I’ve been living in China on and off for almost a year. Despite this, I still find the language impossible as ever. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given up learning and restarted again, and no amount of inspirational language blogs, telling me how to hack Chinese, have managed to really helped the problem.
HOWEVER. I do find myself using the same phrases again and again, in a variety of different situations. These phrases have been my life savers in China, allowing me to communicate even in the most limited sense (i.e, not paying a huge amount of attention to tones). Use them wisely and frequently.
- English: This
Chinese Pinyin: Zhège (pronounced jay-guh)
Chinese character: 这
Not a Chinese phrase, fine. But zhège is my most used word, without a doubt, in China. Just point at anything you want and say “zhège”.
- English: Do you know?
Chinese Pinyin: Nǐ zhīdào ma? (pronounced nee-juh-dao-ma)
Chinese character: 你知道吗
Often used in combination with zhège. Point at something on a map, on Google (sorry Bing, BING), on your phone or say the name of a location, and follow it up with this Chinese phrase. Pretty much every single time I get in a cab, I use this.
The response is usually “wo zhi dao” or just “zhi dao” which means “I know it” – “bu zhi dao” (like boo-juh-dao) is “I don’t know”.
- English: How much is it?
Chinese Pinyin: Duōshǎo qián? (pronounced: doh-shao-chien)
Chinese character: 多少钱
As in: “zhège, duōshǎo qián?” This roughly translates to “how much is this?” Useful to learn the numbers for this too (which are surprisingly easy in Chinese).
- English: How many minutes?
Chinese Pinyin: Duōshǎo fēnzhōng? (pronounced: doh-shao-fen-jong)
Chinese character: 多少分钟
A good one to know for cabs, trains, and the average Chinese restaurant where you find yourself waiting at least 45 minutes for your food. Numbers are, again, a handy thing to know for this.
- English: Where is it?
Chinese Pinyin: …zài nǎ lǐ (pronounced: zai na lee)
Chinese character: 在娜里
Put the noun first as in the other examples – so for example, “cheese, where is it?” A commonly used phrase in my local supermarket.
- English: Can you/I/she he it do it?
Chinese Pinyin: Kěyǐ…ma? (pronounced: kuh-yee-ma)
Chinese character: 可以吗
Insert a verb where the dotted line is. One I use a lot is kěyǐ kai ma? “Kai” is the word for open, so this literally translates to “can you open it?” As you may have noticed, articles like “I”, “you”, “he” and “she”, aren’t always used in Chinese phrases. You can use them, but sometimes it’s not too necessary.
- English: Do you have it?
Chinese Pinyin: Nǐ yǒu…ma? (pronounced: nee-yo-ma?)
Chinese character: 你有吗
I find myself using this Chinese phrase a lot when buying street food. “Nǐ yǒu sùshí ma?” is a Chinese phrase you can use for “do you have vegetarian?” More often than not though this is usually met with the response “méi yǒu” – we don’t have.
8. English: I want
Chinese Pinyin: Wǒ yào
Chinese character: 我要
Used most frequently when shopping when you can say something like – “wǒ yào zhège” which means “I want this”. If you learn the colours, that’ll give you more scope for getting specific with what you actually want.
- English: Very expensive.
Chinese Pinyin: Tài guìle (pronounced: tai-gway-luh)
Chinese character: 太贵了
If you think you’re being swindled, throw a “tài guìle” in there to start negotiations. Markets will generally try to rip you off, but they’ll majorly drop their price as soon as you start to walk away.
10. THE BEST ALL-TIME CHINESE PHRASE THAT I PROBABLY — USE AT LEAST ONCE A DAY:
English: I don’t understand
Chinese Pinyin: tīng bù dǒng (ting-boo-dong)
Chinese character: 听不懂
Look, this is a difficult language. Add to that the fact that Chinese people sometimes have a hard time comprehending the fact that you don’t speak Chinese. They’ll talk quickly to you, ask you questions, sometimes even shout at you which can, frankly, be terrifying. If you ever get into trouble just tīng bù dǒng them. They’ll get bored eventually.
These are the phrases that have worked well for me during my time in China, but if you have any that I missed, please let me know!