Top Ten Useful Chinese Phrases


Top Ten Useful Chinese Phrases for Travelers

Which are the most useful Chinese phrases for traveling? After over ten years in China, I've come to realize they are not what you might first expect - and don't trust those Chinese phrasebooks!

With the advantage of an insider's perspective, I'm happy to put together a top ten list of essential Chinese phrases for you travelers to China and set you on the fast track to getting your foot in the door of this fascinating culture.

Each of the Mandarin phrases has two audio options to help you master them completely. The first is spoken at about normal speed; while the second mp3 is the phrase repeated very slowly, and then progressively faster. Repeat aloud as you listen to these useful Chinese phrases.

10. 'Too expensive': tài guì le 太贵了

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Slow, repeated:

Along with some expressive gestures, maybethe only Chinese phrase you absolutely require for bargaining. As for the numbers, if you haven't mastered them yet, don't worry. Shopkeepers will have a calculator on hand and they like to punch in the price and show you the display.

9. 'I don't understand': tīng bú dǒng 听不懂

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Slow, repeated:

This one can excuse you from all sorts of situations. And if the situation absolutely requires that more communication take place, it will send the person looking for someone who can speak English. So in my book, it beats out the typical phrasebook's offering of "Can you speak English?" which also, by the way, is twice the length of this winner.

8. 'No hot pepper': bú yào là jiāo 不要辣椒

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Some places in China (Hunan or Sichuan Province, to name a couple) I would not recommend dining out without this phrase at hand.

As an aside, I find that fielding questions about how well you handle spicy food is one of the most common topics I meet everyday in China.

7. 'Excuse me' ('let me by'): qǐng ràng yī xià 请让一下

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There's a lot of people in China, it's true. And you'll have to squeeze by some of them now and then, so might as well do it politely.

By the way, if you look up 'excuse me' in your phrasebook, what you'll find will work if you insult somebody or perhaps step on their toe. But if you just want to get passed them, go with 'qǐng ràng yī xià'.

6. 'Where's the bathroom?': cè suǒ zài nà ér 厕所在那儿?

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The pronunciation is tricky. Listen to that first syllable with the falling tone (cè). The vowel sound is hard at first. Imagine that you are grossed out, or gagging. That's how I finally managed to get it right, myself.

5. 'Please don't smoke': qǐng búyào chōuyān 请不要抽烟

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It's said that one in every three cigarettes in the world is lit by a Chinese. I can tell you also that quite a few of those Chinese cigarettes are lit in areas that are marked as non-smoking.

Definitely worth the practice if you're a non-smoker.

4. 'Thank you': xiè xie 谢谢

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Of course you need this one. But what you might not know is when you should not say thank you. Read more about that here and get some insight into the fascinating culture of China!

3. 'Hello': nǐ hǎo 你好

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Already know this one? Well that's good as it's definitely a useful Chinese phrase. But surprisingly, it's just as common to ask someone if they've eaten or not as a Chinese greeting.

2. 'How much is it?': duō shǎo qián? 多少钱?

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You know from the earlier phrase how to complain it's too expensive, but here's where it all begins.

1. 'No, no, you needn't': bú yòng, bú yòng 不用,不用

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Phrasebook authors apparently work backwards from English to Chinese, and so often they miss the boat entirely when it comes to Chinese culture. Many of the most useful Chinese phrases (and most common ones) get left out entirely.

So why is this such a helpful Mandarin travel phrase?

Chinese people will intentionally overdo it with the hospitality shown to foreigners. That's great for us, but keep in mind, it's up to you to draw the line. In fact, even when you accept someone's generosity, the polite thing to do is to object, verbally at least.

Learn this one and the rest, and enjoy expanding your cultural horizons!