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 (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.
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:
The consonant 'Q' is pronounced like the 'ch' in 'China.'
When two third tones are said together, the first one becomes a second tone, making the above into 'Ní hǎo.'
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?)
The consonant 'X' is pronounced is kind of like the 'sh' in 'she', but you'll just have to listen for the subtle difference.
The consonants 'zh' are pronounced like the 'j' in 'John.'
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.
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."
Transactions and Numbers
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.
When referring to quantity 2 rather than the number 2, 'liǎng' is used instead of 'èr.'
Check out more tips on bargaining in China.
Grabbing a Meal
Have more special dietary needs like food allergies or intolerance? Check out our guide to food allergies in China.
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?