33 Basic, Everyday Chinese Phrases That You Need to Know

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.

The same goes for you when you find yourself in a Chinese-speaking environment.

If you want to improve your speaking skills, here are 33 useful phrases to facilitate communication with native Chinese speakers!

Contents

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), you might not be able to hold any kind of conversation. Knowing the bare-bones structure of the language can’t really help you communicate. You need 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!

33 Everyday Chinese Phrases That You Need to Know

Greetings and Phrases for Quick Interactions

1. 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 couple more to make note of:

(wéi) — Hello (used when answering the phone)

你好吗?(nǐ hǎo ma?) — How are you?

You can be a little more casual and a little cooler by adding a “Hey,” 诶 (ēi) at the beginning of your phrase. For example:

,你好。(ēi, nǐ hǎo.)Hey, hello there.

,怎么样?(ēi, zěn me yàng?)Hey, what’s up?

2. 早上好/早安!(zǎo shàng hǎo/zǎo ān!) — Good morning!

If you greet someone early in the day, make sure you say “Good morning.”

If you miss that golden timing, you can move on to 下午好 (xià wǔ hǎo — Good afternoon) or 晚上好 (wǎn shàng hǎo — Good evening).

“Good night” is 晚安 (wǎn ān), and just as in English, 晚安 is a parting phrase.

3. 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) 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.

4. 不好意思,我中文说得不太好 (bù hǎo yì sī, wǒ zhōng wén shuō dé bù tài hǎo) — Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese very well

As with the previous phrase, you shouldn’t overuse this one, either. But if you’re in a situation where someone needs help or is speaking a little too quickly, this particular phrase is a good one to know.

不好意思 (bù hǎo yì sī) also synonymous with “excuse me” and a good term to know in general.

5. 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shén me míng zì?) — 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 我叫… (wǒjiào…) — My name’s… when you speak to them.

You may want to clarify the pronunciation of their name by repeating it back to them. Similarly, be clear about the pronunciation of your own name.

6. 您怎么称呼?(nín zěn me chēng hū?) — How may I address you?

This phrase is a more formal/polite way to ask someone’s name. It loosely translates as “How should I address you?”

7. 请问您贵姓?(qǐng wèn nín gùi xìng?) — May I ask your surname?

This phrase is even more formal and is used in business-like settings. When someone replies with their last name, for example, “我姓王” (wǒ xìng wáng), that is, “My surname is Wang,” you should respond by addressing them as 王先生 (wáng xiān shēng — Mr. Wang), 王小姐 (wáng xiǎo jiě — Miss Wang) or 王太太 (wáng tài tài — Mrs. Wang).

For a fun and cheeky twist on a boring introductory question, try this phrase:

请问您尊姓大名? (qǐng wèn nǐn zūn xìng dà míng?) What’s your “respected” family name (and) big name?

It’s a way to ask someone’s name while flattering them in a friendly way!

8. 幸会!(xìng huì) — Nice to meet you!

This phrase is used in both formal and informal settings.

9. 谢谢 (xiè xie) — Thank you and 不客气 (bú kè qi) — 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.

10. 再见!(zài jiàn!) — Goodbye!

This term is pretty self-explanatory! There are a few different variations of “goodbye” in Mandarin, including:

拜拜! (bái bái!) — Bye-bye!

晚安 (wǎn ān) — Good night

回头见 (húi tóu jiàn) — See you later

我们再联络吧。(wǒ men zài lián lùo ba.) — Let’s keep in touch.

一帆风顺!(yì fān fēng shùn!) — Have a good journey!

The last one is essentially the Chinese form of “Smooth sailing!” or “Safe travels!” and is used when a friend is leaving for a long time.

There are more casual (and slightly more complex) phrases you can use to say goodbye.

我先走了。下次再聊吧!(wǒ xiān zǒu le。 xià cì zài liáo ba!) — I’ve got to go. Let’s talk again another time!

If you need to be the first to leave, you can use this easy phrase as a friendly way to depart.

这是我的手机号码。有空给我发短信吧!(zhè shì wǒ de shǒu jī hào mǎ。yǒu kòng gěi wǒ fā duǎn xìn ba!) — Here’s my cell number. Text me when you have time!

This is a simple phrase to help you keep up the relationship after meeting someone.

加我的微信吧。(jiā wǒ de wēi xìn ba.) — Add me on WeChat.

WeChat is a popular social media site equivalent to Facebook or Twitter (which are both blocked in China).

11. 最近好不好?(zuì jìn hǎo bù hǎo?) — How are you these days?

This term literally means “the nearest good or no good?” and is the Chinese way of asking if someone’s cool, good, alright, fine or okay. Another alternative would be 你最近怎么样?(nǐ zuì jìn zěn me yàng?).

12. 你吃了吗?(nǐ chī le ma?) — Have you eaten?

This is the Chinese way of showing care and concern. Culturally it’s almost the equivalent of “How are you?” People ask, “Have you eaten?” as a polite gesture.

Most people simply reply with 吃了 (chī le) or “I’ve eaten” in response. To admit that you haven’t eaten might put some pressure on the asker to provide food for you, which is the polite thing to do.

Important Travel Phrases

13. 请问有没有…?(qǐng wèn 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 不好意思,请问有没有土豆? (bù hǎo yì si! qǐng wèn yǒu méi yǒu tǔ​ dòu?) — Excuse me, 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.

14. 多少钱?(duō shǎo 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.

15. 我想去… (wǒ xiǎng qù…) — I need/want 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.

16. 救命啊!(jìu mìng a!) — 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:

着火啦!(zháo huǒ la) — Fire!

停!(tíng!) — Stop!

叫警察!(jiào jǐng chá!) — Call the cops!

17. 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. If you want to sound more civilized, you could also use 洗手间 (xǐ shǒu jiān) instead of 厕所.

18. 借过一下 (jiè guò yí xià) — Please let me go through

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,

19. 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.

Making Conversation

Now that we’ve met someone, here’s how to carry on the conversation.

20. 你是本地人吗?(nǐ shì běn dì rén ma) — Are you a local?

This is a less direct way of asking “Where are you from?” or 你是哪里人?(nǐ shì nǎ lǐ rén?). In China, people in big cities often come from elsewhere. They move from smaller cities to the metropolis for work or study. Asking if they’re local opens up the conversation to talk about their hometowns.

21. 你做什么样的工作?(nǐ zùo shén me yàng de gōng zùo?) — What kind of work do you do?

Among professionals or working adults, you can start a conversation by asking what line of work someone is in. You can also ask 你的专长是什么?(nǐ de zhuān cháng shì shén me? — What’s your specialization?).

22. 你读什么专业?(nǐ dú shén me zhuān yè?) — What is your field of study?

Among students, you can ask about someone’s major, as a way to start a conversation.

23. 你有什么爱好?(nǐ yǒu shén me ài hào?) — What do you like to do?

This phrase is used to ask about someone’s hobbies or passions. Again, it’s another great conversation starter.

24. 诶,什么事?(ēi, shén me shì?) — So, what’s going on?

Try this casual phrase to break the ice when walking into the room or joining a group.

It’s the equivalent of “What’s up?” or “What’s happening?” In the right context, such as among buddies and peers, it can be very friendly and appropriate to use.

Responding During Conversation

Part of carrying on a conversation is offering appropriate and supportive responses. People love to receive empathy, encouragement and compliments, whatever stories they may be telling in conversation.

What do you say if you hear something cool or interesting? Here are some basic phrases for responding to others’ noteworthy stories.

25. 太酷了!(tài kù le!) — That’s really cool!

The Chinese word for “cool” is a loanword from English. It sounds exactly the same!

26. 好搞笑。(hǎo gǎo xiào.) — That’s hilarious.

搞笑 (gǎo xiào) literally means “make fun” or “create humor.”

27. 真的吗?(zhēn de ma?) — Really?

真的 (zhēn de) means “real,” and 吗 (ma) is the question particle.

28. 不会吧!(bú hùi ba!) — No way!

不会 (bú hùi) is “not,” and 吧 (ba) is an exclamation particle. In other words, it’s like asking, “Are you serious?”

29. 我的妈呀!(wǒ de mā ya!) — Oh my goodness!

Yes, you read correctly. This phrase literally says “Oh my mother!” Culturally, this doesn’t appear in English, but you can think of it as similar to “Oh my goodness.”

30. 哎呦我去! (āi yōu wǒ qù!) — Oh my gosh!

Again, this isn’t an exact English equivalent. 哎呦我去 translates literally as “Oh, I’m going!” This phrase is ultra-casual, though, so it’s not something you can use with just anybody—especially not with someone you’ve only just met.

31. 我也是。(wǒ yě shì.) — Me too.

Three words to help express that you share someone’s feelings.

32. 我理解。(wǒ lǐ jiě.) — I understand.

An always-useful sentence for empathizing with someone.

33. 太牛了!(tài niù le) — That’s freakin’ awesome!

For the ultimate punchy reply, try this one! In formal or business-like contexts, this may be considered rude. But it’s totally acceptable at an informal event like a party.

Putting These Everyday Chinese Phrases into Practice

For your interactions with native speakers to go as smoothly as possible, I highly recommend that you practice these phrases with a language partner, tutor or fellow learner.

Having a dialogue will help you see how these phrases can potentially flow in a real conversation.

It also helps to listen to instances that incorporate the above phrases, especially in Chinese movies, TV shows, vlogs and other kinds of videos.

YouTube and Netflix are excellent resources for showing real-life usage of basic Chinese phrases, but if you just want a quick reference, you can always refer to FluentU.

Primarily a language-learning app, FluentU can be used as a video-based dictionary where you can find fun Chinese media clips, such as movie scenes and music videos, that feature your phrases. Each video comes with interactive captions, flashcards and adaptive quizzes to boost your Chinese language skills while you watch.

 

Mandarin Chinese can be tough, but remembering some run-of-the-mill phrases does help 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.


Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.

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