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Why You Need to Know Chinese Basic Words and Phrases
If you’re going to travel in China, then you really need to learn a few common Chinese phrases. I speak from experience when I say that traveling in China without knowing at least some basic Chinese words and sentences is incredibly frustrating.
Even if you’ve traveled in dozens of other countries without speaking the local language, the language barrier you’ll come up against in China will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
But the good news is, learning just the very basics of Chinese will really go a long way. And who knows, you may fall in love with the language like I did and want to keep learning!
When I first started learning basic Mandarin in 2009, I saw it purely as a survival tactic. Nick and I were working in Guangzhou, China off and on for a few weeks, and in between work stints we had lots of time to explore the country.
For our first short trip in China, we chose the remote Western Chinese province of Gansu. This was not the wisest choice we could have made. Fascinating as it was to explore such an off the beaten track part of China, we got ourselves into all kinds of trouble.
We even wandered into an out of bounds area and found ourselves surrounded by a S.W.A.T. team of half a dozen police officers! Of course, we could have avoided all of this if we had just known some Mandarin basics.
If you memorize just a few Chinese words and phrases from the list below, like “please”, “thank you”, “sorry” and the very useful “I don’t understand”, this will already make your trip a lot smoother.
And for the phrases you can’t remember, just keep them on hand so you can show them to people as needed.
Should I Learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese Characters?
In the list below, each phrase is written in both simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese characters. So, which one should you show to locals when trying to communicate with them? Well, it depends on where you are traveling.
The simplified Chinese script is used throughout mainland China and also in Singapore. Traditional Chinese characters, on the other hand, are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
In Malaysia, schools switched to teaching simplified Chinese in the 1980s, but most Chinese speakers there are able to read both sets of characters without much difficulty.
Chinese-speaking communities in other parts of the world are probably more likely to use traditional characters, but this may be changing over time with new waves of immigration. If you’re not sure, you can just point to both.
Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese … What’s the Difference?
When people find out that I’m studying Chinese, they often ask me if I’m learning Mandarin or Cantonese. The answer is, I’m learning Mandarin, but those are not the only two forms of spoken Chinese.
While Mandarin is the lingua franca in China, there are actually several hundred different Chinese languages! And that’s just the “Sinitic” languages spoken by the majority ethnic group, the Han. There are also about 300 minority languages spoken by minority groups in places like Tibet and Yunnan.
But even the Chinese languages are as different from each other as English is from German, or as Spanish is from French.
However, these differences only show up in spoken form. The written form of Chinese, which is based on Mandarin, is standardized throughout the country.
In fact, it’s pretty common for Chinese people who speak different languages to resort to writing things down in order to communicate with each other. So, if you point to one of the written phrases in this list to get your point across, this won’t be seen as weird.
Although, it’s more fun to try pronouncing them yourself! Just one word of caution, though. Don’t try to pronounce Mandarin words or phrases without knowing something about tones first.
Mandarin Pronunciation and Tones
Mandarin is a tonal language, and you really do need to get the tones right if you want to be understood.
If you say the syllable “ma” with a rising tone (“ma?”) instead of a falling tone (“ma!”), for example, you’ll end up saying a completely different word.
This is where pinyin comes in handy. Pinyin is a system for romanizing Chinese, which means writing Chinese words phonetically using the Latin alphabet.
A tone marker over is written over each syllable to indicate whether it’s pronounced as a first tone (mā), second tone (má), third tone (mǎ), fourth tone (mà) or neutral tone (ma).
For each of the basic Mandarin words and phrases in the list below, you’ll find the pinyin with tone markers next to it in the right-hand column.
Of course, you still need to know what the different tones sound like in order to pronounce them properly.
More Resources for Learning Basic Mandarin
It would be silly of me to try to teach you tone pronunciation in a written article, so instead I’ll direct you over to ChinesePod, one of my favorite resources for learning Chinese.
The folks there have put together a great video course called Say It Right that’s all about Chinese tones and pronunciation. It’s totally free; you just need to sign up for a free account.
And check out some of their Newbie lessons while you are there, which are really engaging and fun. I started out by castually listening to a few of their Newbie lessons back in 2009 and ended up sticking with it all the way to the Advanced level.
If you’re not interested in learning Chinese to an advanced level and just want to have some common Chinese phrases at your fingertips, then uTalk is a great option.
Inside the uTalk smartphone app, you’ll find hundreds of useful Chinese words and phrases on all kinds of topics ranging from asking directions to watching a football match.
I’ve already included in the list below the Chinese phrases that I have found most useful when traveling. These start with most common Chinese words and phrases, like how to say “thank you” in Chinese, how to say “how are you” in Chinese, and how to say “where are you from?” in Chinese.
In addition, the list below also covers the main topics of eating out in restaurants, using public transport and checking in and out of accommation. I’ve limited the list to about 100 words and phrases to keep it a manageable size for a blog post.
But if you’d like to have a more extensive list of Chinese phrases in English translation, covering dozens of other topics, then do check out uTalk.
Even if you don’t plan to actually learn all the phrases in the app, it also works as a really handy electronic phrasebook. Just type in a word such as “train”, and you’ll instantly see all the revelant phrases, like “the train is canceled”, “the train is delayed” and “when is the last train?”.
uTalk has some really affordable monthly subscription plans, and you can even get 20% off through this link. This discount is valid for any of the 140+ languages uTalk offers, not just Chinese. Oh, and they do offer Cantonese and Shanghainese as well as Mandarin!
Chinese Travel Phrases
And now here’s that list of Chinese travel phrases I promised you. I created this list based on my many years of experience studying Chinese, and I also checked it with a native speaker. So you can be sure that everything here is correct and sounds natural in Chinese.
Most Common Chinese Words and Phrases
|zǎo shàng hǎo
|Good morning (Taiwan)
|xià wǔ hǎo
|wǎn shàng hǎo
|duì , shì
|bú duì , bú shì
|bú kè qi
|bù hǎo yī si
|duì bu qǐ
|What’s your name?
|nǐ jiào shén me ne?
|My name is …
|Nice to meet you
|hěn gāo xìng rèn shi nǐ
|How are you?
|nǐ zuì jìn zěn me yàng ?
|wǒ hěn hǎo , xiè xie
|Where are you from?
|nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén ?
|I am from [the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada].
|wǒ shì [měi guó , yīng guó , ào dà lì yà , jiā ná dà ] rén .
|Do you speak English?
|nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?
|I don’t speak Chinese.
|wǒ bú huì shuō hàn yǔ .
|I don’t speak Chinese (Taiwan)
|wǒ bú huì shuō guó yǔ.
|I speak a little Chinese.
|wǒ huì shuō yì diǎn hàn yǔ .
|I speak a little Chinese (Taiwan)
|wǒ huì shuō yì diǎn guó yǔ.
|I don’t understand.
|wǒ bù míng bái .
|Can you repeat that, please?
|qǐng zài shuō yí biàn .
|How much does it cost?
|zhè geduō shǎo qián ?
|Could I have a discount?
|kě yǐ dǎ zhé ma?
|Where are the toilets?
|xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ ?
|Where is the nearest ATM?
|zuì jìn de qǔ kuǎn jī zài nǎ lǐ ?
|See you later!
Chinese Restaurant Phrases
These phrases will definitely come in handy when ordering food in a restaurant in Chinese. This list includes phrases for explaining food allergies and for ordering vegetarian or vegan food, which you won’t find in most phrasebooks.
Be aware that the Chinese word for “vegan” is commonly used in Taiwan (where veganism is very popular) but is unlikely to be understood in China. There are actually two words for “vegan” in Taiwan. The one I’ve used below is “全素” or “full vegetarian”, but you could also say “純素” or “pure vegetarian”.
Either way, in China you will probably need to explain what that means.
But don’t worry, I’ve also included in the list phrases like “I don’t eat any animal products” and “I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy products” to help you do just that.
|A table for two, please.
|liǎng ge rén de cān zhōu , xiè xie
|Could I see the menu?
|wǒ kě yǐ kàn yí xià cài dān ma?
|To eat in
|zhè lǐ chī
|To take away
|I am vegetarian
|wǒ shì sù shǐ zhě
|I am vegan
|wǒ shì quán sù shí zhě
|We are vegan
|wǒ men shì quán sù shí zhě
|I don’t eat any animal products.
|wǒ bù chī rèn hē dòng wù chǎn pǐn
|I don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy products.
|ròu ,yú ,jī dàn ,nǎi zhì pǐn wǒ dōu bù chī
|I eat vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, fruit, etc.
|wǒ chī shū cài ,liáng shí ,dòu lèi ,jiān guǒ ,shuǐ guǐ shén me de.
|I don’t drink alcohol.
|wǒ bù hē jiǔ
|Does this contain [eggs, dairy products etc.]?
|lǐ miàn yǒu méi yǒu [jī dàn , nǎi zhì pǐn shén me de]?
|Can you make it without [meat, eggs, etc.]?
|kě yǐ bú fàng [ròu ,jī dàn shén me de]ma?
|Can you replace it with [beans, tofu, etc.]?
|kě yǐ yòng [dòu ,dòu fǔ shén me de]dài tì ma?
|zhè shì shén me?
|Do you have …. [soy milk, tofu, veggie burger, etc.]?
|yǒu méi yǒu [dòu jiāng ,dòu fǔ ,sù hàn bǎo shén me de?
|I want …
|wǒ yào …
|I don’t want …
|wǒ bú yào …
|I’m allergic to …
|我对 。。。 过敏
|我對 。。。 過敏
|wǒ duì …guò mǐn
|nǎi zhì pǐn
|niú ròu tāng
|shū cài tāng
|dàn huáng jiàng
|No straw, please.
|bú yào xī guǎn, xiè xie
|The bill, please.
Chinese Transportation Phrases
|Where is the railway station?
|huǒ chē zhàn zài nǎ lǐ?
|Where I can buy a ticket?
|zài nǎ lǐ mǎi piào?
|dān chéng piào
|wǎng fǎn piào
|Is this train going to [Beijing]?
|zhè tàng huǒ chē qù [běi jīng] ma?
|Do I need to change buses/trains?
|wǒ yào zhuǎn chē ma?
|Is this the right platform?
|zhè gè zhàn tái duì ma?
|Where do I get off?
|wǒ yīng gāi zài nǎ lǐ xià chē?
|What time does the train leave?
|huǒ chē jǐ diǎn chū fā?
|What time does the train arrive?
|huǒ chē jǐ diǎn dào dá?
|Where are we?
|wǒ men zài nǎ lǐ?
Chinese Accommodation Phrases
|Where can I find a hotel?
|nǎ lǐ yǒu bīn guǎn
|I’d like to check in.
|wǒ xiǎng rù zhù
|I’d like to check out.
|wǒ xiǎng tuì fáng
|What time do I need to check out?
|wǒ xū yào jǐ diǎn zhōng tuì fáng?
|I have a room booked.
|wǒ yù dìng le yí gè fáng jiān
|dān rén jiān
|shuāng rén jiān
|biāo zhǔn jiān
|For how many nights?
|zhù jǐ wǎn?
|How much is the room per night?
|zhè ge fáng jiān duō shǎo qián yī wǎn?
|Can I see the room?
|wǒ kě yǐ kàn yí xià fáng jiān ma?
|Is breakfast included?
|bāo hán zǎo fàn ma?
|What time is breakfast?
|zǎo fàn jǐ diǎn zhōng?
|Where can I leave my luggage?
|xíng lǐ fàng zài nǎ lǐ?
Want to learn even more Chinese words and phrases? And learn how to pronounce them correctly?