Have you ever wanted to learn Chinese? Teaching English in China is an increasingly popular job among travelers who want to take an adventure and live outside their home country for a season. The first step to learning elementary Mandarin is to understand simple Chinese words and phrases.
China is a diverse and exciting country and its languages are nothing less. Chinese is made up of tens of thousands of characters. Each character is composed of specific strokes, instead of letters. Since there is no alphabet, you can’t just spell words out according to their sound or string words together. Learning Chinese words is all about memorization.
Chinese Words and Dialects
Chinese is made up of tens of thousands of characters. Each character is composed of specific strokes, instead of letters. Since there is no alphabet, you can’t just spell words out according to their sound or string words together. Learning Chinese words is all about memorization.
To give you an idea of the language, in order to read and write Chinese at an elementary level, you would need to know about 2,500 characters. Put these together and you will have a vocabulary of thousands of Chinese words. There’s also another complication about the language. The Chinese language is tonal. This means that much in the same way you use tone for expression when speaking English, every word in Chinese has a specific tone that denotes its meaning. The same sound can be made in 5 different tones and have 5 different meanings.
If your mind isn’t spinning already, there are also various dialects to consider. Mandarin Chinese is the most widely-spoken. It is the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore. In Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province, the people speak Cantonese. In Shanghai, the primary language is Shanghainese.
Due to the complexity of Chinese characters, pinyin was developed by Chinese linguists as the official system to pronounce Mandarin. This system converts Chinese characters into a familiar and readable format, using the 26 letters of the English alphabet. This enables Westerners to learn Mandarin more easily, without having to recognize characters.
Even if you can’t manage to string a whole sentence together just yet, don’t worry. It gets easier. Knowing key phrases can be incredibly useful to start out with. If you plan to visit China soon or you’re just looking to learn the Chinese language, knowing the basic words is essential. We’re here to give you an introductory crash course on what you need to know as a beginner. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as it seems. Since Mandarin is the most popular, Chinese dialect, we will be teaching you words and phrases from it.
Tips From a Pro
Mark Libatique, a Chinese teacher for the agency Fluent City, said: “As ubiquitous and important as English is around the world, don't expect a local to try to communicate with you in English, as you are on their home turf.” While most of us probably won’t be fluent in Mandarin before we take our first trip to Asia, locals will appreciate a bit of effort on your part to learn their language. It shows respect and appreciation for their culture.
Libatique also advises that if you’re going to try and learn Mandarin, force yourself out of your shell and don’t be shy. “Chinese is such a different language from English that you can't help but be entertained while learning. Don't be scared! You will sound awkward at first. You will be misunderstood. But then it'll gradually be less awkward on your tongue, and people will begin to understand you.”
Tips If You Get Stuck with Chinese Words
While you will start out with Mandarin phrases that are pretty straightforward, the intonations can be pretty tricky. Google Translate can come in handy here. Input English and play an audio output of the Mandarin Chinese words. Once you arrive at your destination, you can use the Google Translate mobile app or another very helpful app called Pleco to take pictures of Chinese text (e.g. on a menu or street sign) and the app will translate it for you instantly. Oh, the wonders of technology.
Popular Mandarin Words and Phrases to Know
If you have a trip planned to Asia soon or just want to brush up on your skills, here are some popular Chinese words and phrases to know in Mandarin.
1. How are you? Chinese translation: Nǐ hǎo ma? (Nee-hao-mah?) (你好吗). While you may have already heard this phrase, familiarize yourself with the pronunciation, as it is the primary way Chinese people greet each other.
2. Hello? Chinese translation: Wèi (/way/ 喂). This is a common way people answer a phone call.
3. Good morning. Chinese translation: zǎo shang hǎo (早上好)
4. Good afternoon. Chinese translation: wǔ ān (午安
5. Good evening. Chinese translation: wǎn shàng hǎo (晚上好)
Other Common Phrases to Know Include…
6. I don’t understand. Chinese translation: wǒ tīng bù dǒng (我听不懂). If you don’t understand something in Chinese (or any other language for that matter), don’t be afraid to communicate that to the person you are speaking to. Don’t just nod your head and pretend you understand the conversation. You can’t ever learn a new language without getting through some of the initial awkwardness that comes when you first try to pick it up.
7. Excuse me, my Chinese is not good. Chinese translation: duì bu qǐ, wǒ de zhōng wén bù hǎo (对不起我的中文不好). Don’t overuse this phrase. It is better to only use it when necessary and try as best as you can to build your vocabulary of Chinese words. However, if you find yourself in a situation where someone is speaking too quickly for you to understand or using words you are unfamiliar with, feel free to use this phrase. The term “excuse me (duì bu qǐ)” also translates to mean “I’m sorry,” and is a good phrase to know in general.
8. Thank you. Chinese translation: Xièxie. (pronounced: sshyeah-sshyeah) (谢 谢). Asian culture takes great pride in showing courtesy and respect through their mannerisms. Prepare to use this word very often, especially as a traveler in a foreign country.
Personal and Formal Greetings
9. What’s your name? Chinese translation: nǐ guì xìng dà míng (你贵姓大名)? The first step meeting a friend abroad (aside from bonding over being lost) is to learn their name. After you ask their name, be sure to introduce yourself as well. You can do this by saying “wǒ xìng” (meaning “mine is…”) after you meet them. You may want to clarify the pronunciation of their name by repeating it after them. There is nothing quite as annoying as hearing someone constantly mispronounce your name. Make sure you are also clear about the pronunciation of your name.
10. Nice to meet you. Chinese translation: xìng huì! (幸会!). You can use this phrase in both formal and informal settings. It is a mark of politeness.
11. You’re welcome. Chinese translation: bù kè qì (不客气). For some reason, Westerners have a very hard time pronouncing the Chinese words for thank you. This one is a little bit easier. Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of it soon enough.
12. Goodbye! Chinese translation: zài jiàn! (再见!). While this term is pretty self explanatory, there are several variations of it that can be used in different settings. Make sure you are using the correct one. This phrase (above) is standard and can be used in multiple ways.
13. How are you? Chinese translation: hǎo bù hǎo (好不好)? This term literally translates into “good or no good?” This is a way of asking if someone is alright or just to inquire about their overall mood or state of being.
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Important Travel Phrases
As a traveler, there are some very important phrases you should know. Keep a list in your iPhone notes or keep a small journal on hand for Chinese words. This will help you a lot as you ask locals how to get to your hotel or hostel, read street signs, and order something off the menu. Let’s take a look at some more necessary phrases to get by as a traveler in Asia.
14. Do you have…? Chinese translation: yǒu méi yǒu…(有没有…?)? The literal translation of this phrase means to have or have not and precedes a noun. For example, let’s say you walked into a clothing store and wanted to see if they had cardigan sweaters. You would approach a store associate and ask the phrase listed above succeeded by the Chinese words you wanted to describe your object with.
15. How much? Chinese translation: duō shao qián (多少钱)? When you are listening for an answer to this question, make sure you know your Mandarin Chinese numbers. This will help you to interpret the cost of the item you want.
16. I need to go to… Chinese translation: wǒ xiǎng qù (我想去…). Of all the Chinese words, you will need to know this Mandarin term if you want to ask for directions. While many maps in major cities will have an English translation, if you want to wander a little off the grid, you won’t be so lucky. Before traveling, make sure you know how to pronounce all the names of the places you plan on visiting and where your accommodations are located.
Let’s Be Honest. You’ll Need to Use these Chinese Words and Phrases the Most
17. Where’s the bathroom? Chinese translation: cè suǒ zài nǎ lǐ (厕所在哪里)? Let’s be honest. You’re going to be asking this a lot when you’re abroad. This is probably one of the most important phrases to know when you’re traveling anywhere.
18. Pardon me, please let me pass. Chinese translation: jiè guò yī xià (借过一下). What constitutes the concept of personal space varies greatly among countries and sometimes, even regions. In most places in China, people will not be offended if you politely ask them to move or tell them that you need to get by. Don’t be afraid to use this phrase if you need to.
19. Do you speak English? Chinese translation: nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma (你会说英语吗)? No, this doesn’t mean you’re giving up. Sometimes, if a situation gets too confusing, it can’t hurt to ask if a local around you speaks English and to get their help. We can’t emphasize it enough. Learning Mandarin is incredibly different for Western born English speakers to learn. You shouldn’t feel bad about opting for some of the more simple phrases as you begin your journey learning Mandarin and exploring Chinese culture. You should feel excited and proud. Just putting the effort out to use some of these phrases is rewarding. You’re going to have such an exciting travel adventure.
20. Please. Chinese translation: qǐng (請 [请]). Being polite will get you a long way as a traveler, particularly in building relationships with Chinese people. Make sure you are not using it too much in conversation though, as the effect will soon wear off.
21. What is this? Chinese translation: Zhè shì shénme? (Jer shrr shnn-muh?) 这是什么? This is helpful if you are out to eat or going grocery shopping. If you have any food allergies or dietary restrictions, make sure you know how to pronounce this phrase. There may be some things you are unfamiliar with seeing in the marketplaces.
22. Where are you from? Chinese translation: nǐ shì nǎguórén (你是哪國人)? This is a useful question when you are having a conversation with someone. This could refer to what city, province, or country they are from. It’s a great conversation starter.
23. I’m from… Chinese translation: wǒ shì … rén (我是 … 人). Most likely, when you ask someone where they are from, they will return the question. This phrase tells you how to start to answer them.
Start early! Memorize popular Chinese words and phrases. Get excited about your next big trip.
It's never too early to get started preparing for your next big trip. And it's never too late to fine-tune or pick up a new skill. Don't be intimidated by learning Mandarin. Learning a new language is an exciting adventure and opens up a whole new world of possibilities to you as you traverse exciting new places.
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