What are the most useful phrases in Chinese?
Chinese is one of the two world languages with over a billion speakers. It is the most used mother tongue on the planet with over 900 million native speakers and more learning it as their second (or more) language. People who wish to study Chinese must put in years of work to reach fluency and even then it is rare to achieve native-like proficiency. Typically, you must learn 3,000 characters in order to be considered fluent enough to read the morning newspaper. The origin of Chinese comes from the discovery of the famous Oracle Bones and what is believed to be the earliest samplings of Chinese script. These bones date from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). With such a rich history, the Chinese has obviously undergone many changes and influences due to wars and cultural shifts. Chinese characters are mostly made up of building blocks called radicals, which have 1 to 17 strokes. Radicals and strokes must be written in order: usually left to right and top to bottom.
There are five traditional forms of Chinese calligraphy: Seal Character, Official Script, Formal Script, Running Script, Formal Script, Running Script, and Cursive Hand. These are considered classical arts and representative of Chinese art styles. It’s the only alive modern pictographic language!
Whether you are travelling to China, spending time with Chinese friends, or going out on a date with a Chinese better half, it’s important and useful to know some essential basic Chinese phrases. Knowing a few basic phrases will not only help you make meaningful conversations, build great connections, or help you out in unfamiliar surroundings, but this learning may also help you avoid some unwanted misunderstandings in a new country!
Let's now look at a few useful phrases in Chinese:
- Thank you! (xiè xie) 谢谢！
- You’re welcome. (bú yòng xiè) 不用谢。
- Translated as ‘no need for thanks’, this a typical response to 谢谢 (thanks).
- Hello (nǐ hǎo) 你好。
- Hello, in Chinese, combines the words ‘you’ and ‘good’. To ask someone ‘How are you?’, add the character’ 吗. ‘ This character is used when asking a question:
- How are you? (nǐ hǎo ma) 你好吗?
- OK/Good (hǎo) 好 / (hǎo de) 好的
- Not OK/ Not Good (bù hǎo) 不好
- I’m sorry (duì bu qǐ) 对不起
In this phrase, 对 (duì) also means ‘right’ and is often used in the same way we would use ‘yeah’ in English.
It is common in Chinese for short words such as 对 (right) and 好 (OK) are often repeated three times for emphasis.
Chinese Phrases for Travelling
- Do you speak English? (nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?) 你会说英语吗？
- I can’t speak (bú huì) 不会。
- Where is the bathroom/washroom/toilet? (xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ?) 洗手间在哪里？
- Help! (jiù mìng) 救命！
- I’m sorry, I don’t understand. (bù hǎo yì si, wǒ méi tīng dǒng) 不好意思， 我没听懂。
- Do you understand (what I’m saying)? (tīng de dǒng ma?) 听得懂吗？/ (tīng dǒng le ma?) 听懂了吗？
Essential Chinese Phrases
Do you understand (what I’m saying)? (tīng de dǒng ma?) 听得懂吗？/ (tīng dǒng le ma?) 听懂了吗？
If you don’t understand, you can respond with 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng), 没听懂 (méi tīng dǒng), or 没有 (méi yǒu)*.
I relied heavily on the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) instead of studying, but it’s a useful phrase to know.
If you can understand, you can reply using 是的 (shì de), which means ‘yes’ or 听懂了 (tīng dǒng le), ‘I understand what you are saying’.
*没有 is a simple phrase that you will almost certainly begin to hear EVERYWHERE. Not only is it a useful phrase to be able to speak and listen out for, but when spoken, it sounds like ‘mayo’.
It can be used to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t have (something)’.
Please excuse me. (jiè guò yī xià) 借过一下。
If you find yourself squashed on the metro and the doors open on the other side, you can politely use this phrase to have them move aside for you!
Wait a moment / hang on a sec (děng yī xià) 等一下。
An alternative version of this phrase is 等一等 (děng yī děng).
Welcome (huān yíng guāng lín) 欢迎光临
This is another phrase you will hear throughout your day when you enter shops, restaurants, and cafes.
The bill, please. Thank you. (jié zhàng, xiè xie) 结账，谢谢。
You may also say 买单, 谢谢. (mǎi dān, xiè xie.) The first character, 买 (mǎi) means ‘to buy’.
I want…(wǒ yào) 我要 can take several forms
Combine this sentence with the following items:
…a beer 。。。(yī píng pí jiǔ) 一瓶啤酒。
…a cup of coffee 。。。(yī bēi kā fēi) 一杯咖啡。
…a bottle of water 。。。(yī píng shuǐ) 一瓶水。
If you forget how to say a specific measure word, such as ‘a bottle’ or ‘cup’, you can use 一个 (yī gè), which is a general term for ‘one of’ something.
How much is it? (zhè ge duō shao qián?) 这个多少钱？
Even if you haven’t learned all the numbers in Chinese, you will either receive a paper bill in a restaurant or be shown the price on a calculator (it’s pretty handy, especially if you want to haggle the price).
Becoming perfect in another language is a long journey: Look for tips, resources and strategies that will encourage you and keep you motivated — particularly when you’re just getting started. The biggest danger is that you’ll give up, and the “best” way to learn Chinese is whatever keeps you coming back for more.
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