A man sat down at a public piano and played an entire Beethoven piece from memory.
It sounded beautiful, so I approached him and asked what other songs he could play.
“That’s the only one I know,” he replied.
“Even if it’s not Beethoven, or anything classical, what else can you play?” I asked, revising my question.
“Just that one,” he confirmed.
No “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” No “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Nothing. He had memorized the keystrokes for that entire Beethoven piece but honestly had no idea why one note needed to be in front of another.
The point here is, it’s possible to memorize information without learning how to manipulate that information in any other context, but that’s not an ideal situation for your Mandarin. Books and lists of Chinese phrases are helpful, but if you don’t understand how those phrases work, you won’t learn the language very fast.
Whether you need to survive on vacation for a few weeks or will be studying for a few years, it’s good to know how grammar and sentences work, so you can change “Where is the bathroom?” into “Where is the embassy?” if necessary.
A great way to learn a language quickly is using common word lists. Below, we’ll get you started with numbers, followed by some simple words (subjects, verbs, etc.) that you can continue building with on your own as needed.
These word lists use common words that you’ll need in everyday speech. The goal of these lists isn’t just for you to memorize the words, but to tune your understanding of how to put them all together in sentences.
In some languages, like English, saying a random word here or there is all you’ll need to communicate what you want. Chinese is not like that, so you’ll need an idea of how the grammar works.
But first, let’s briefly address the elephant in the Chinese language learning room…
What You Need to Know About Tones and Pronunciation
Tones and pronunciation go hand-in-hand in just about any language. If a friend tells you a story but doesn’t tell you the point of it, you might say “okay…,” hoping for some resolution. If a friend tells you they’ll go to your favorite restaurant, invites you to come and offers to treat you, you might say “okay!” with appreciation and excitement. The same pronunciation (“okay”) was used in both cases, but your tone changed the meaning. Sound familiar?
Here are a couple of examples of how wrong tones can send the wrong message in Chinese:
- 酒店的人员很客气 (jiǔdiàn de rén yuán hén kè qi — The hotel staff is very polite)
- 酒店的人员很可气 (jiǔdiàn de rén yuán hén kě qì — The hotel staff is very annoying)
- 我的老师不严格 (wǒ de laǒshī bù yán gé — My teacher is not strict)
- 我的老师不阉割 (wǒ de laǒshī bù yān gē — My teacher does not castrate)
When you practice new words (including the ones in this article), practice your tones. Exaggerate the tones so that there’s no confusion when you speak. Pronunciation can also be tricky sometimes, so don’t simply rely on what the pinyin (phonetic) pronunciation looks like it should be. If you can, practice with a native Chinese speaker who can help you tune your tones.
Let’s get started.
Simple Chinese Words for Your Middle Kingdom Adventures
Numbers come in handy in a variety of contexts, as you’ll soon see.
- 一 (yī — one)
- 二 (èr — two)
- 三 (sān — three)
- 四 (sì — four)
- 五 (wǔ — five)
- 六 (liù — six)
- 七 (qī — seven)
- 八 (bā — eight)
- 九 (jiǔ — nine)
- 十 (shí — ten)
- 百 (bǎi — hundred)
Numbers in Chinese are very mathematical. If you know the numbers 1-10 in Chinese, you can actually count to 99, or 九十九 (jiǔ shí jiǔ — nine tens and nine).
- 11 is 十一 (shí yī — ten and one).
- 20 is 二十 (èr shí — two tens).
You’ll also need to know 零 (líng — zero), which could save you some money at a market when bargaining:
- 105 is 一百零五 (yī bǎi líng wǔ — one hundred, zero tens and five).
- 150 is 一百五 (yī bǎi wǔ — one hundred and five tens).
Chinese numbers follow these patterns, so even if speaking math is a little tricky at first, you’ll get it with some practice.
Simple Sentence Structures: SVO
The basic Chinese sentence structure isn’t much different from English: subject, verb, object.
我是观光者 (wǒ shì guān guāng zhě — I am a tourist)
- “I” (我 — wǒ) is the subject.
- “am” (是 — shì) is the verb.
- “tourist” (观光者 — guān guāng zhě) is the object.
This structure is often abbreviated as SVO.
- 我 (wǒ — I)
- 你 (nǐ — you)
- 他／她／它 (tā — he/she/it)
The three characters above are all third person words. They all have the same pronunciation. You’ll only need to know the difference between these characters when reading and writing.
- 们 (men — pluralizes the above pronouns)
- 我们 (wǒ men — we)
- 你们 (nǐ men — plural you, y’all)
- 他们 (tā men — they, them)
- 这个 (zhè gè — this)
- 那个 (nà gè — that)
- 叫 (jiào — to be named)
To introduce yourself, you can say 我叫 ___ (wǒ jiào ___ — my name is ___).
- 吃 (chī — to eat)
- 有 (yǒu — to have)
- 买 (mǎi — to buy)
- 去 (qù — to go to)
- 见面 (jiàn miàn — to meet up with someone)
- 看 (kàn — to look at/see/visit/read)
- 学习 (xué xí — to study/learn)
- 说 (shuō — to say, to speak)
- 听 (tīng — to hear/listen to)
- 懂 (dǒng — to understand)
听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng — I don’t understand; literally, “hear don’t understand”)
- 早饭 (zǎo fàn — breakfast)
我吃早饭 (wǒ chī zǎo fàn — I eat breakfast)
- 午饭 (wǔfàn — lunch)
我们吃午饭 (wǒ men chī wǔ fàn — We eat lunch)
- 晚饭 (wǎnfàn — dinner)
他吃晚饭 (tā chī wǎn fàn — He eats dinner)
- 地图 (dìtú — map)
她有地图 (tā yǒu dì tú — She has a map)
- 酒店 (jiǔdiàn — hotel)
我去酒店 (wǒ qù jiǔ diàn — I’m going to the hotel)
- 旅舍 (lǚshè — hostel)
我去旅舍 (wǒ qù lǚ shè — I’m going to the hostel)
- 朋友 (péngyǒu — friends)
我看朋友 (wǒ kàn péng yǒu — I am visiting friends)
- 留学生 (liúxuéshēng — foreign student)
我是留学生 (wǒ shì liú xué shēng — I am a foreign student)
Simple Auxiliary Verbs
Like English, the auxiliary verb goes after the subject. In this section, our SVO structure will look like this: subject [auxiliary verb], verb, object.
- 想 (xiàng — would like to)
我想吃早饭 (wǒ xiǎng chī zǎo fàn — I would like to eat breakfast)
- 要 (yào — to want to)
我要看地图 (wǒ yào kàn dì tú — I want to see the map)
- 需要 (xūyào — to need to)
他需要去酒店 (tā xū yào qù jiǔ diàn — He needs to go to the hotel)
- 喜欢 (xǐhuān — to like to)
她喜欢骑自行车 (tā xǐ huān xué xí zhōng wén — She likes to learn Chinese)
- 可以 (kěyǐ — can, because you are allowed to)
你可以买这个 (nǐ kě yǐ mǎi zhè gè — You can buy this)
- 能 (néng — can, because you have the ability to)
我能吃那个 (wǒ néng chī nà gè — I can eat that)
- 会 (huì — can, because you have been trained to)
我会说中文 (wǒ huì shuō zhōng wén — I can speak Chinese)
- 应该 (yīnggāi — should)
你应该学习中文 (nǐ yīng gāi xuéxí zhōng wén — You should study Chinese)
An important word to learn with auxiliary verbs is 不 (bù — no; not; negative modifier):
我不会说中文 (wǒ bù huì shuō zhōng wén — I can’t speak Chinese)
我不要买那个 (wǒ bù yào mǎi nà gè — I don’t want to buy that)
Simple Time Words
Chinese time words provide tense, so there’s no need to conjugate verbs. That also means being able to identify time words is important so you know when something happened or will happen.
昨天我去超市 (zuó tiān wǒ qù cháo shì)
Literally, that sentence means “Yesterday I go to the supermarket,” but the word “yesterday” lets you know it happened in the past, so the true meaning is “Yesterday I went to the supermarket.”
Here’s your sentence structure: time, SVO.
- Time: 昨天 (zuó tiān — yesterday)
- Subject: 我 (wǒ — I)
- Verb: 去 (qù — to go to)
- Object: 超市 (cháo shì — supermarket)
今天 (jīn tiān — today) and 明天 (míng tiān — tomorrow) are also very commonly used time words.
Times start with the largest time frame and reduce from there.
Instead of “a.m.” or “p.m.,” you refer to the period of the day:
- 早上 (zǎo shàng — morning)
- 下午 (xià wǔ — afternoon)
- 晚上 (wǎn shàng — evening)
To say the time, say the hour and add 点 (diǎn — indicator for hour). You can include the hour’s minutes after saying 点:
- 早上八点 (zǎo shàng bā diǎn — eight o’clock in the morning; 8:00am)
- 下午一点 (xià wǔ yī diǎn — one o’clock in the afternoon; 1:00pm)
- 晚上七点二十 (wǎn shàng qī diǎn èr shí — seven twenty in the evening; 7:20pm)
Dates follow the same pattern of starting with the largest time frame and reducing.
To say the year, say the individual numbers of the year and add 年 (nián — year):
- 二零一七年 (èr líng yī qī nían — 2017)
- 一九六六年 (yī jiǔ liù liù nián — 1966)
(This was the year the cultural revolution in China began.)
To say the month, say the number of the month and add 月 (yuè — month):
- 一月 (yī yuè — January)
- 十一月(shí yī yuè — November)
To say the date, say the date number and add 号 (hào — number):
- 九号 (jǐu hào — the 9th)
- 十四号 (shí sì hào — the 14th)
The date “January 1, 2017” would be 2017年1月1号 (èr líng yī qī nián yī yuè yī hào).
Here’s how to say the days of the week.
Say 星期 (xīng qī — week) and the number of the day, starting from Monday:
- 星期一 (xīng qī yī — Monday)
- 星期六 (xīng qī liù — Saturday)
- The exception to the rule is Sunday, which is 星期天 (xīngqītiān).
You can also say 周 (zhōu — week):
- 周二 (zhōu èr — Tuesday)
- 周五 (zhōu wǔ — Friday)
- 周天 (zhōu tiān — Sunday)
- Another way of saying Sunday is 周日 (zhōu rì).
Simple Location Words
When places are not the object of the sentence (as in “I will go to the store”), you are usually saying you are, were or will be at a certain place:
明天我们会在那个餐厅吃晚饭 (míng tiān wǒ men huì zài nà gè cān tīng chī wǎn fàn — Tomorrow we’ll eat dinner at that restaurant)
The word 在 (zài) is used the way “at” is used in English.
Here’s your structure: time, place, SVO.
- Time: 明天 (míng tiān — tomorrow)
- Subject: 我们 (wǒmen — we)
- Verb: 会 (huì — will)
- Place: 在那个餐厅 (zài nà gè cān tīng — at that restaurant)
- Verb: 吃 (chī — to eat)
- Object: 晚饭 (wǎn fàn — dinner)
Here are a few other places you might go:
- 洗手间 (xǐshǒu jiān — bathroom)
- 卫生间 (weì shēng jiān — another common word for bathroom)
- 酒店 (jiǔ diàn — hotel)
- 饭馆 (fàn guǎn — another word for restaurant)
- 广场 (guǎng chǎng — public square)
- 市场 (shì cháng — outdoor market for meat, fruits and vegetables)
- 大使馆 (dà shǐ guǎn — embassy)
- 地铁 (dì tiě — subway)
Depending on your situation, these question structures might come in handy:
___ 在哪里? (___ zài nǎli? — Where is the ___?)
___多少钱? (___ duō shǎo qián? — How much is ___?)
___ 怎么走? (___ zén me zǒu? — How do you get to ___?)
___ 几点开门? (___ jǐ diǎn kāi men? — What time does ___ open?)
These word lists are just the start.
Now that you know some of the basic important words for traveling to China and how Mandarin sentence structures work, speak freely!
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