There’s a lot to learn about Mandarin Chinese.
You’ll probably resort to taking baby steps.
One little topic at a time, broken down into easy-to-digest tidbits.
And when you start out with learning Chinese, there’s one important thing to learn right away. Know what I’m talking about?
Well, what do all babies do?
As soon as they can start putting together phrases and sentences, they ask questions.
They ask questions about everything around them. As a new student of Chinese, that’s what you’ll need to do too.
At the beginning, all of the linguistic and cultural information you start to gather seems so confusing. With Mandarin Chinese, you jump into a bucket full of mixed ideas and emotions. Believe me, it makes life easier when you can ask questions.
Learn Chinese question words now, and you’ll never be lost and confused and without words to express yourself. You’ll be able to ask questions about everything you see and hear.
An Introduction to Chinese Question Words
As you might know, Chinese grammar is already quite easy. It doesn’t have a huge number of rules to learn. Score!
First, you can keep in mind the wonderful fact that, if you want to create a question, you can just add 吗 (ma) at the end of any given sentence.
The presence of 吗 (ma) will force the sentence into a question, requiring a question mark at the end of it.
Kind of cool, right?
Sure, there are more question words to use—that’s what we’ll be talking about here.
But don’t stress about those. Using Chinese question words is almost as easy as forming a question with 吗 (ma).
The Chinese language has a high number of question words, including combinations of question words, but the most common and easiest to remember are:
- 谁 (shéi) – who
- 什么 (shén me) – what
- 哪里 (nǎ lǐ) – where
- 哪个 (nǎ ge) – which
- 什么时候 (shén me shí hou) – when
- 为什么 (wèi shén me) – why
- 怎么 (zěn me) – how
- 多少 (duō shǎo) – how many
- 几 (jǐ) – how many (any number under ten)
The first thing you have to know about the Chinese question words is where to place them in the sentence.
The answer is simple. The question word has to be placed in the position of the word you’re asking about.
This is very different from English, where you have to change the order of the words so you can create a correct sentence. When using a question word in Chinese, none of the words has to change its position in the sentence.
她是小云。(tā shì xiǎo yún.) – She is Xiao Yun.
她是谁？(tā shì shéi?) – Who is she?
This article continues with a “Chinese for Dummies” style rundown of the question words, where we can see some examples of how to use the most common question words mentioned above.
To get used to seeing these words in use, consider checking out FluentU.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
9 Mandarin Chinese Question Words You’ve Got to Know
1. 谁 (shéi) – who
It’s always good to be able to ask about new people, especially when you’re traveling in China and meeting new people all the time.
You can use this question word to ask who people are. For example:
她是谁？(tā shì shéi?) – Who is she?
The answer has the same position as the question word, as shown in the following example:
她是小云。(tā shì xiǎo yún.) – She is Xiao Yun.
As a quick side note: The name Xiao Yun can be translated as “tiny cloud.” Moving on from the intended aww moment, the two most common and simplest structures for using this question word are:
Subject + 是 +谁? (To ask a question like, “who is that?” or “who is he/she?”)
谁 + Verb?
For example, 谁去？(shéi qù?) means “who is going?”
2. 什么 (shén me) – what
This word can be used for objects, abstract words, actions and so on.
A representative structure for the usage of this question word is:
Subject + Verb + 什么 (+ Object)?
这是什么？ (zhè shì shén me?) – What is this?
你喜欢吃什么？(nǐ xǐ huān chī shén me?) – What do you like to eat?
你开什么车？(nǐ kāi shén me chē?) – What car do you drive?
3. 哪里 (nǎ lǐ) – where
The question word where can be expressed through the Chinese words 哪里 (nǎ lǐ) or 哪儿 (nǎ ér), which have the exact same meaning, role and position in the sentence. The difference between the two words is related to regional Chinese.
The 儿化 (ér huà) is a typical phonological process that adds r-coloring or the 儿 (ér) sound to some words in spoken Mandarin Chinese. It’s most common in the speech varieties of northern China, especially in the Beijing dialect, as a diminutive suffix for nouns.
Some dialects also use it for other grammatical purposes, like 哪儿 (nǎ ér).
I prefer using the儿化 (ér huà) just to seem a little bit more interesting and different, but you shouldn’t do that when you’re in southern China because less people will understand you.
It sounds weird, but it’s true. Some of us learned that the hard way and had to give up the fancy儿化 (ér huà) trend for the dull pronunciation, where your tongue doesn’t perform backflips inside your mouth.
你在哪儿？(nǐ zài nǎ er?) / 你在哪里？ (nǐ zài nǎ lǐ?) – Where are you?
4. 哪个 (nǎ ge) – which
This word is the question word for that—那个 (nà gè)—and this—这个 (zhè gè)—which are probably the first words you learn when you go shopping in China. The typical topic structure here is:
Subject + Verb＋哪个 (+ Object)?
你要哪个？(nǐ yào nǎ ge?) – Which do you want?
5. 什么时候 (shén me shí hou) – when
The basic structure for using 什么时候 is as follows:
Subject + 什么时候 + Verb?
你什么时候回家？(nǐ shén me shí hòu huí jiā?) – When are you coming home?
6. 为什么 (wèi shén me) – why
什么 alone, has the sole meaning of what, as we already mentioned above in the same article, but if we position 为 before it, we will form another Chinese question word.
为 alone stands for the word for and in this combination it creates something that can be translated into English as what for. This question word can be used alone to create a simple question or in a more complex structure like:
Subject +为什么 + Verb?
你为什么吸烟？(nǐ wèi shén me xī yān?) – Why do you smoke?
7. 怎么 (zěn me) – how
This question word expresses a surprise in the face of an event or situation, and can also have a value of disagreement. A good translation of this word can be how come.
Subject +怎么 + Verb + Object?
你怎么不去上课？(nǐ zěn me bù qù shàng kè?) – How can you not go to class?
8. 多少 (duō shǎo) – how many
This question word is used when asking about a certain amount that’s higher than ten.
Here we can not ignore the most common phrase when visiting China, which is 多少钱? (How much money?).
这个房间有多少人？(Zhè ge fáng jiān yǒu duō shǎo rén?) – How many people are there in this room?
9. 几 (jǐ) – how many (<10)
If it’s placed before the measure word and the noun, the meaning is how many. This question word whatsoever is used only for a small amount of objects, under ten, to be more specific.
If you want to ask a question about a higher amount of items, you’ll use 多少 (duō shǎo).
That’s the technical explanation to give you some guidelines. In practice, both 几 and 多少 are used quite interchangeably.
几 (jǐ) is also used when asking about the time:
现在几点? (xiàn zài jǐ diǎn?) – What time is it now?
As a fun—and perhaps quite obvious fact—the word 几 (jǐ) also sounds cuter than 多少 (duō shǎo) so you can keep this detail in mind when you have trouble asking someone their age and confusing these two question words. But in the end, it’s not a big deal if you mix them up.
It’s not as hard as it might seem to learn this unique language.
Always remember that we Chinese learners are all in this together.
When you’re not sure about something, ask, ask, ask away!
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