Survival Mandarin 101

Lifestyle, Culture | by Luis Landas
Posted: December 13th, 2012 | Updated: November 6th, 2014 | Comments

Here at Bamboo Compass we're always excited to see you all take the plunge and visit China. It's massive, beautiful, enigmatic and sometimes intimidating (in a good way, of course). But one thing you'll have to understand is that the language barrier, although exciting and challenging, can be actually quite troublesome.

Fact: Less than 1% of China's mainland population can speak English. Some of you will need to explain that you are vegetarian, or don't eat pork or that need to find a computer and use the Internet. So I've compiled some useful phrases for first-time China travelers to use once they reach good ol' China (Zhōngguó, 中国).  

So let's start with a quick introduction to the practical world of Survival Mandarin, including a little overview of pinyin and pronunciation.

 

Hanyu Pinyin

Hanyu Pinyin (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, 汉语拼音), or just pinyin for short, is the official system used for transcribing standard Chinese (Pǔtōnghuà, 普通话), a.k.a. "Mandarin Chinese," from characters into Roman letters. Basically, it spells out phonetically how to pronounce Chinese characters—some people see it as crucial to learning Mandarin, others see it as a crutch, but at the end of the day it's what allows the initiated (like myself) to actually start speaking Chinese!

While there are many regional Chinese dialects, Mandarin is spoken almost everywhere, making it the most useful. Throughout Mainland China, most characters are simplified Chinese characters (jiǎn tǐzì, 简体字), as opposed the older and more complicated traditional Chinese characters (fán tǐzì, 繁体字). Simplified characters were developed in the 1950s and 60s by the Mainland government and used in Singapore and Malaysia, while traditional characters have been around for some 1,500 years and are the standard in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau as well as many overseas Chinese communities.

In most cases, letters in pinyin are pronounced close to their English equivalent with some notable examples. Read on for examples in action or check out this interactive pinyin chart offered by QuickMandarin.com.

Tones

The key to speaking Chinese correctly is the accurate use of tones, changes in pitch that separate one word from another. Look at these two characters, and take note of the accents on their pinyin counterparts: if you mispronounce 'buy' (mǎi, 买), whoever you're speaking to might instead understand 'sell' (mài, 卖). The picture to the left demonstrates the changes in pitch for each tone from high (5) to low (1).

1st Tone: (ˉ) e.g. ā – A constant high pitch, like an upbeat "Hi!"

2nd Tone: (ˊ) e.g. á A mid-level pitch rising to a high pitch; similar to the pitch change in English making a question from a statement (e.g., "He ate dog." as compared to "He ate dog?")

3rd Tone: (ˇ) e.g. ǎ  A somewhat low pitch which gets lower, then rises to a somewhat high pitch; imagine an exaggerated "Really?" and tilt your head along with the pitch

4th Tone: (ˋ) e.g. à A high pitch dropping to a low pitch; like when you use your favorite expletive after you accidentally break something

5th Tone: (no tone mark) e.g.  a – A neutral tone; emphasis is placed on other syllables It's a good idea to pay attention to tones early (even exaggerating them initially), but expect it to take some practice for them to stick.  

Basic Chinese Greetings

So let's get started shall we? In my opinion, the first thing you need to know how to say, in order to that avoid the awkwardness that results from bursting the bubble of extended conversation, is:

My Chinese is terrible.
Wǒ de Hànyǔ shì hěn bù hǎo, duìbuqǐ.
我的汉语是很不好,对不起。  

The consonant 'Q' is pronounced like the 'ch' in 'China.'

 

Hello 
Nǐ hǎo
你好  

When two third tones are said together, the first one becomes a second tone, making the above into 'Ní hǎo.'

 

How are you?
Nǐ hǎo ma? 
你好吗?

 

I'm doing great.
Wǒ hěn hǎo.
我很好。  

 

This is the easiest way to say it, and everyone will know what you mean, but the more colloquial way to ask "how are you" is to ask if they have eaten:

nǐ chī le ma? (你吃了吗?)

 

What is your name? 
Nǐ jiào shénme míngzi? 
你叫什么名字?

 

My name is Luis.
Wǒ jiào Luis.
我叫 Luis。  

 

Goodbye! 
Zài jiàn!
再见!

 

Pleased to meet you! 
hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ! 
很高兴认识你!

The consonant 'X' is pronounced is kind of like the 'sh' in 'she', but you'll just have to listen for the subtle difference.

 

China is very beautiful.
Zhōngguó hěn piàoliang 
中国很漂亮。

The consonants 'zh' are pronounced like the 'j' in 'John.'

 

I don't understand.
Tīng bù dǒng
听不懂。  

 

Getting Around

In this section I'll assume that you'll have handy a map, or photos and written directions/brochures of the places you need to go.

 

I want to go to _____
yào qù  _____.
我要去 _____.

 

Where is this? 
Zhège zài nǎr? 
这个在哪儿?

 

How do I get there? 
Wǒ zěnme zǒu?
我怎么走? 

 

airport 
fēijīchǎng
飞机场 

 

 train station 
huǒ chē zhàn
火车站

 

bus station
qìchē zhàn
气车站  

 

西
běi nán dōng
north south east west

 

north station 
běi zhàn 
北站

Keep in mind that many cities have multiple bus and train stations referred to by the cardinal directions.  If a station is both a train and bus station it may be referred to as above, just as "North Station."

 

taxi
chūzū qìchē 
出租气车 

 

Transactions and Numbers

 

This 
Zhège 
这个

 

That
Nàge 
那个

 

I do (not) like this.
Wǒ (bù) xǐhuan zhège. 
我(不)喜欢这个。 

 

líng èr  sān liù jiǔ shí
zero- one- two- three- four- five- six- seven- eight- nine- ten

 

eleven 
shí 
十一

 

thirty-two 
sānshí èr 
三十二

 

A quantity of one
yī ge 
一个

Chinese uses measure words when referring to quantity, similar to "a cup of water" or "two bowls of rice" in English. Although these words are used in all cases and differ according to what is being quantified, 个 is the basic measure word and can be used in most cases.

 

A quantity of two, a couple of something 
Liǎng ge 
两个

 

When referring to quantity 2 rather than the number 2, 'liǎng' is used instead of 'èr.'

 

How much does this cost? 
Zhège duōshao qián? 
这个多少钱?

 

a hundred 
yī bǎi 
一百

 

(Measure word for currency, like saying 'bucks') 
kuài 

 

five hundred bucks (Chinese RMB, of course) 
wǔ bǎi kuài 
五百块
 

 

(Tenths of a yuan. Like a dime.) 
máo 

 

¥250.50 
liǎng bǎi wǔ shí kuài wǔ máo 
两百五十块五毛

 

Too expensive!  
Tài guì le! 
太贵了!

 

Very good! 
Hěn hǎo!
很好!

 

Not good! 
Bù hǎo! 
不好!  

 

Thank you!
Xiè xie nǐ!
谢谢你!   

 

Check out more tips on bargaining in China.

 

Grabbing a Meal

 

I want this.
Wǒ yāo zhège. 
我要这个。  

 

I want to drink this.
Wǒ yāo hé zhège.
我要喝这个。  

 

I want to eat this.
Wǒ yāo chī zhège. 
我要吃这个。

 

I'm vegetarian. 
Wǒ chī sù shí. 
我吃素食。

 

I don't eat meat/pork/fish/eggs. 
Wǒ bù chī ròu/zhūròu/yúròu/dàn. 
我不吃 /猪肉/鱼肉/蛋

 

Have more special dietary needs like food allergies or intolerance? Check out our guide to food allergies in China.

 

Finding Assistance

 

Please write that down in Chinese.
Qǐng nǐ xiě hànzì.
请你写汉字。  

 

I want to make a phone call. 
Wǒ yào dǎ yīgè diànhuà. 
我要打一个电话。

 

I want to surf the Internet. 
Wǒ yào shàng wǎng. 
我要上网。

 

I want to use a computer. 
Wǒ yào yòng diànnǎo. 
我要用电脑。

 

Please help me. 
Qǐng bāng wǒ. 
请帮我。
 

 

Are you alright?
Nǐ méishì ba? 
你没事吧?

 

How was that? If you've got any questions or any suggestions for really useful phrases that travelers would need when going around China, please go ahead and put them in the comments! Also, don't forget to share this around with any friends who are headed this way, especially if they don't speak a word of Mandarin! Try and get creative and see if that inductive logic of yours can help to make new sentences out of the bits and pieces you've learned here.

For example, I'm sure you must have at least gleaned how to say 'you' and 'I/me,' haven't you?

What do you think 'Nǐ hěn piàoliang' (你很漂亮) means?

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