It doesn't haven't to be as daunting as it seems.
The idea of learning Chinese likely strikes fear in your heart — or just completely mystifies you. And understandably so. It’s not an easy language to pick up.
Chinese is made up of tens of thousands of characters. Each character is made up of specific strokes, rather than a combination of letters. As there is no alphabet, you cannot spell out words according to their sounds or read a word simply by stringing together the letters. Learning Chinese really is a process of straight memorization.
To put things in perspective, in order to read and write at an elementary school level, you would need to know about 2,500 characters that, when combined, can create many thousands of more words.
And there’s yet another complication in learning the language: Chinese is tonal. In the same way that you would use tone for emphasis or emotion in English, every word in Chinese has a specific tone that determines its meaning. The same sound can be said with up to five different intonations, with five different meanings. Take the word "mother" (mā 媽) for example. If pronounced with a different tone, it can mean "numb" (má 麻), "horse" (mǎ 馬), "to scold" (mà 罵), or a grammar particle that goes at the end of yes and no questions (ma 嗎).
If your mind isn’t in knots already, there are various dialects of Chinese to consider. Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken, and is the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore.
But in Hong Kong and the Guangdong province, Cantonese is spoken. In Shanghai, the local dialect is Shanghainese. In Fujian province, they speak a dialect called Min, which has eight different sub-dialects within the province.
And in Taiwan, many people, especially older generations, speak Taiwanese. Unfortunately, these dialects aren't mutually intelligible; knowing Mandarin doesn’t help with understanding other dialects because they are different sounding languages with few, if any, similarities.
Because Chinese characters are so complex, pinyin was developed by Chinese linguists as an official romanization system for the pronunciation of Mandarin. It converts Chinese characters into a familiar and readable format, using just the 26 letters of the English alphabet, thus enabling Western learners to learn to speak Chinese without needing to recognize characters.
In fact, you've already read pinyin above with the different variations of “ma.”
So while no one ever said learning Chinese would be easy, it’s still entirely possible to learn a few basic words and phrases to help you get around on your next trip to a Chinese-speaking country.
You may not be able to master the language without some serious study, but committing a few key phrases to memory will make a world of difference in interacting with locals.
"As ubiquitous and important as English is around the world, don't expect a local to try to communicate with you in English, as you are on their home turf," Mark Libatique told Travel + Leisure. Libatique is a Chinese teacher for Fluent City, a company that offers in-person language classes in cities around the country.
He advises that if you're going to attempt to learn a bit of Chinese, have fun with it — and don't be shy. "Chinese is such a different language from English that you can't help but be entertained while learning. Don't be scared! You will sound awkward at first. You will be misunderstood. But then it'll gradually be less awkward on your tongue, and people will begin to understand you."
Start with these straightforward Mandarin words and phrases below. They are spelled out in pinyin first with the phonetic pronunciation in parentheses. The markings above the pinyin denote the intonation — and while this may be the trickiest part of learning Chinese, the best way to familiarize yourself with intonation will be to listen to the pronunciation.
Google Translate comes in very handy for this, as you can input English and play an audio of the spoken version in Chinese. Once you arrive in your destination, you can also use the Google Translate mobile app or another very useful app called Pleco to take photos of Chinese text (say, on a menu or sign) and have it translate for you on the spot.
Basic Mandarin Chinese words and phrases
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.
Thank you: Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh)
And if there’s a second word to know, this would be it. Always be a polite tourist.
You’re welcome: Bù kèqì (Boo kuh-chi)
Respond with this if someone says “xièxiè (shieh-shieh)” to you.
Good morning: Zǎo (Zhow)
Instead of saying both hello (nǐhǎo) and good morning, you can greet someone with just zǎo in the morning.
Goodnight: Wǎn'ān (One-un)
This is typically used when you're actually going to bed.
My name is…: Wǒ jiào... (Wuh jeow...)
This literally means “I am called...”
My friend’s name is...: Wǒ de péngyǒu jiào… (Wuh duh pung-yo jeow...)
If you’re traveling with a friend, you can now introduce him or her as well. If someone calls you "peng you," don't worry: they're just calling you a friend.
Useful Mandarin Chinese phrases for travelers
Where is the bathroom: Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ? (See-sow-jian zai na-lee?)
This literally translates to “Where is the hand-washing room?” so you can mimic the motion of 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.
How much?: Duō shǎo? (Dwuh shauw?)
Use this phrase to ask the price of something at a street market in China, Taiwan, or Singapore.
Too expensive: Tài guìle! (Tie gway luh!)
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.)
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.
Very beautiful: Hĕn piàoliang (Hen peow-liung)
Locals love when you compliment their home country, so feel free to stoke their egos a bit with this phrase. For example, you might tell your cab driver on the Bund, “Shanghai hen piaoliang” or remark to your tour guide, “Guilin hen piaoliang,” while admiring the karst mountains. If trying to impress a lady you can tell her, “Nǐ hěn piàoliang (nee hen peow liung).” We make no promises about the outcome.
Delicious: Hào chī (How chir); Very delicious: Hěn hào chī (Hen how chir)
The food is a main attraction in Chinese-speaking countries. Use this phrase to praise your host, the waiter, the chef at a restaurant, or the cook at a street stand. If you’re especially impressed with the food, you can even say "Tài hào chīle (tie how chir luh)", which means "Too delicious."
Check, please: Măi dān (My dahn)
Try saying this at the end of your meal.
I don't understand: Wǒ bù dǒng (Wuh boo dong)
A good phrase to remember as you will likely need it.
Let's go!: Wǒmen zǒu ba! (Wuh-men zoew bah!)
You can use this to signify you're ready to leave or to prompt your companions to get going.
Common Mandarin Chinese words
Yes: Shì (Sheh)
No: Bù shì (Bu-sheh)
Good: Hǎo (How)
Bad: Bù hǎo (Boo-how)
Today: Jīntiān (Jeen-tian)
Tomorrow: Míngtiān (Meeng-tian)
Yesterday: Zuótiān (Zwuh-tian)
Goodbye: Zàijiàn (Zhai-jian)