Basic Chinese (Mandarin)

Basic Words and Essential Phrases

Mandarin vs. Cantonese 
  • Mandarin
    • Official state language of China
    • Primary spoken language for most of the country (although many provinces have their own dialect)
    • Fun fact: main dialect for Taiwan & Singapore
    • Benefit: Not everyone speaks it, but there will usually someone nearby who does
    • Increasingly uses simplified written characters
    • 5 tones
  • Cantonese
    • Spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, & Guangdong province
    • Less speakers of Cantonese 
    • Continue to use traditional written Chinese (more complex)
    • 9 tones
  • Both
    • Tonal languages

    • One word can have many meanings depending on the pronunciation and intonation

    • Share the same alphabet

Because Mandarin is the official language of China, these basics are in your training. 

Graphic credit: TripSavvy

Note: Although 90 percent of Hong Kongers still use Cantonese as their first language, they will probably prefer to speak to you in English vs. Mandarin. This is because there is some resentment at attempts by the Chinese government to push Mandarin. So don't worry too much about learning Cantonese or using it in Hong Kong! 

Basic Words
  1. Hello: Nǐhǎo (Nee how)
    If there’s only one word you learn, this is it. Use this to greet everyone from your taxi driver to your waiter to the receptionist at the hotel front desk.
  2. Thank you: Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh)
    Don't hesitate to express gratitude. 
  3. You’re welcome: Bù kèqì (Boo kuh-chi)
    If someone says “xièxiè (shieh-shieh)” to you, respond with this. 
  4. Good morning: Zǎo (Zhow)
    You can greet someone with just zǎo in the morning.
  5. Goodnight: Wǎn'ān (One-un)
    Typically used when you're actually going to bed.
  6. Yes: Shì (Sheh)
  7. No: Bù shì (Bu-sheh)
  8. Good: Hǎo (How)
  9. Bad: Bù hǎo (Boo-how)
  10. Today: Jīntiān (Jeen-tian)
  11. Tomorrow: Míngtiān (Meeng-tian)
  12. Yesterday: Zuótiān (Zwuh-tian)
  13. Goodbye: Zàijiàn (Zhai-jian)
Essential Phrases
  1. My name is…: Wǒ jiào... (Wuh jeow...)
    This literally means “I am called...”

  2. Where is the bathroom: Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ? (See-sow-jian zai na-lee?)
    The literal translation is “Where is the hand-washing room?” so you can mimic washing your hands to help your chances of being understood. You will see 男 on the door for the men’s bathroom and 女 on the door of the women’s.

  3. How much?: Duō shǎo? (Dwuh shauw?)
    You can use this to ask the price of something in street markets. 

  4. Too expensive: Tài guìle! (Tie gway luh!)
     can impress them further by trying to haggle in Chinese — because you're usually given the tourist price first. (Keep in mind that it’s appropriate to haggle for souvenirs, clothing, shoes, and accessories in markets, but food is typically a fixed price.)

  5. Make it cheaper: Piányí yī diǎn. (Pian-yee yee dian.)
    Combine this phrase with the one above and you're well on your way to becoming a fluent haggler in Chinese. 

  6. Very beautiful: Hĕn piàoliang (Hen peow-liung)
    Locals love it when you compliment their home, so feel free to butter them up by using this. Just remember, this phrase comes after the noun, as in "Shanghai hen piaoliang" (Shanghai is very beautiful).

  7. Delicious: Hào chī (How chir); Very delicious: Hěn hào chī (Hen how chir)
    You can use this to praise your host, a waiter at a restaurant, or the owner at a street stand. If you’re really impressed with the food, you can even say "Tài hào chīle (tie how chir luh)", which means "too delicious."

  8. Check, please: Măi dān (My dahn)
    You can say this at the end of your meal to wrap things up. 

  9. I don't understand: Wǒ bù dǒng (Wuh boo dong)
    Definitely a good phrase to have in your repretoir. 

  10. Let's go!: Wǒmen zǒu ba! (Wuh-men zoew bah!)
    You can use this to let people know you're ready to leave or to encourage your friends to get going.

Got a question? Ask away!