Have you found yourself staring blankly at a Chinese dictionary full of characters?
Thinking that they make about as much sense as Egyptian hieroglyphics?
Since you’ve started your journey in learning Mandarin Chinese, this has probably happened a time or two.
You’ve also probably heard that Chinese is spoken wildly different from most other languages, especially English.
Despite this, you’re not willing to give up.
Good for you!
Just like any other language, Mandarin has key phrases that even the most inexperienced novice can grasp and use.
Think of it this way—imagine you’ve just met a native Chinese speaker and they’re trying to communicate with you in English. Even if they’ve learned a lot about the structure of the English language, it’s not all that useful if they don’t know basic greetings in an English-speaking country.
So keep studying, but while you continue to improve your speaking skills, incorporate these 15 useful phrases that will facilitate communication with native Chinese speakers right now!
Why Bother Memorizing These Mandarin Phrases?
- You can start a conversation. What’s the point of traveling to a Mandarin Chinese-speaking country if you don’t know everyday Chinese phrases? Even if you can grasp the basics of tones, 拼音 (pīn yīn) — Chinese romanization and 汉字 (hàn zì) — Chinese characters, knowing the bare-bones structure of the language can’t really help you communicate without some knowledge of key phrases.
- Make friends. There’s a misconception among Western travelers that it’s impossible to make friends without being a fluent Mandarin speaker. Not true! A connection is so much more than just words. You can definitely make some Mandarin-speaking friends with minimal knowledge of Mandarin. How else can you improve if you’re not surrounded by fluent speakers?
- You get around with a bit more ease while traveling. We all know it’s a royal pain trying to get from point A to point B if you can’t ask someone for directions. Take out some of the discomfort by starting a conversation with one or two of these phrases.
- You’ll be able to get by until you’ve improved your Mandarin. Like we mentioned before, you’ll be able to communicate with others as you learn more about the language.
- Studying will give you something (very) useful to do on the plane. It’s going to be a long flight. Instead of binge-watching a TV show, brush up on some important words and phrases!
Without further ado, let’s check them out!
15 Everyday Chinese Phrases That You Need to Know
Greetings and Phrases for Quick Interactions
1. All the variations of 你好 (nǐ hǎo) — hello
There’s not just one way of saying “hello” in English, right? It’s no different in Mandarin Chinese. 你好 (nǐ hǎo) is obviously the most common go-to greeting, but there are a few more to make note of:
- 早上好 (zǎo shang hǎo) — Good morning
- 午安 (wǔ ān) — Good afternoon
- 晚上好 (wǎn shàng hǎo) — Good evening
- 喂 (wéi) — Hello (used when answering the phone)
2. 我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng) — I don’t understand
If you don’t understand something in Chinese, don’t be afraid to be real with the person you’re speaking to. While it can be all too easy to fall into the habit of repeating 我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng) — I don’t understand all the time, it’s still a good phrase to use when you legitimately can’t understand something.
Don’t just nod your head and smile! You can’t learn a new language without trucking through the awkwardness that comes when first learning to speak it.
3. 对不起我的中文不好 (duì bu qǐ, wǒ de zhōng wén bù hǎo) — Excuse me, my Chinese is not good
As with the previous phrase, you shouldn’t overuse this one either. But if you’re in a situation in which someone needs help or is speaking a little too quickly, this particular phrase is a good one to know.
对不起 (duì bu qǐ) — excuse me is also synonymous with “I’m sorry” and a good term to use in general.
4. 你贵姓大名? (nǐ guì xìng dà míng?) — What’s your name?
The first step to meeting a potential new friend abroad is to exchange names! So don’t just ask for their name, but be sure to add 我姓… (wǒ xìng…) — mine is… when you speak to them.
You may want to clarify the pronunciation of their name by repeating it back to them. There’s nothing quite as annoying as a Westerner that keeps mispronouncing someone’s name! Similarly, be clear about the pronunciation of your own name.
5. 幸会! (xìng huì!) — Nice to meet you!
This phrase is used in both formal and informal settings.
6. 谢谢 (xiè xie) — Thank you and 不客气 (bù kè qì) — You’re welcome
For some reason, the Western tongue has a really tough time pronouncing 谢谢 (xiè xie). To say it correctly, you’ll need to avoid a harsh “shh” sound as well as a harsh “tss” sound. The key is to combine the two for a very particular sound.
7. 再见! (zài jiàn!) — Goodbye!
This term is pretty self-explanatory! There a few different variations of “goodbye” in Mandarin, including:
- 拜拜! (bài bài!) — Bye bye!
- 一帆风顺! (yī fān fēng shùn!) — Have a good journey! This is essentially the Chinese form of “Smooth sailing!” or “Safe travels!” and is used when a friend is leaving for a long time.
- 晚安 (wǎn ān) — Good night
8. 好不好? (hǎo bù hǎo?) — How are you?
This term literally means “Good or no good?” and is the Chinese way of asking if someone’s cool, good, alright, savvy or okay.
Important Travel Phrases
9. 有没有…? (yǒu méi yǒu …?) — Do you have…?
This phrase literally means “have or have not?” and precedes a noun. For example, say you walked into a grocery store in Beijing to find potatoes and couldn’t spot them. You would then approach an associate and say 对不起! 有没有土豆? (duì bu qǐ! yǒu méi yǒu tǔ dòu?) — Sorry! Do you have potatoes?
There are more formal ways to say this with (many) more syllables, but this brief phrase is ideal for casual interactions.
10. 多少钱? (duō shao qián?) — How much?
When listening for an answer to this question, it’s important to know your Mandarin Chinese numbers to interpret the cost of the item in question.
11. 我想去… (wǒ xiǎng qù…) — I need to go to…
Of course, you’ll need to know the Mandarin term for wherever you’re going before asking for directions. Many map locations in major Chinese cities will have an English (or romanized) translation for different places, but you won’t always be so lucky.
Before traveling, make sure to figure out how to pronounce the names of all the locations you plan on visiting.
12. 救命啊! (jìu mìng ā!) — Help!
Okay, so this might not be a phrase you’ll need on an everyday basis, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
There are different variations of this:
- 火啊! (huǒ a!) — Fire!
- 停! (tíng!) — Stop!
- 叫警察! (jiào jǐng chá!) — Call the cops!
13. 厕所在哪里? (cè suǒ zài nǎ lǐ?) — Where’s the bathroom?
Let’s be honest. This is probably one of the most important phrases to know in any language when traveling anywhere.
14. 借过一下 (jiè guò yī xià) — Pardon me, please let me pass
What constitutes personal space varies everywhere. In most places in China, people don’t get as offended when asked to move when compared to the United States. Don’t be afraid to use this phrase,
15. 你会说英语吗? (nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?) — Do you speak English?
Ah, the inevitable “I give up!” phrase. Sometimes you just have to use it. Don’t feel bad about yourself, though. Learning Mandarin Chinese is a journey and sometimes you just need a bit of help.
We can’t say it enough—Mandarin Chinese is tough for English speakers to learn, and you shouldn’t feel bad about opting for some run-of-the-mill phrases while you learn the structure of the language.
Just putting forth the effort to cram in these phrases and using them while traveling is an admirable venture.
Emily Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. She writes about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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