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Essential Chinese Phrases
Every Foreigner Should Learn
The Chinese language has evolved over thousands of years based on input from a variety of regional cultures and dialects. It is very different from English in many ways and can seem intimidating to learn at first. One important thing to know is that the grammar used in Mandarin is often much simpler than that used in English so in many ways it is easier to pick up and use, at least for basic communication.
LingoClass has years of experience teaching English speakers how to communicate effectively in Chinese, with many of our students going on to live or work in China. We have compiled the below list to help new learners, and those wishing to travel around Mandarin speaking countries, familiarise themselves with some key phrases in Mandarin.
Greetings and Basic Interactions in Chinese
Learning how to greet and interact with Mandarin speakers is essential to improving your language ability.
Learning from a textbook is very useful but the skills learned need to be applied in real life situations, allowing you to communicate effectively, express yourself and understand others.
This is the standard greeting for most Chinese speakers. Although there are many less formal greetings out there, this one is relatively safe in all contexts. Literally translating to "you good", the meaning is similar to "hello".
My name is _____
"wǒ shì / wǒ jiào _____"
我是 / 我叫_____
wo shi (I am) and wo jiao (I'm called) are the two most basic ways to introduce yourself. Either is fine to use but we have included both so you can understand when other people say this to you.
What's your name?
"nǐ jiào shénme míngzi?"
When conversing with Mandarin speakers they may often ask your name. the above translates literally to "you are called what name?".
"duì / shì"
"Yes" can be tricky in Chinese. dui means something similar to "correct" whereas shi means "is". Both can be used to express agreement with a question but shi is generally more respectful when talking to older people or senior figures.
Thank you is a useful phrase in every language and this one is nice and simple. One thing to note is that Chinese say thank you far less than we do in English. For example it is considered overly formal to say it too often to good friends.
"duì bu qǐ"
Apologising in Chinese is useful for when you make a mistake but as with "thank you", it is used far less than in English. If you say it a lot around Chinese speaking friends, they will more than likely tell you to stop.
Nice to meet you
"hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ"
To express your respect and gratitude when meeting someone, you may wish to use this phrase. You will more than likely hear it spoken to you as well if you make an effort to speak to people in Chinese.
Where are you from?
"nǐ shì nǎli rén?"
One of the most common questions you will be asked as a foreigner speaking Chinese is what country you come from. Do not be shy, people are simply interested to know and will use this to make conversation.
This is a phrase that is far more useful to understand than to speak. You will hear it every time you enter a restaurant or shop. It is simply a polite greeting for customers and you do not need to reply. If you wish to you can just say ni hao.
I can't understand
"wǒ tīng bù dǒng"
When speaking Mandarin to locals, you will notice many of them reply as if you're completely fluent and you have no idea what they're talking about. This phrase expresses that you can't understand what they're saying.
"wǒ míngbái le"
On the other hand, some Mandarin speakers may say something to you and be unsure as to whether you understand their meaning. To show them you do, you can use this phrase.
Travelling in Mandarin
China and Taiwan are huge and there are many temples, museums, shopping centres and areas of scenic beauty to be seen.
We recommend going to as many of them as possible and using this time to meet and talk with local native speakers.
You will be amazed how much you learn along the way.
Where is the _____?
This phrase can be used to ask directions to anything. Try combining it with other phrases in this list to find your way around.
Most major Chinese cities have extensive subway networks to help you travel around. These are usually very safe and clean. Ditie means subway and zhan means station.
"wèishēngjiān / xǐshǒujiān"
卫生间 / 洗手间
As with English, when asking directions to a toilet, the actual phrase is often changed to something polite sounding. For example weishengjian (hygiene room) or xishoujian (hand washing room).
The phrase for ticket is useful in a number of tickets and can be applied to trains, planes, subway and even entrance tickets, much like in English.
If you ask for directions and someone replies with this phrase, it means keep going straight. Many Chinese cities have a grid-like structure so this phrase is usually very useful.
Left / Right
"zuǒ / yòu"
左 / 右
Left (zuo) and right (you) are also useful for finding your way around. You can combine them with other words to denote location. For example, youbian means "on the right".
Shopping in Mandarin
Shopping in Chinese is an enriching experience to say the least. There are a wealth of markets, shopping malls and food courts where you can test your Mandarin bartering skills.
The below phrases should definitely come in handy when doing so but be careful to use them in the right places. While markets may be open to price negotiation, regular stores like McDonalds or Walmart are not.
How much does it cost?
This one is essential for starting off the negotiations. Many products will already be labelled with prices but for those that aren't, you can enquire using the above.
"tài guì le!"
Knowing the genuine prices for things in China is important so try to establish roughly how much things will cost first. If you find something way too expensive, you can use this phrase and suggest a new price.
A little cheaper...
To suggest the seller lowers the price slightly, you can use this phrase. This phrase alone is a little direct so try to combine it with another phrase to soften it e.g. "keyi ma?" - "is it ok?
Cash / Bank card
"xiànjīn / yínhángkǎ"
现金 / 银行卡
Asking which form of payment is accepted is also useful as not everywhere takes card (yinhang ka) or even cash (xianjin).
One major form of payment used in China is WeChat pay. To ask if this is accepted you can say "weixin keyi ma?". We highly recommend downloading this app before you go.
To compliment an item for sale you can use the above. Many traders will appreciate this, especially if the items are home made. This phrase can also be used for food, landscapes and even people.
Eating in Mandarin
Chinese food is one of the best reasons to go to China or Taiwan. The cuisine on offer is incredibly varied and you could spend a whole lifetime there and not run out of new things to try.
If you want to truly experience Chinese culture you need to approach food with an open mind. We also highly recommend practising your chopstick skills before you go as many places do not have forks.
"fànguǎn / cāntīng"
饭馆 / 餐厅
There are many different types of restaurant in China, all with different names and styles but the most general terms for somewhere that sells cooked food are the above.
Waiter / Waitress
This phrase literally means "service person" and can be applied to many different professions. You will hear it a lot in restaurants and you may need to say it out loud to attract a waiter's attention. This isn't considered rude like it is in Western culture.
Menu / Bill
"càidān / mǎidān"
菜单 / 买单
These are the two big phrases to request items from waiting staff. The first lets you order food and the second lets you pay the bill.
Chopsticks are used in almost all restaurants in China. They are called kuaizi in Chinese.
While knives and forks aren't common in Chinese restaurants, nearly all of them will use spoons. These are referred to as shaozi and will help with eating dishes not suited to chopsticks - like soup!
To compliment a meal in Chinese simply say haochi. Literally translating to "good eat" in English, this phrase will go very far with people who have cooked you a meal and is considered extremely complimentary.
One thing to be aware of is that some Chinese food can be very spicy. You can use the above word to ask for more or less spice depending on your taste.
I don't eat meat
While much Chinese food contains meat or seafood, there is also a large Buddhist community meaning lots of vegetarian options. To tell someone you don't eat meat just use this phrase.
"wǒ chībǎo le"
It is good manners in China to be generous, so you may find yourself being continuously offered food when you are already full. To politely turn it down you can tell the person you have eaten enough using this phrase.
Switching to English
Speaking Mandarin can be daunting, especially if you are just starting out but it's important to remember that you won't get better unless you practice.
Most people in China and Taiwan are extremely friendly and willing to talk to you slowly. Most young people also speak excellent English and so can help you to understand if you are struggling.
If you do experience an emergency or you feel your Chinese isn't good enough to express what you want you can try switching to English as a last resort.
Do you speak English?
"nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma?"
Use this phrase as an absolute last resort to ask someone if they can speak English. Also be aware that many people can understand some English but will be reluctant to speak it.
Now you have learned some key phrases in Mandarin, why not check out some of our Chinese courses and start practising with like-minded classmates.
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