A Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese

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!

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 tones

photo by MIT.edu

Tones

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

The Basics

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!

A Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese

You can do it!

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!

The Video!

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!

learning Mandarin Chinese

“xie xie” for letting me steal your baby

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!

Learn Mandarin Chinese

You can bring the bill after I’m done watching this baby use chopsticks

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.

Mandarin Chinese guide

Drink all the beer!

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!

Chinese bacon

Chinese bacon

Language Hacks

Are you a bit overwhelmed from everything above? Well here are some English words that almost every Chinese person knows.

1. Taxi

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!

2. W.C

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.

Learning Chinese

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.

Teaching English in China

Playing Halloween pictionary with my students

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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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

27 comments on “A Quick Guide to Mandarin Chinese

  1. I think your “hacks” were excellent. After not using a single word of Mandarin for the past four years plus, it was a good refresher for me. We’ll see how long it takes me to relearn everything :( Adding to your list of suggestions…..

    tip #1: Carry around a small notepad. To get around provincial dialects or tonal mishaps, being able to write out the characters on the spot can be incredibly helpful. Also, it is more likely that younger Chinese would understand handwritten English than spoken (re: gaokao). Of course, it always depends. If all else fails, a notepad can prove useful as a way of jotting down unfamiliar characters or phrases for later research.

    tip #2: Actually, converse with Chinese people. It might seem obvious, but I found an incredible number of foreigners (particularly in bigger cities) stick within their expat bubble. Yes, it is very comfy….but it won’t help them improve their fluency. The only way of improving fluency is putting oneself out there. Mistakes will happen. If only I had a nickle for how many times I’ve mixed up “wen4 – ask” and “wen3 – kiss”…..it can lead to pretty embarrassing conversations. During those moments, I practically became the awkward turtle mascot. No wonder why some Chinese think foreigners can be too rude/direct. We’re walking around trying to ask for directions, but instead come across as lunatics trying to kiss everyone’s grandmas :P Awkward. ha!

    • This is some great advice Karl. My spoken Chinese is much better than my written though, so I haven’t really had a need for a notepad, but it may be really helpful for having people write down directions in Chinese that you can show your cab driver, or writing down a word in English for Chinese people that are overwhelmed with spoken English.

      One of the reasons I’m excited for grad school in China next year is that it will be a perfect way to become friends with expats and other Chinese people my age. I had a hard time making Chinese friends last year, because most of the teachers were married with a kid. It’ll be much easier to become friends with other Chinese students my age in my classes!

  2. this is a great guide! I’m hopefully going to China next year (along with a few other Asian countries) it’s a little overwhelming to try and learn all the languages, but these are simple enough!

    • That’s so exciting Hannah! I definitely agree that it’s impossible to learn more than a few words when you’re traveling to multiple countries, but hopefully the words above will help you get around.

  3. Wow, that’s a really great guide to get people going in what we all know is the hardest language on earth to master. I agree it’s so important for visitors (and expats) to at least make an effort to learn the local lingo, and hats off to you for jumping in there. Some friends of mine have just emigrated to China so I’ll have to share this with them. Great work!

    • Thanks Heather! I always feel like you get a much better reaction from the locals if you just attempt to learn a few words in the local language, especially if it’s a really difficult one like Chinese.

  4. Cool post! I feel bad that since I usually plan my trips only a few days in advance, I usually don’t get time to learn any of the local language. What a great accomplishment to reach this level of Mandarin and sweet idea to share your tips.

    • Thanks! Although, I have had a decent amount of time to work on my Mandarin (3 years in college and over 1.5 in China). I definitely agree that it’s almost impossible to learn more than a few words if you’re just traveling through- I normally just try to at least master “hello” and “thank you”.

  5. This is awesome! I speak Cantonese, but I learned a fair bit of Mandarin. Tones are so important! It’s crazy how much the meaning of the sentence changes with just a slight change in tone. I can definitely relate to your green tea story, except in Cantonese when people say things with the wrong tones and I get confused. It’s weird how that happens. I loved all your explanations in the video. Great job.

    • Cantonese has even more tones than Mandarin! For a non-tonal speaker, it’s funny how little the tones even mean to me, I mostly pick stuff up from context. It’s such a hard thing to wrap your head around.

  6. Yay for finding a fellow Seattliete traveler! :) I have been SLOWLY trying to pick up Mandarin, after spending 4 month teaching English in Taiwan. What a hard language and kuddos to you for being conversational. Hopefully, one day, I’ll get there. Can’t wait to follow your travel journey from now on!

    • I’m so glad you’re working on Chinese while living abroad! Taking Chinese classes really helps (that’s how I learned), but living in China makes learning Chinese so much easier.

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  9. I am going to China in 4 days and am finding this post SO VERY useful!! Thank you for posting it, very helpful! Will be browsing through all your china posts next few days to see how best I can see Great Wall, Beijing to Qingdao, back again, see what else I can in Beijing and back to England, all in 9 days. Great Post!

    • I’m so glad this language guide is useful! I hope you have a great time on your trip. I used to live in Beijing, and I’ve heard Qingdao is beautiful. My one tip for the great wall is to go to Jinshanling or Mudanyuan, NOT Badaling. Badaling is really crowded because it’s the closest section to the city.

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