Common Conversational Words and Phrases in Chinese

4 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Chinese Words and Phrases for Traveling

By mastering the basics of conversation in Chinese, you put yourself and the person you're talking to at ease. Everyone should learn essential Chinese conversational words and phrases before traveling to a Chinese -speaking location. These words and expressions are sure to come up in most everyday conversations.

Basic courtesies

Being polite is important anywhere you go, here or abroad, because it shows respect for the person and the culture. The following words and phrases cover most of the pleasantries required for polite conversation in Chinese:

shì (yes)
(no)

In some instances, you can also simply repeat the main verb of the question to answer "Yes," or negate the verb (bù / méi + verb). For example, nĭ qù măi dōngxi ma? (Are you going shopping?) qù. (Yes.) bùqù. (No.)

búyòngxìe. (You’re welcome.)
kĕnéng (maybe)
qĭng (please) In Chinese, you would rarely use qĭng (please) by itself. It is usually used as part of a question or request.
xièxie (thank you)

Westerners say xièxie (thank you) all the time, and the Chinese find it somewhat quaint and they don't use it that often. In fact, the word búkèqi (You’re welcome) actually means "Don’t be so polite!"

The usual way to say "Yes, thank you" is to use the verb in the question and xièxie. For example, "Would you like some tea?" nĭ yào hē chá ma? "Yes, thank you." yào, xièxie. To say "no thank you," say bú yào, xièxie.

"Excuse me" is a common phrase that is used several different ways in English, but in Chinese, there are actually three different ways to say "excuse me" depending on the situation:

  • If you are trying to get someone's attention or just pass through a line, use duìbùqĭ and láojià.

  • If you need to ask an information question, use qĭngwèn; for example, qĭngwèn, dào bĕijīng fàndiàn zĕnme zŏu? (Excuse me, how do you get to the Beijing Hotel?)

  • If, however, when want to get the attention of a store clerk, waitress, or waiter, just use the person’s title, such as fúwùyuán (waiter/waitress) or shòuhuòyuán (salesclerk).

What to call people you meet

When meeting people in Chinese-speaking locales, be sure to use the appropriate formal title. A man would be called xiānsheng, which is the same as Mr. or Sir. A married woman is called tàitai [informal]/fūren [formal]. The Chinese equivalent for Ms. is nǖshì and Miss would be xiăojiĕ.

Personal pronouns

The next most common way to refer to people is by using personal pronouns. In Chinese, the pronoun you is complicated by formality and you'll use slightly different variations of the word depending on who you are referring to.

The personal pronouns in Chinese are

wŏ (I)
tā (he)
tā (she)
wŏmen (we)
tāmen (they [masculine or mixed group])
tā (it)
nĭmen (you [plural])
nĭ/nín (you [informal/formal])

Phrases for travelers

Now that you've learned the basics of polite conversation, it's time to take it a step further. There are some phrases that are particularly helpful to international travelers. Below are several phrases that might come in handy during your stay in a Chinese-speaking country.

  • wŏ de zhōngwén shuōde bùhăo. (I do not speak Chinese well.)

  • *wŏ shuō yīngwén. (I speak English.)

  • wŏ mílù le. (I am lost.)

  • wŏ zài zhăo jiŭdiàn. (I am looking for the hotel.)

  • duì, wŏ zhīdào. (Yes, I know.)

  • duìbuqĭ. wŏbùzhīdào. (I am sorry. I don’t know.)

  • wŏ bù zhīdào zài năr. (I don’t know where it is.)

  • wŏ bù dŏng. (I don’t understand.)

  • qĭng nĭ zài shuō yícì, hăoma? (Can you repeat, please?)

  • fēicháng gănxìe. (I appreciate it.)

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The Essentials of Chinese Words and Phrases for Traveling

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