The thought of learning Chinese can be overwhelming at first … There’s so many different tones, how can I possibly put them together correctly? What if I say the wrong thing and offend someone? How are people ever going to understand me? … The key is to practice a lot with your new-found Chinese friends (of which you will make many!) and to start with some basics. Chinese people are quite fascinated with foreigners and most love to try to converse with you (even when it’s clear you don’t understand!). It of course helps if you have a few key words and phrases under your belt to start with, so here’s my version of Chinese for beginners – 10 words and phrases to help get you by.
Hello – 你好 Nǐ hǎo (nee haow)
You’ll hear most people say hello to you this way (many actually also use English and yell ‘hello’ at you from afar, I think mostly to get a reaction and sometimes to practice their English). Nǐ hǎo ma? (nee-haow-mah?) is also a common greeting to ask how are you?
Where are you from? – 你从哪里来？ nǐ cǒng nǎ lǐ lái (knee tzaun nar lee lei)
I’ve found Chinese people to be very curious about foreigners, so often the first question they will ask you is where are you from? Even if you can’t understand much of anything else they say to you, you’ll understand this and be able to proudly answer with your country of origin!
Thank you – 谢谢 Xièxie (shsyeah-shsyeah)
I try to be polite no matter what country I’m travelling in, especially when I don’t know a lot of the language. So learning how to say thank you when someone helps you out is a must for me. Thank you isn’t as commonly used here as it is back home, so I find people are generally extra appreciative when I say it.
Waiter – 服务员 fúwùyuán (foo-yu-an)
The most common way to alert the wait staff in a restaurant is to yell foo-yu-an! Now don’t be shy, if you need something from the wait staff, do as the locals do: yell foo-yu-an and wave your arm in the air. Nǐ hǎo (nee haow) will also work, but you’ll have more success with fúwùyuán.
This one – 这个 zhège (je-ga)
Going to restaurants where the menus have pictures is a great tactic to make sure you eat well when you first arrive. You can clearly see what you’ll get, there’ll be (theoretically) no surprises when the dish arrives, and you can simply point to the picture and say je-ga.
Where’s the bathroom? – 厕所在哪里？ Cèsuǒ zài nǎlǐ? (tser-swor dzeye naa-lee?)
After a few píjiu (pee-gee-oh, or beers), or just while you’re out and about sight-seeing and you’ve drunk a little too much shuĭ (sh-way or water), you’ll probably need to use the bathroom. Here in Tianjin many restaurants don’t have their own bathroom, so you’ll need to hunt down the nearest one.
Can I have the check/bill please? – 买单 măidān (my dahn)
After you’ve eaten your delicious meal, you’ll need to call the fúwùyuán over again and ask for the bill, or măidān, as they generally won’t just bring it to you. Having said that, keep in mind that some restaurants will bring you the bill to pay right after you’ve ordered and before you’ve even seen any food!
How much is it? – 多少钱？ Duōshao qián? (Dwor-shaow chyen?)
You’re most likely going to want to check out the many markets on offer in China. So that you can at least look like you know what you’re doing (and hopefully grab a bargain), you’ll need to know how to ask how much is it? You’ll probably also want to learn how to count in Chinese, so you understand the reply!
I’m sorry – 对不起 Duìbuqǐ (dway-boo-chee)
If you are late, make a mistake, bump into someone, or just don’t understand something you can use dway-boo-chee. You can also use wǒ tīng bù dǒng (wore ting boo dong) if you don’t understand someone.
Goodbye – 拜拜 bai bai (bye bye)
A colleague of mine told me when she first came to China she thought people were making fun of her when they said bai bai! But fear not, bai bai really is the way to say goodbye in Chinese and this is one of the easier words you’ll learn.
Now of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in your Chinese language learning journey. Chinese lessons are a great idea, as is lots of practice! Try to be fearless and just give it a go. Hopefully these ten words and phrases (plus the few extras I threw in) will be enough to help get you by in the beginning.
What other beginner level phrases do you need to get you by in China? Tell us below.
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