So you’re planning a trip to China, or you just got a job teaching English, or you’re interning in Shanghai; Whatever the reason, you want to know a few Chinese phrases. I’m a huge proponent of attempting to learn some of the local language wherever you go. Not only is it easier to get around, but it also shows respect to the locals.
To help you make the most of your time in China, I’ve created a quick guide to Mandarin Chinese!
Part of the reason I love living in China, is that I get to practice using Chinese every day. At this point, I’m pretty much conversationally fluent, but I’m constantly learning new words and phrases. I feel reluctant to move to another country next year, mainly because I feel guilty traveling in a place without knowing the language. I hate feeling like the ignorant American who just expects everyone else to speak English because it’s the lingua franca of the world.
While I definitely don’t judge people who travel through China for a week and only pick up “ni hao” and a butchered “xie xie“, I can’t stand it when I meet expats who have been living in China for years and make no effort to learn the local language. It strikes me as odd that the people who get angry about “press number 2 for Spanish” in America, are the same people who go abroad and expect the locals to speak English.
I recently wrote a piece for Go Overseas titled 10 Phrases You Need to Know for High School Abroad in Japan. I’m going to be honest, I speak almost no Japanese and I had a lot of help from my Japanese-American friend and a Japanese guy I met in a hostel.
After writing the article I thought, “Hey! I speak Chinese, I could totally do a language guide for China!” Last night I got really nerdy and excited, and ended up creating a 14-minute video along with a detailed language guide. I went to bed at 4am. I have a problem.
Chinese is really hard. It may be the most difficult language to learn for English speakers. Once you get the hang of it, speaking is actually pretty easy; it’s the characters that kill you (怎么这么难?!). While Chinese pronunciation can be difficult, the biggest barrier for new speakers is using tones.
There are four distinct tones in Mandarin Chinese: high-pitched, rising, falling, and a low-pitched falling to rising. There’s also a “fifth tone”, which is basically no tone at all. Ahhh so confusing!
For our purposes, I’ll be using numbers to tell you which tones to use when you pronounce the words below.
1= high and flat (say: “ummm….”)
2= rising intonations (say: “What?”)
3= low-pitched falling to rising (say: “really?“)
4= falling tone (imagine yelling a very curt “no!” at your dog)
5= no tone! Just say that syllable quickly
If you’re at all confused (which you probably are), here’s a quick 5 minute video by Mandarin Made EZ, where you can hear the tones and practice!
I actually really like her language podcasts (and her cat), so if you want to learn some basic Chinese, definitely watch a few more of her videos
One of my favorite books, Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost, describes Chinese as “the great wall of languages” because it’s designed to keep foreigners out. The pronunciation and tones combined make it really difficult for English speakers to learn, even if you’re taking a daily Chinese class like I did throughout college.
That said, I can teach you a few basic survival Chinese phrases to help you through your time in China. Guidebooks typically give you so many words to learn, it’s too overwhelming. I’m going to teach you the most important phrases, and how to pronounce them correctly. Take that guidebooks!
In addition to the phrases below, I’ve also included a video that you can use to get a clearer understanding of how to pronounce the words below. Listen to this video as you read the list, and you’ll be all set for your trip to China!
Need to Know Words
1. Ni hao 你好 (Ni3hao3) – Hello
Hello! I always try to learn how to say hello in every language. A correctly pronounced “ni hao” will brighten the day of any local. Sometimes Chinese people like to scream “HELLOOOO!!!” at me. I normally respond with “ni hao”, and they say “wow! You speak Chinese so well!!!” Yes, you really can get that reaction just from saying hello. To pronounce this one correctly, the “ni” sounds like “knee” and “hao” sounds like “how”. Knee-how!
2. Xiexie 谢谢 (Xie3xie3) – Thank you
This one is really hard to pronounce. the “x” makes the “sh” sound, the “i” makes the “ee” sound, and the “e” makes the “eh” sound. All together it should sound something like “she-eh she-eh”. Don’t forget the two third tones! Like I said, this one is hard to pronounce. I’ve been trying to help my parents with this one for years!
3. Duoshao qian (多少钱）(duo1shao qian2)- How much money?
“Duoshao”, translates as “how much?” and “qian” means money. This is a very useful phrase to know in any language. Whether you’re asking the waiter how much you owe, or inquiring the price at a bargaining market, you’ll be sure to use this one a lot. How do you pronounce it? Think of it as “do-oh sh-ow chee-en”. What about the tones? Use a high and flat tone for “duo” and be sure to say the “shao” quickly because it is toneless. Then say “qian” like you’re asking a question (money?).
Now remember, you’re not using a rising intonation because you’re asking a question, you’re using the second tone because the word “qian” is said with a rising intonation. The question actually comes from “duoshao”, which means “a lot, a little”. I’m not going to go into grammar structure, but by saying “a lot, a little money”, you’re asking “how much money”. Remember, you can’t ask a question just by raising your intonation like you can with other languages! Tricky right?
4. Maidan (买单）(mai3dan1)- The check/ bill
So you’ve just finished eating at a restaurant and want to ask for the bill. You can simply say “maidan” and they’ll either hand you the bill or tell you how much you owe. For those that don’t know Chinese, numbers can be tricky, so have them write it down or show it to you on a calculator. “Maidan” is actually fairly easy to pronounce: think of it as “My don”. Just make sure you use the right tones and you should have no problem with this one!
5. Binguan (宾馆）(bin1guan3)- hotel
“hotel” is always a great word for travelers to know. Unfortunately, there are a lot of words for hotel in Chinese. The most common are “binguan” and “fandian” (fan2dian2). To pronounce binguan, you can say “bin goo-on”. I recommend always having your hotel or hostel’s card on you, so that you can just show your cab driver the address without worrying about pronouncing anything. Make sure you have the address in Chinese characters before you get into a cab from the airport or train station, because most cab drivers can’t understand “pinyin”, or romanized Chinese.
6. Pijiu (啤酒）(pi2jiu3)- beer
What’s better than a cold beer after a long day? “Jiu” is the Chinese word for “alcohol”, so all of your favorite alcoholic drinks should have the word “jiu” in them. The most common drinks you’ll find are “pijiu” (beer), “hongjiu” (red wine), and “baijiu” (Chinese liquor). When pronouncing “jiu“, think of it as “jee oh”. Once you’ve got that down, the rest is simple. “pijiu” is pronounced “pea”, “hong” is said exactly like you’d expect, and “bai” sounds like “bye”. There you go, now you can drink to your heart’s content!
7. Rou (肉）(rou4)- meat
zhurou (猪肉) (zhu1rou4)- pork
jirou (鸡肉) (ji1rou4)- chicken
niurou (牛肉) (niu2rou4)– beef
yangrou (羊肉) (yang2rou4)- lamb
There’s nothing worse than ordering mystery meat! Usually a lot of Chinese restaurants have picture menus, so it’s fairly easy to see what you’re getting. But to prevent yourself from ordering anything weird, look for the characters above. “Rou” means meat, so if you see this character anywhere, know it’s a meat dish.
Now, how do you say all of these meats? “rou” is pronounced “row”. Now that you’ve got “meat” down, “ju” sounds like “jew”, “ji” is “gee”, “niu” is “knee-oh”, and “yang” sounds exactly like “yawn” but with a “g”. Now you’ll never order mystery meat again!
Are you a bit overwhelmed from everything above? Well here are some English words that almost every Chinese person knows.
You’ll figure this one out pretty fast when you arrive at the airport. Just be sure to ignore all of the people screaming “taxi” at you, and follow the signs to the appropriate taxi queue. The people screaming “taxi” at you own “black cabs” that will most definitely rip you off. You’ll also probably hear people screaming “taxi” at you near any major tourist site. These cabs are fine as long as they look official. Just make sure they use the meter!
While the chinese words for toilet and restroom are “cesuo” and “weishengjian” respectively, most Chinese people will understand W.C. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go, and you don’t want to be fumbling around your Chinese guidebook to ask for a restroom. “W.C.” seems to be more universally understood than “toilet”, mainly because “W.C.” is written on a lot of restroom signs, and it’s easier for Chinese people to say.
3. Bye Bye
“Zaijian” is the Chinese word for goodbye, but most Chinese people simply say “bye bye”. This is convenient, because that’s one less word you need to worry about if you’re only staying in China for a few weeks.
Chinese can be an intimidating language, and many people I know refuse to visit China because they’re worried about the language barrier. While China can be scary compared to other countries in Asia like Thailand, where everyone speaks English, it is fairly easy to get around in China without speaking the language.
Currently, everyone in China learns English from at least 3rd grade through college, so most young people should know English (trust me, I was an English teacher in China last year!). The main problem is that the English classes cater to the college entrance exam, which does not have an oral portion. Because of this, most young Chinese people can understand a decent bit of English, but they’re extremely nervous to speak it.
From my experience, most cab drivers speak zero English, but a lot of college students and young professionals will go out of their way to help you get around. In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, it will be easy to find someone who speaks a little bit of English. If you go out into the countryside, you may have a harder time getting around, but you can always have your hotel or hostel write directions in Chinese for you on a piece of paper.
Hopefully the phrases I’ve taught you today make you a little more comfortable about the idea of visiting China. China is such a vast country with so much to see, and I hate that the language barrier seems to be a second “Great Wall” of sorts. If you have any questions about anything I’ve said above, please feel free to ask in a comment below, or send my a private message on my Facebook page.
Have any of you been to China without knowing Chinese? How was your experience?
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