Typically, we seek out our phones like they’re our lifelines.
However, when you’re learning a new language and living in a foreign country, there’s a tendency to develop a love/hate relationship with those very same phones. We desire and seek communication, but the phone rings and the anxiety begins to swell.
Of course, the first phone I had while living in China didn’t help to squelch the apprehension. It was a terrifying, pre-pay “burner” phone that seemed to screech the number of the caller every time it rang.
Yi! Er! Ba! Wu! Liu! Qi! (Those are the Chinese numbers for one, two, eight, five and six.) It would then vibrate like it was trying to exorcise some demonic force, at least once throwing itself off my desk and onto the floor.
This was all scary enough, but what happened after answering was the real terror—inevitably the person on the other hand was a courier, or someone chasing a bill or my landlord—a Chinese person who expected to speak in Chinese!
Perfectly reasonable, sure, but I’d only just started learning the language. I could point and order noodles from the 饭馆 (fàn guǎn) — restaurant down the road, but discussing complex financial transactions—or even just giving my address—on the phone was a whole other matter.
Why It’s Important to Learn Chinese Phone Vocabulary
- You can’t rely on visual cues. Speaking Mandarin Chinese on the phone is harder than in person. First of all, you lack the visual element—you can’t resort to universal gestures, or take out your smartphone and defer to a translation app. You can point all you want, but that won’t help the person on the other end of the line understand what you’re saying.
- Keep the conversation going. Talking on the phone also adds an element of pressure to fill the silences and keep the conversation flowing. If your vocabulary is limited, this can seem terrifying. What if you don’t know what to say?!
- Alleviate the anxiety. Over time, I learned that Chinese phone conversation needn’t be that scary. The disembodied voice in fact belongs to a rational human being, who will be perfectly willing to slow down, hear you out and make themselves understood. These terms will help you control the conversation so that you always know what’s going on.
Here are five Chinese phone conversation tips to survive any conversation in Chinese and take the fear out of the phone!
5 Essential Chinese Phone Conversation Tips with Vocabulary
1. Learn Basic Words and Phrases
Before you can talk on the phone, you’ll need some simple words and phrases to get you started. Fortunately, Chinese vocabulary dealing with making a call, answering the phone and hanging up is quite simple and intuitive. The word for phone is, delightfully, 电话 (diàn huà), which literally means electronic speech.
To say “make a phone call,” you would use the extremely common verb particle for actions involving the hand, 打 (dǎ) together with电话 (diàn huà) to create the term: 打电话 (dǎ diàn huà) — to make a phone call.
Makes sense, right? Here are a few more key terms:
- 接电话 (jiē diàn huà) — Answer a call or answer the phone
- 挂电话 (guà diànhuà) — Hang up
- 发短信 (fā duǎn xìn) — To send a text message
- 莉莉在不在 (lìlì zài bù zài?) — Is Lily there?
- 我是丽丽 (wǒ shì lì lì) — This is Lily.
- 手机 (shǒu jī) — Cell phone
- 电话号码 (diàn huà hào mǎ) — Phone number
- 你打错了 (nǐ dǎ cuò le) — You called the wrong number
2. Speak Like a Local
Wow, your phone is ringing! Time to answer your first phone call in China with a confident 你好 (nǐ hǎo), the standard Chinese greeting for hello, right?
Wrong. In Chinese, we don’t answer the phone with 你好 (nǐ hǎo), instead we use the simple word 喂 (wèi), which is a way of saying hello, but only over the phone. I’ve struggled to get a clear answer as to why this is, but I think it has similar advantages to the English “hello”—it’s neutral of status and time of day, so it’s safe to use even when you don’t know who’s calling or what timezone they may be in.
To express agreement and acknowledge that you’ve heard what the other person is saying, a common expression to use both on the phone and in person is simply 好了(hǎo le) — all right. When something is agreed upon, for example, a time and a place to meet, 好的 (hǎo de) — okay, is an easy expression to use.
The common farewell, 再见 (zài jiàn), literally means see you again. Perhaps because when you’re on the phone you’re not really seeing them, or perhaps just because it seems cool, the English phrase bye, bye has become a popular, informal catch-all farewell. In characters, this can be written as 拜拜 (bài bài).
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3. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Them to Speak Slower
I awoke in my hotel to the sound of a phone ringing. Answering, it took me a few moments to remember where I was: I’d just arrived in Xi’an late the night before. The person on the other end was speaking Chinese quickly. I seemed to know the words, but my brain wasn’t making sense of them fast enough.
Still half asleep, I managed to conjure the phrase:
不好意思，我是外国人，请说慢一点儿 (bù hǎo yì si, wǒ shì wài guó rén, qǐng shuō màn yī diǎn er) — Excuse me, I’m a foreigner, please talk a little slower
That seemed to do the trick. The person on other end cut her speed in half and repeated her sentence. It was a good thing she did (she was calling from the airport). My luggage—which had been lost in Chongqing—had arrived, and I had to make arrangements to pick it up.
As with most languages, native speakers of Mandarin Chinese tend to talk quickly. With a phone conversation, they’re unlikely to immediately know that you’re new to the language. Particularly if the call is complex or catches you unaware (landlords have a special talent for this), best begin with a polite request to slow down.
- 说慢一点 (shuō màn yī diǎn) — Speak slower
- 再说一遍 (zài shuō yí biàn) — Say that again
You can add 请 (qǐng) — please, or 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si) — I’m sorry, in front of these requests to make them more polite.
不好意思, 请再说一遍 (bù hǎo yì si qǐng zài shuō yī biàn) — I’m sorry, please say that again
4. Ask Questions to Make Sure You’re Understood
Okay, so now you know how to make sure you understand them, but that’s only half the conversation! Since Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and contains sounds that are unfamiliar in English, it’s all too easy to misspeak. For important conversations, or even if you’re just arranging to meet for a beer, asking the right questions ensures your message is received.
Here are a couple of ‘quick and dirty’ ways to ensure you’re both on the same page and confirm your arrangements. Repeat what the other said then tag these phrases at the end to make sure you understand.
- 是不是 (shì bù shì) — Isn’t it?
- 可不可以 (kě bù kě yǐ) — Literally means “Can it be?” The meaning is more like “Is that okay?”
- 对不对 (duì bù duì) — Right?
You may sound a bit pedantic rephrasing your arrangements, but trust me—it’s better than showing up on the wrong day or having your luggage delivered to the apartment down the street!
5. Learn to Text
Handwriting Chinese characters is notoriously difficult, but sending a text in Chinese is remarkably easy. Even if the idea of talking live on the phone still seems daunting, having a full-on text conversation is probably much easier than you think. Unlike the live phone call, you have time to think and look up strange words in the dictionary.
To successfully text in Chinese, you’ll need:
- A basic grasp of Chinese grammar rules.
- A smartphone with a Chinese keyboard installed (here’s how to activate yours if you have an iPhone).
- A WeChat, or 微信 (wēi xìn), account and app since this is what everyone in China uses. It’s like Facebook, WhatsApp and eBay all rolled into one. Basically, WeChat is the internet in China. Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of it!
- Pleco, which is a marvelous Chinese dictionary app. You text in Chinese by writing in pinyin. So, text in English and your phone will suggest the most appropriate characters. This is normally pretty reliable, but if you don’t recognize one particular character, or you aren’t sure which one to click, just copy your message into Pleco before you send.
When the reply comes, you can also copy and paste it right into Pleco to check your translation and save any unfamiliar words. Easy, right?
Before you know it, you’ll be having long, useful phone conversations in Chinese. Order food with confidence, deal with that pesky landlord, and, hey, maybe even broaden your social life as well!
And One More Thing...
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