Survival Chinese – 8 Essential Language Tips for Travellers in China

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

chinaMapDespite being the 3rd most visited country in the world, travelling in China can still be very difficult for tourists with no knowledge of Mandarin. This is especially true of the more rural areas, but even in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, communicating in English can be difficult.

Therefore, if you’re considering a trip to China, Taiwan or any other Mandarin speaking country, learning just a few important phrases can make your trip much, much easier.

The Chinese believe that 8 is a lucky number which will bring you wealth and happiness. Hopefully these 8 tips will give you a simple but solid framework of Chinese which you can use to communicate with almost 2 billion Mandarin speakers in China and all over the world!

#1 Mind Your Manners

Respect and etiquette, especially for your elders, is a central cultural value in the People’s Republic. A little bit of courtesy goes a long way in China, so here is some essential vocab which will help endear you to native Chinese speakers.

“Please” in Chinese is “qing” (phonetically that’s “ching”)

“Thank you” is “xie xie” (sheair sheair).

“Hello” is “ni hao” (knee how).

Just like in any culture, if you’re approaching a stranger for help, it’s always polite to start by saying “excuse me”, which loosely translates to “qing wen” (ching when) in Chinese.

If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can also say “qing wen, wo yao ni de bang zhu” (ching when, wor yaow knee de bang zoo) which means, “excuse me, I need your help”.

At a Glance

Please – Qing (Ching)

Thank you – Xie xie (sheair sheair)

Hello – Ni hao (knee how)

Excuse me – Qing wen (ching when)

I need your help – Wo yao ni de bang zhu (wor yaow knee de bang zoo)

one of the symbols of China - TheGgreat Wall

one of the symbols of China – The Great Wall

#2 How Can I Get To…

You can ask where something is with the phrase “Zai na li” (zaye naa lee). It literally translates to “Is which place”. Therefore, grammatically, the sentence goes “place is which place?”

For example, toilet in Chinese is “ce suo” (sair swore). So, to say “where is the toilet” you’d say “ce suo zai na li” (sair swore zaye naa lee) which in English is literally “toilet is which place?”

To ask how you actually go about getting to a place, you can say “wo zen me qu” (wor dsen muh chu) which literally means “how can I go”.

So, to ask how to get to the toilet, you’d say “wo zen me qu ce suo” (wor dsen muh chu sair swore).

At a Glance

Where is a place – a place zai na li (a place zaye naa lee)

How I do get to – Wo zen me qu (wor dsen muh chu)

Toilet – Ce suo (sair swore)

Airport – Fei ji chang (Fay ji chaang)

Metro station – Di tie zhan (Dee tee-air dsan)

Train station – Huo che zhan (huoar chair dsan)

Hotel – Fan dian (Fan dee-an)

and another - the giant panda

and another – the giant panda

#3 Can You Speak English?

If your attempts at communicating in Chinese fall short, or if you feel a little overwhelmed speaking Chinese, it’s always good to be able to ask whether whoever you’re chatting with can speak English.

In Chinese, “can you speak English?” is “ni hui shuo ying yu?” (knee huey shwor ying yoo?)

“Ying yu” means “English”, but you can substitute this out for whatever your native language is. For example, can you speak French is “ni hui shuo fa yu” (knee huey shwor faa yoo).

Here are the Chinese translations for a couple of widely spoken languages:

German  – De yu (der yoo)

Italian – Yi da li yu (yee da lee yoo)

Spanish – Si ban ya yu (Ser ban yah yoo)

At a Glance

Can you speak English? – Ni hui shuo ying yu (knee huey shwor ying yoo)

#4 The Most Useful Word in the Chinese Language

yet another - Tienneman Square in Beijing ©2013 Dan Entwistle

yet another – Tienneman Square in Beijing ©2013 Dan Entwistle

The Chinese have a sort of “catch-all” word for any item, a bit like how we can use the word “thing”.

Dong xi (dong see) literally means “East West” but when used to refer to any object it means “this thing/item”. The word can be used to refer to literally anything and as a result it is probably one of the most commonly used words in the Chinese language, one which is sure to come in handy time and again when travelling through China.

To say “this” you can say zhe ge (dsuh guh).

To say “this item”, you could say “zhe ge dong xi” (dsuh guh dong see).

At a Glance

This thing – Zhe ge dong xi (dsuh guh dong see)

#5 Shopping and Haggling

and the terracotta army ©2014 Dan Entwistle

and the terracotta army
©2014 Dan Entwistle

If haggling were an Olympic sport, China would take home the gold every time. The Chinese absolutely love haggling and there is little that they won’t haggle over.

As a foreign tourist, market sellers are always going to hike up their prices for you, but, armed with a couple of pertinent phrases, you can usually negotiate a much better deal!

To ask “how much” something is in Chinese you’d say “duo shao qian” (duo shaow chien).

So, if you were in a market and wanted to ask how much an item is, you could say “zhe ge dong xi duo shao qian” (dsuh guh dong see duo shaow chien).

As a rule of thumb, you should never accept the first price offered, as you can almost always negotiate a better deal.

To say “it’s too expensive”  you can say “tai gui le” (tie gway luh).

At a Glance

How much does this cost? – Zhe ge dong xi duo shao qian? (dsuh guh dong see duo shaow chien)

It’s too expensive – Tai gui le (tie gway luh)

#6 Eating and Drinking

street food © Anna Maria Espsäter

street food © Anna Maria Espsäter

The Chinese are completely obsessed with food, and most social situations revolve around eating. As a result, you’ll probably spend much of your time in China surrounded by food, so knowing how to order some basic dishes and drinks will be invaluable.

To say “I would like” you can say “wo xiang yao” (wor shee-ang yao). In restaurants and bars you could also say “qing gei wo” (ching gay wor) which means “please give me”.

In Chinese, noodles are “mien tiao” (me-en tee-aow), so to ask for some noodles in a restaurant you could say “wo xiang yao mien tiao” (wor shee-ang yao me-en tee-aow).

Chicken is “ji rou” (gee row) so to say “I would like some chicken noodles” you could say “wo xiang yao ji row mien tiao” (wor shee-ang yao gee row me-en tee-aow).

Dumplings are “jiao zi” (gee-ow dsuh).

Tea is “cha” (chaa) and green tea is “lui cha” (Loui chaa).

Beer is “pi-jiu” (pee jew).

At a Glance

I would like – Wo xiang yao (wor shee-ang yao)

Please give me – Qing gei wo (ching gay wor)

Noodles – mien tiao (me-en tee-aow)

Chicken – Ji rou (gee row)

Dumplings – Jiao zi (gee-ow dsuh)

Tea – Cha (chaa)

#7 I Don’t Understand…

biker kids in China © Dan

biker kids in China © Dan Entwistle

Chinese people are notoriously fast spoken. Even when speaking with foreigners and those who don’t speak Chinese fluently, Chinese people have a tendency to speak very quickly, which can make them hard to understand.

To say I don’t understand you can say “wo bu dong” (wor boo dong).

You can ask someone to repeat themselves by saying “qing zai shuo yi bian” (ching zaye shwor yee bienne).

So, to say “I don’t understand, please say it again” you would say “wo bu dong, qing zai shuo yi bian” (wor boo dong, ching zaye shwor yee bienne).

To ask a Chinese person to speak more slowly you can say “qing shuo man dian r” (ching shwor man dee-ann err).

At a Glance

I don’t understand – wo bu dong (wor boo dong)

Please say it again – Qing zai shuo yi bian (ching zaye shwor yee bienne)

Please speak more slowly – Qing shuo man dian r (ching shwor man dee-ann err)

#8 Helpful Resources

the "birds nest" from the Beijing Olympics

the “birds nest” from the Beijing Olympics

The internet is an incredible resource for learning any skill, including Chinese, and there are countless brilliant resources out there which you can use to help you communicate in China.

For example, if you own an iPhone, the KT Dict Chinese/English dictionary is completely free and gives you accurate translations of English into both Mandarin and Cantonese, which is a dialect spoken in Hong Kong.

If you’re going to China for a long time, and want to quickly develop practical language skills, the Rosetta Stone Chinese program is very good. However, there are downsides; it’s not great for teaching writing skills and it can also be quite pricey, although you can get good discounts on sites like this.

If you’re interested in actually learning the Chinese language, Skritter is an amazing tool which will teach you how to write and memorize Chinese characters.

Finally, Waygo is another iPhone app which can scan Chinese characters with your phone camera and translate it into English. It is a paid app, but the Chinese to English translation function is free, and will come in handy when you need to decipher signs and posters.

#9 Don’t Be Afraid to Try

Terracotta Army, Weinan, Xian

Terracotta Army, Weinan, Xian

Speaking in a foreign language, especially one as alien to us as Chinese, can be an intimidating experience. However, many Chinese people are very supportive and encouraging of foreigners trying to learn their language and will likely be impressed that you’ve managed to master any Chinese at all.

Learning another language can be a fascinating peek into the mind-set of another culture and is a massively rewarding and useful skill to have, so don’t be afraid to jump in and use your newly learnt Chinese as much as possible during your travels!

For more of Dan Entwistle’s images from around the world, click here.







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