple fact that people all over the world have smartphones now makes this possible. I really am amazed by this technology that allows people to communicate in real time with people who do not speak the same language. The technology is not perfect, as was evident in our experience of confusion in using translating apps to buy a phone, but it works well enough to be effective. I have also learned that when you do not speak the same language as someone you are trying to communicate with, especially when trying to buy something or barter, everything will take more time. I have learned to give myself plenty of time to buy things because I now know that communication that would be quick and easy in an English speaking country is going to take much more time when one has to use translator apps.

Going to a place where I do not speak the language has been eye opening and amazing. I would recommend it to anyone interested in other countries and cultures. However, there are difficulties, such as communicating with others. This difficulty can be extremely frustrating, but translator apps have made the language barrier less of a problem than I originally thought it would be. My friends like Tyrone and I have been able to buy everything we need without many issues, and usually with lots of laughter.

Matthew Breeze serves as a senior editor for The North Star Reports.

Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our guiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In five years we have published over 300 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our volunteer student editors and writers come from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). We have an all volunteer staff. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang and NSR Student Editors and Writers. For a brief summary of our history, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu


Filed under Matthew Breeze, North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang

24 responses to “A Year in China – Using Translator Apps – by Matthew Breeze. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports

  1. DyAnna Grondahl


    What an interesting article! I am feeling intense anxiety thinking about the inability to communicate with the people around me. I think translation technology is one benefit from globalization. As the world as become so deeply interconnected, it is more essential than ever that people can communicate with one another across language barriers. Even so, the tech sounds like it is imperfect – how would you change the technology to make it more efficient?

    • Matthew Breeze

      Thank you for your comment. I would try and get more technology to recognize voices better. I think this would make everything faster and more efficient.

  2. Elijah Ortega

    Hey Matt,
    I enjoyed reading this article a lot, I myself have never been abroad in a country that I don’t speak the language of but have always wanted to experience something like that. I always find joy in reading the experiences had by those who travel I can’t imagine the difficulties of bartering in a different language that you are unable to speak in. I find it difficult to barter in spanish and I can communicate rather well in Spanish. I look forward to hearing more of your time in China
    Thanks for sharing

    • Matthew Breeze

      Bartering is especially difficult, but once you know numbers and a few phrases it can be done. That being said I still probably just pay more than I should because I dont have the ability to barter as well as I should.

  3. Cassandra Mahlberg

    Hi Matt! Thanks for this article (I was looking forward to reading something about your trip)! I think it is so cool that you were able to communicate with people using translating apps. I’ve heard very little about them or things like them though (such as Google pods, I think, which were supposed to instantly translate spoken language from one language to another in earbud format, although I’m not sure if those were ever released or not). As you realized when it became a barrier, communication is essential in daily life and while translator apps are a good temporary solution, it is always best to learn the native language of the region you’re in. I’ve never been bold enough to go somewhere that I didn’t have at least somewhat of a grasp on the native language, but I might jump out of my comfort zone to do so soon. I think there is a lot to be learned from having to adapt to a culture that is not your own and not being able to rely on being an English speaker and hoping to run into someone else who speaks English as well. I hope you get the chance to share some more experiences with us soon!

    • Matthew Breeze

      Thank you for your comment and I would definitely recommend going somewhere that you do not speak the language because it is both fun and difficult.

  4. Madina

    Hello Matthew!

    What a fascinating experience! It’s very cool that you can translate things on your phone and have a conversation whereas even 10 years ago that may not have been possible. Learning and speaking a new language comes with so many advantages that a lot of people over look sometimes. Even starting with the basic fact that it allows you to understand the culture through a completely different lens than you could have originally. It was nice to read that the Chinese lady at the store was about to laugh along with you because of how crazy the situation was! I hope you contiune to learn and succeed in your new environment!

    • Matthew Breeze

      Laughing in situations like these is one fo the best things to do. Laughter seems to make everyone involved realize that it is not really that serious and thus everyone can relax more.

  5. Tamer Mische-Richter

    Who knew smartphones could be useful beyond social media? I found myself in a similar situation as yours when I visited Paris and Luxembourg in the spring of 2018; however, I know a bit of french that helped me along the way. I found myself reaching for my smartphone as a crutch to help me understand signage and language around me. One thing I found interesting was that I became extremely dependent upon my phone as a translator. It’s easier for the short trips to foreign countries to use these apps, but I think for trips that extended beyond the one to two week vacations, smartphones should be pocketed unless absolutely necessary. Learning how to communicate with those that do not speak your language in an area foreign to you shows how little you know and how much knowledge you can gain.

  6. Shelby Olson

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I find it amazing how much technology has advanced to allow us to connect and have interactions with people we may never have been able to; especially when it comes to language barriers. Did you find that using the translator app actually helped you learn some basic mandarin? From my personal experience abroad, I’m always worried that I will not be understood or that someone would get frustrated if I was unable to speak the language fluently. Have you run into any situations where the salesclerk was unwilling to help you because it would either take too much time or just because you were unable to speak the language?

    • Matthew Breeze

      I think that using translator apps has helped me to learn basic mandarin, especially to recognize characters. I haven’t yet run into anyone that is unwilling to help me, but I have given up a couple of times when trying to buy things because I don’t have the language necessary to say what I am looking for.

  7. Phillip Truax

    Dear Matthew,
    Thank you so much for sharing this story. What an amazing experience, I’m sure you will remember this time and these memories for ever. I think this is a great example on how technology can help us. I have always kicked around the idea if that smart phones are really making our lives better. This shows us how we can use technology to benefit our lives.

  8. Lexie DeWall

    Hello Matthew,

    What an awesome experience it sounds like you had! I have traveled to Mexico and the Dominican Republic where Spanish is the primary language, and I only know how to say “yes” or “no” in Spanish. So communication was interesting to say the least. I totally agree that communicating with other people is one of the most important parts about being human. Tignor (2018), mentions that “Language was a huge breakthrough, because individuals could teach words to offspring and neighbors and could use them to integrate communities for survival” (p. 24). When something as important as language is disrupted, like you not speaking Chinese, things don’t get done because of miscommunication. I am happy to hear that you found a translator app on your phone, and that it was able to resolve the miscommunication that you were experiencing. I’m sure you recognize the meaning of a lot more Chinese words now that you have lived there for ten months! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  9. Samantha Willert


    Thank you for sharing your story. I think that the technology that was created to help with translation between languages is very beneficial. Especially for the people earning to travel. I was extremely nervous to travel to Costa Rica with only two years of Spanish, but thankfully, I had the translator with me that helped me in difficult situations. My background in Spanish made it a little easier to translate the sentences that had to be worded differently. I am sure that as time goes by, they will continue to improve the translators. The most difficult time for people is probably the first week or so trying to learn how the people in that culture communicate, but they tend to learn the longer they stay there as I am sure that you probably have improved with your time spent in China.

  10. Sarah Bowman

    It is truly amazing to read and see how far Scholastica students are traveling for internships and experiences. I have never been to China so I was immediately drawn to your article. I have traveled to several places in Europe and certainly understand how difficult communication can be when both parties are not fluent. I relied heavily on translator apps for reading menus and informational posters. Looking at this scenario more in depth it is amazing how far we have come as a species. With human origins all tracing back to Africa it is truly astounding that through migration and years of development we have adapted as a species to the areas we live in both in physical appearance but also in cultural dynamics and language. Although language began as “vocal-utterance speech,” according to Tignor et al. in “Worlds Together Worlds Apart,”and sounds it has now developed so far into natural language using more complex methods to create words from sounds of letters (2018). I know language barriers can create complicated situations at times, but it truly is admirable how complex we have became with distinct language in specific regions. I hope the rest of your internship continues to give you great experiences and insight into new cultures.

    Sarah Bowman

    • Matthew Breeze

      I also find it fascinating how diverse humans have become through moving and changing, especially with regards to languages. Thanks for your comment!

  11. Hannah Holien

    Thank you for sharing your story! I have been in this situation while traveling abroad and it is very frustrating and nerve-racking! Next time I travel abroad I will have to download one of these apps to help ease communication. As I read I found it so interesting how language has evolved since the early humans. In “Worlds Together Worlds Apart” by Tignor et al, it talks about early communication and how humans can understand around 50 phonemes which when arranged in different orders can produce over 100,000 words (p 24). Then when you take into account different languages and grammar the possibilities increase! It amazes me to see how humans have created different languages and accents from these basic phonemes which vary drastically across the world!

  12. Aleah Rubio

    Matt, I am so happy to hear about your experience in China! I remember taking Martin’s Spanish literature class with you. The thing that really caught my attention about you was how willing and enthusiastic you were to speak in the class when there was that awkward dead silence. The most heart warming part of your story was reading about how many laughs you have shared with your roommate while trying to communicate with locals who do not speak English. Like you said, it can be very frustrating to communicate with people when you do not speak the same language. So it is very encouraging to hear how you can take a frustrating experience and turn it into a funny learning experience. I love the pictures too! The pictures help me create a scenario in my head of buying a phone in the market. Thank you for sharing a post that really made me see the positives of trying to learn how to communicate with people who speak a different language.


  13. Natalie Johnson

    Matt, the stories you shared sound both exciting but also challenging at times. Next spring I will be student teaching in a different country, so language barriers will be present. I will make sure to check out the translator application because as we all know the language can be an essential way of communicating. According to Worlds Together Worlds Apart, “It is important to distinguish between meaningful vocal utterance speech, possessed by many precursor hominins, and natural language (the use of sounds to make words that when strung together convey complex meaning to others), which is unique to modern humans,” (Tignor 24). This goes to show how amazing language is and how it is important to understand the meaning of the worlds. I can’t wait to someday have an experience like you did!

  14. Tara Bighley

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for sharing your story. It reminded me of when I went to a restaurant that only spoke Spanish. Even with a little background in Spanish, my encounter was longer and more frustrating than it would be if we spoke the same language. Even when there is a barrier, we are able to find ways to communicate, like a translator app. Language is an important characteristic that makes us human. When reading “Worlds Together Worlds Apart” by Tignor et al (2018), it explained that language was a huge breakthrough that allowed individuals to teach words to offspring and other communities for survival (p. 24). Moving to a new place that does not speak your primary language can be scary, but we have the ability to learn a new language over time. With this in mind, a question I have is, “would it be beneficial for the apps to have tips on how to structure sentences and phrases in the desired language to make it less confusing for both parties (i.e, Spanish and ASL have different sentence structures than English)”.

  15. Ashley DeJuliannie

    I enjoyed reading this report. It is truly fascinating how we can simply have a translator in our back pocket. This is a great example of how technology can be beneficial on a global scale. I spent in a month in Germany the summer before last and I used a translator app as well. It is an indescribable experience to be in a country where you know virtually none of the language spoken. I also experienced issues when it came to sentencing structure and phrasing. It makes me wonder if there is a way that these apps can update to aid in this issue?

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

  16. Dawson Ness

    Hello Matt,
    Your story was very interesting to read as I have had some similar experiences in my past. When I was in high school, I traveled to China for a month to learn about the culture in Guilin. I had a tough time negotiating transactions in stores with the locals. The experience helped me to think about how strange our languages are. As discussed in page 24 of Tignor’s “Worlds Together Worlds Apart” verbal communication requires an ability to think abstractly and to communicate the abstractions. By acknowledging the similar abstractions, we are able to share experiences with people we may never fully understand. Maybe soon we will be able to rely on our phones to translate more easily and reliably between the languages that connect our world.

    Thanks again for the great story.

  17. Kyle Star

    Hi Matt,

    Awesome job, really enjoyed the read. I too have been in the same situation before, and it was really awkward. It is crazy to think how important communication is, and its almost impossible to function. I had no idea but those translation apps, so for next time I can at least talk so someone a little bit. Hopefully by then the apps will be a little more advanced. How bad would it have been if you didn’t have the app? I am sure it would be terrible.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, I hope next time things will work out a little smoother for ya.


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