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basic mandarin

Basic Mandarin Chinese Words and Phrases for Your Next Trip to China

We’re acutely aware. Learning Mandarin is NOT easy. As the most spoken language on the planet, it’s unfortunate that it’s also the hardest to learn. Mandarin, unlike spoken English, is a tonal language. Every single sound in its phonetic transcription system has multiple, distinct pronunciations. In the same way that an English speaker might emphasize a syllable or word to induce an emotion (think “…Really?” vs. “REALLY?!”), each individual tone in Mandarin carries a distinct meaning. The same sound/word could be said with up to five different intonations. For example, take the word “mother” (mā 媽). When pronounced differently, it can actually mean “horse” (mǎ 馬) or “numb” (má 麻).


And that’s just for the spoken language. (Spoken language = Mandarin. Written language = Chinese.)


The written Chinese language is made up of tens of thousands of characters, each comprised of specific strokes, rather than a combination of letters. And since Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, you can’t just spell out a word according to how it sounds, as you would in English. To give you an idea of the complexity, one would need to know roughly 2,500 characters just to read and write at an elementary level.


Ready for even more confusion? The spoken languages in China also have multiple dialects, each unintelligible from the next. Mandarin, the official language of China, is the most widely spoken, but the residents of Shanghai speak Shanghainese and those within the Guangdong province and Hong Kong speak Cantonese. The Fujian province has a dialect called Min, which also has eight different sub-dialects of its own. And in Taiwan many speak Taiwanese.


Due to this overwhelming complexity, Chinese linguists actually developed what’s known as pinyin, an official romanization system for the pronunciation of Mandarin. Pinyin converts Chinese characters into a familiar and readable format, using just the 26 letters of the English alphabet, making it easier for simpletons like me to learn how to speak  the language without needing to recognize the characters.


So, without further ado, here are some key basic words and phrases to help you chat more like a local on your next trip to China.


Basic Mandarin Chinese Phrases and Words


Hello: Nǐhǎo (Nee how)


Thank you: Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh)


You’re welcome: Bù kèqì (Boo kuh-chi)


Good morning: Zǎo (Zhow)


Goodnight: Wǎn’ān (One-un)


My name is…: Wǒ jiào… (Wuh jeow…)


My friend’s name is…: Wǒ de péngyǒu jiào… (Wuh duh pung-yo jeow…)


Where is the bathroom: Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ? (See-sow-jian zai na-lee?)


How much?: Duō shǎo? (Dwuh shauw?)


Too expensive: Tài guìle! (Tie gway luh!)


Make it cheaper: Piányí yī diǎn. (Pian-yee yee dian.)


Very beautiful: Hĕn piàoliang (Hen peow-liung)


Delicious: Hào chī (How chir); Very delicious: Hěn hào chī (Hen how chir)


Check, please: Măi dān (My dahn)


I don’t understand: Wǒ bù dǒng (Wuh boo dong)


Let’s go!: Wǒmen zǒu ba! (Wuh-men zoew bah!)


Yes: Shì (Sheh)


No: Bù shì (Bu-sheh)


Good: Hǎo (How)


Bad: Bù hǎo (Boo-how)


Today: Jīntiān (Jeen-tian)


Tomorrow: Míngtiān (Meeng-tian)


Yesterday: Zuótiān (Zwuh-tian)


Goodbye: Zàijiàn (Zhai-jian)