Are you ready to learn Chinese? Then these are the Chinese phrases to get started with so you can start speaking today.
You’ve probably heard how Chinese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. And how learning Chinese will take years to master. It makes learning the language seem intimidating! But I’m here to tell you it can be done.
In fact, one of my own language learning missions was to speak Chinese in three months. It seemed impossible, but with commitment, I achieved my goal. Now, I actively work on maintaining my Chinese skills.
As a side note, this article is not to teach you hanzi (Chinese characters). I will include them, but I’ll also include the romanization (called pinyin). This way, you can start speaking now instead of getting bogged down in the many Chinese characters. That’s not to say you should never learn hanzi, but learn them as you progress. Speaking is key.
There’s one more thing we should discuss before getting started…
Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the same word can have different meanings based on the way you say it. For instance, “ma” could mean “mother” or “horse” depending on the inflexion.
There are five different inflexions and they’re marked with accents. The accent marks help guide you with the pitch because they visually represent what your voice should do. Take a look at these with “ma”. (“Ma” is a common example because it’s a simple, single-syllable word that has a word with each intonation.)
- Long, flat tone: mā
- Rising tone: má
- Falling then rising tone: mǎ
- Falling tone: mà
- Neutral tone: ma
As you can see, the accent marks help guide you. So pinyin will be your friend when learning to speak Chinese! This Chinese dictionary is an excellent resource for learning Chinese and pinyin tonal accents.
Last thing: We are going to be learning Mandarin Chinese phrases. This is the official language of China, and the most common form of Chinese spoken in China. It’s also spoken in Singapore and Taiwan. But, even though it’s most common, there may be many instances where Mandarin isn’t spoken. For instance, if you’re planning on visiting Hong Kong a major travel destination in China… Well, they speak a completely different language — Cantonese.
Basic Chinese Phrases and Chinese Greetings
Let’s get started with simple Chinese phrases and greetings to say “hello”. After all, that’s the first step to start speaking — introducing yourself!
“Hello” in Chinese
“Hello” in Chinese is nǐ hǎo (你好). You may have heard this one before, but pay close attention to your inflexion. The “i” and “a” both have the falling-and-rising intonation accent above them, so you’ll want to practice proper pronunciation. And that means you need to follow a special rule. Whenever there is more than one third tone in a row, all but the last become second tone. So while it’s written nǐ hǎo, it’s actually pronounced ní hǎo.
The hanzi in this word combines two characters meaning “you” and “good”.
“How Are You?” in Chinese
So if “hello” means “you good”, then remembering “how are you” is simple. It’s Nǐ hǎo ma? (你好吗？) The character “吗” is actually the question marker.
“I’m Good” / “I’m Not Good” in Chinese
To reply to Nǐ hǎo ma?, you can say either hěn hǎo (很好) for “I’m good” or bù hǎo (不好) for not good. On hěn hǎo remember the tone change rule!
Notice all these use the “好” character, meaning “good”.
“Please” in Chinese
Qǐng (请) is “please” in Chinese. This one is a bit tricky if you aren’t familiar with pinyin pronunciation of consonants yet. “Q” is pronounced like a soft “ch”. So this sounds like “ching”.
“Thank You” in Chinese
In Chinese, “thank you” is Xièxie (谢谢). The “x’s” here are pronounced like “sh” in English, making this “shi-eh shi-eh”.
“You’re Welcome” in Chinese
Bùyòng xiè! (不用谢) means “You’re welcome”. But it’s literal meaning is “no need for thanks.” The character “不” or bù is the negative prefix, adjective, or adverb meaning “no”, “not” or “non-”. It also follows a tone change rule. When the syllable after bù also includes the fourth tone, the tone for bù changes to second tone. So this would be pronounced bú yòng xiè.
“Good Morning” in Chinese
There are a few different ways to say “good morning” in Chinese, based on formality. The most polite is zǎoshang hǎo (早上好). But you could also say zǎo ān (早安) or just zǎo (早), when speaking to someone casually.
“Good Night” in Chinese
“Good night” in Mandarin is wǎn'ān (晚安). It literally means “safe night.”
“Goodbye” in Chinese
A more formal, “goodbye” in Chinese is zàijiàn (再见). But you could also say huítóu jiàn (回头见) for “see you later”.
“Yes” in Chinese
There aren’t any exact translations for “yes” or “no” in Chinese, but the following examples are the closest expressions. Shì de (是的) can mean “yes”. As an interjection, you could just say Shì!
“No” in Chinese
Like I mentioned earlier, “no” in Chinese is bù (不). But on its own, you could say bùshì (不是).
“Excuse Me” in Chinese
Bù hǎoyìsi (不好意思) means “excuse me” to get someone’s attention or to apologize.
“I’m Sorry” in Chinese
If you need to apologize to someone, use the phrase Duìbùqǐ (对不起). Although you can say Bù hǎoyìsi to apologize as well, duìbùqǐ is more for situations where you made a mistake or did something wrong.
Common Chinese Phrases to Speak Chinese Now
Now you know some of the most important greetings and polite phrases. So let’s get to some questions and essential Chinese phrases to know. These phrases below will help you get to know someone else, get the conversation started, and help you get by during your first time speaking.
“Do You Speak…” in Chinese
To ask if someone speaks a certain language, you can say Nǐ huì shuō… (你会说…). For example, you can ask if they speak English, Nǐ huì shuō yīngyǔ ma? (你会说英语吗?) So, “English” in Chinese is yīngyǔ and you add ma as the question marker.
To ask if someone speaks Chinese, change out yīngyǔ for zhōngwén. That makes the phrase. Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? (你会说中文吗？)
Some other related phrases:
- “I only speak a little Chinese”: Wǒ zhǐ huì shuō yīdiǎn zhōngwén. (我只会说一点中文。)
- “Yes, I speak Chinese”: Shì de, wǒ shuō zhōngwén. (是的，我说中文。)
- “No, I can’t speak it”: Bù, wǒ bù huì shuō. (不，我不会说。)
- “How do you say…”: Nǐ zěnme shuō… (你怎么说…)
- “Could you repeat that?”: Néng zàishuō yībiàn ma?. (能再说一遍吗？)
- “Can you say it slowly?”: Nǐ néng shuō màn yīdiǎn ma? (你能说慢一点吗？)
“I Don’t Know” in Chinese
If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can use the phrase Bù zhīdào (不知道) for “I don’t know” in Chinese.
But if you just didn’t understand what the speaker said, you can say Bù míngbái (不明白) — “I don’t understand” in Chinese.
- “What does _ mean?”: _ shì shénme yìsi? (_ 是什么意思？)
- “I understand”: Míngbái (明白)
- “I know”: Zhīdào (知道)
- “What did you say?”: Nǐ shuō shénme? (你说什么？)
- “What do you mean?”: Nǐ shénme yìsi? (你什么意思？)
“What’s Your Name?” in Chinese
If you’ve introduced yourself and want to ask what the other person’s name is, use the phrase Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì? (你叫什么名字？) for “What’s your name?” When replying to this question, you say Wǒ jiào… (我叫…) and add your name at the end.
- “Where are you from?”: Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái? (你从哪里来？)
- “I’m from…”: Wǒ láizì… (我来自…)
- “How old are you?”: Nǐ jǐ suì? (你几岁？)
- “I’m 35 years old.”: Wǒ jīnnián sānshíwǔ suì. (我今年35岁。)
- “What do you do for work?”: Nǐ zuò shénme gōngzuò? (你做什么工作？)
- “I’m a…”: Wǒ shì… (我是…)
- “Nice to meet you”: Hěn gāoxìng jiàndào nǐ (很高兴见到你)
“Very Good” in Chinese
It’s a good idea to have some basic responses or conversation fillers ready if you need them. For instance, if someone told you good news, you could reply hěn hǎo (很好) for “very good” in Chinese. If someone told you something awful, you’d reply Bù hǎo le! (不好了！) for “Oh no!” or duōme kěpà (多么可怕) for “how terrible”.
Here are some words to stall for time when trying to remember your Chinese sentences!
- “So, um…”: ēn (嗯)
- “Um…”: nèi ge (那个)
- “Uh…”: jiù shì (就是)
- “Well then”: hǎo ba (好吧)
- “Like…”: rán hòu (然后)
“Not This Time” in Chinese
If you’re at a restaurant, and they ask if you’d like dessert, you may say zhè cì bùxíng (这次不行) for “not this time”. But if you do want it, then reply with shì de, qǐng (是的，请).
Some phrases for eating out, shopping, and going out in Chinese:
- “I’d like the menu, please”: Qǐng gěi wǒ càidān (请给我菜单)
- “I’d like…”: Xiǎng yào… (想要…)
- “The bill, please”: Qǐng fùzhàng (请付帐)
- “I’ll take this one”: Yào dài zhège (要带这个)
- “That one, please”: Qǐng nàgè (请那个)
- “How much is it?”: Duōshǎo qián? (多少钱？)
- “Where is….”: Nǎlǐ… (哪里…)
- “Could you help me?”: Nǐ kěyǐ bāng bāng wǒ ma? (你可以帮帮我吗？)
- “Let’s go!”: Wǒmen zǒu ba! (我们走吧！)
Chinese Words to Expand Your Vocab
Now learn some words to customize your phrases and create new sentences! These are some of the most important Chinese words for beginners to learn.
- Today: jīntiān (今天)
- Yesterday: zuótiān (昨天)
- Tomorrow: míngtiān (明天)
- O’clock: diǎn (点)
- Time: shíjiān (时间)
Food and drink:
- Water: shuǐ (水)
- Coffee: kāfēi (咖啡)
- Tea: chá (茶)
- Beer: píjiǔ (啤酒)
- Chicken: jīròu (鸡肉)
- Fish: yú (鱼)
- Vegetables: shūcài (蔬菜)
- Chocolate: qiǎokèlì (巧克力)
- China: Zhōngguó (中国)
- America: Měiguó (美国)
- England: Yīngguó (英国)
- Ireland: Ài'ěrlán (爱尔兰)
- Spain: Xībānyá (西班牙)
- France: Fàguó (法国)
- Italy: Yìdàlì (意大利)
- Canada: Jiānádà (加拿大)
- Japan: Rìběn (日本)
- Supermarket: chāojí shìchǎng (超级市场)
- Bank: yínháng (银行)
- Post office: yóuzhèngjú (邮政局)
- Police station: jǐngchá jú (警察局)
- Hospital: yīyuàn (医院)
- Movie theater: diànyǐngyuàn (电影院)
- Store: shāngdiàn (商店)
- One: yī (一)
- Two: èr (二)
- Three: sān (三)
- Four: sì (四)
- Five: wǔ (五)
- Six: liù (六)
- Seven: qī (七)
- Eight: bā (八)
- Nine: jiǔ (九)
- Ten: shí (十)
- Teacher: lǎoshī (老师)
- Salesperson: tuīxiāoyuán (推销员)
- Employee: yuángōng (员工)
- Writer: zuòjiā (作家)
- Doctor: yīshēng (医生)
- Programmer: chéngxù shèjìyuán (程序设计员)
Funny Chinese Phrases
Some Chinese phrases don’t translate well into English, making their literal meaning quite funny for English speakers. Here are some funny Chinese phrases, sayings, and slang to add to your list.
- A chatterbox | Lit.: “A mouth like running water”: tānhuāluànzhuì (天花乱坠)
- Drop dead gorgeous | Lit.: “Sink fish, drop goose”: chén yú, luò yàn (沉鱼落雁)
- Don’t be a glutton | Lit.: “A man eating cookies in bed wakes up feeling crummy”: *yí gè zài chuáng shàng chī bǐng gān de nán rén xǐng lái gǎn jué hěn zāo gāo * (一个在床上吃饼干的男人醒来感觉很糟糕)
- Idiot, Dumb | Lit.: “Stupid egg”: shǎ dàn (傻蛋)
- Are you kidding me? | Lit.: “Being drunk”: yě shì zuì le (也是醉了)
Start Speaking NOW with These Chinese Phrases
That’s a lot of Chinese to get you started. You’ve learned the most common Chinese greetings and polite phrases. Plus, how to introduce yourself, basic Chinese words, and some fun Chinese phrases to throw in.
Now you have no excuse to not have your first conversation in Chinese! Find a language exchange partner or tutor, and get to work. If you don’t use it, you won’t remember it.
What are some basic Chinese phrases you know? Any I missed that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below and let me know.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.