I’m sure this list has been done many times – but I’m here to do it again (because I wanna). Congrats on making the decision to either travel to China or just learn a few words! Chinese has certainly been the most difficult language I have tackled (yet) and isn’t very user-friendly for those who are self-teaching. If you’re worried that this is too hard, or you won’t be understood, that’s totally okay! Every single Chinese person I have met has loved even the smallest bit of effort to say something in their language! They know it’s hard (hell, they think it’s hard).
This list is composed of the usual, helpful words but also some words or phrases that I use quite a bit here in my daily life. I would recommend keeping either a note in your phone or a physical list of useful phrases and any addresses you need in Mandarin. Worst case scenario, if you cannot get your point across, you can always show the person the note in your phone so they can read it. I keep a note of my favorite dishes at restaurants and a note for important addresses for when I take a taxi.
Another useful app is called, “Pleco”; it is the best Mandarin to English dictionary I’ve come across. You can look up words for things you need or need to translate. You can (and should) also download the Chinese keyboards for your device that allow you to draw the characters to search the meaning in the app. This app has saved my life many times (especially during uni). 😊
Disclaimer: This is all standard, Mandarin Chinese. If you’re planning to travel in China, be aware that most, if not all, cities or regions have their own dialect. I’ve included one word from my local dialect here in Chongqing for this list.
- 你好 (nĭhăo) : Hello
The obvious starter word of all languages! Are people staring at you on the streets? Say hello! They’ll either smile and come up to meet you or they’ll look away (or run away if they’re kids).
- 谢谢 (xi èxie) : Thank you
Another crowd pleaser. It’s always better to error on the side of politesse when travelling around a foreign country. Many of my Chinese friends and students have made remarks about how foreigners/Americans are very polite and say, “Thank you” so much. It’s a good reputation to have!
- 听不懂 (tīngbudŏng) : I hear you, but I don’t understand you
This is a pretty important one. If someone is rapid-firing Chinese at you, this is a good way of letting them know that you’re either a beginner at the language or can’t speak it at all. The person will either grab the nearest Chinese college student to translate or begin gesticulating to get their point across.
- 你会说英文吗？(nĭ huì shuō yīngwén ma?) : Can you speak English?
A good segue from number three. You can use this after saying 你好 (nĭhăo) to someone if you’re lost or need directions. (你好! 你会说英文吗？) If someone comes up to you and is speaking Chinese, you can say this phrase or 听不懂 (tīngbudŏng) so they understand that you cannot speak Chinese very well. You can also replace the bolded 英文 (yīngwén) with your target language if you are not English-speaking.
- ____在哪儿？(____ zài nà’ér?) : Where is _____?
This fill-in-the-blank phrase is super helpful if you’re lost or cannot find something! Chinese grammar can be a pain in the butt, but with this phrase, you can put in any noun that you are looking for. For example, “卫生间在哪儿？” (wèishēngjiān zài nà’ér?) is, “Where is the toilet?”.
- 卫生间 (wèishēngjiān) : Bathroom/toilet
Pretty self-explanatory. 😉 There are many ways to say “bathroom” in Chinese, but I have found that this one is a bit more polite and is closer to “restroom” in English (as opposed to “toilet”).
- 微信 (wēixìn) : Wechat
If you are coming to China for any period of time, let me tell you now that WeChat is life. WeChat is Facebook, Instagram, Apple Pay, Uber, your phone company payment site and so much more wrapped into one app. WeChat Pay is used everywhere in this country – from the mall, to the taxi services, to that tiny little food stand ran by the 80 year-old-man. Everyone accepts WeChat Pay and expects you to use it. Before you scurry off to download it, make sure you download the international version of the app. The US version of WeChat does not allow you to use WeChat Pay. When you are at a restaurant or want to pay for your taxi, you can just say “微信?” and they will show you their QR code, so you can pay.
- 火车站 (huŏchēzhàn) : Train station
You can use this in the #5 expression to get directions or if you get into a taxi, you can just say (or show them the words) “火车站” and they will take you to the train station.
- 对不起 (duìbuqĭ) : Sorry
对不起 is, like in many other foreign languages, for pretty serious mistakes. I decided to include it in this list because it’s important to error on the side of politeness while travelling. 对不起 is usually reserved for when something very serious happens or you commit a very grave mistake. But, if you’re out and about, and you want something to say when you bump into someone, this is what you can say.
- 可以吗？(kěyĭ ma?) : Is that okay? Is that possible?
If you are out exploring and you aren’t sure if something is open, like a restaurant, or if you are at a Buddhist temple and don’t know if you are allowed to enter, you can say “可以吗？” while pointing in the direction. If you want to ask if you can use WeChat you could say, “微信. 可以吗？” Also, something that pops up a lot in my life, is I will go up to a taxi driver, but they will want to know where I want to go before entering the cab. I will show them the address in Chinese or say the place and say “可以吗？”. The cab driver will either agree or disagree to take the job. Cab drivers can be pretty strategic about where they agree to drive as to avoid traffic or taking you somewhere that they will have to drive around quite a bit to find another person.
- 出租车 (chūzūchē) : Taxi
You can use this phrase in conjunction with #5 if you want to find a cab. I would reserve this question for the worker at the front desk of your hostel or hotel. Usually these people are bilingual, but on the off chance that they are not, you can ask them where to find a cab. This phrase can also be used upon exiting the airport or arriving at your train station.
- 美国人//加拿大人 (měiguórén // jiānádàrén) : American//Canadian
You will be inevitably asked where you are from while exploring China! From your cab driver to the little kids on the street, they are all curious about what country you are from. If you aren’t American or Canadian, you can look up your country name in Pleco (the app I mentioned above) and add the symbol “人” (rén), this just means person or people.
- 多少钱 (duōshăo qián) : How much does it cost?
This is an extremely useful phrase for all situations involving payment. Anytime you are unclear about how much the cab ride is (Just an FYI: the drivers use meters here and I have never had to haggle the driver to use a meter because I am foreign) or how much your awesome lunch was, you can use this question. You should also brush up on your numbers, but if you give them a confused look, they will most likely write the total on a piece of paper.
- 普通话 (pŭtōnghuà) : Mandarin Chinese
This is useful if you want to explain that you cannot understand someone because they are speaking dialect. Every once in a while, I have to explain to people here in Chongqing that I can only speak standard Chinese. When I say I can only speak Mandarin, the other person usually laughs and tries to rephrase what they said or just say it slower. It hasn’t ever been a huge issue, but more so a chummy moment.
- 要的 (yàodé) : okay, fine, good (Chongqing Dialect)
Here is my favorite dialectal phrase I’ve learned since arriving! 要的 can be heard all over the city and the people here love when foreigners use it; it always makes them laugh!
Let me know if there are any I missed! 😊