A Recent post over on Study More Chinese asked What are the 10 most important phrases for newbies to learn?. The suggested list included phrases such as hello, how are you, good morning, excuse me, and okay. There’s no doubt that the words listed above are essential, but they might be more useful in a classroom setting, rather than for practical everyday use. Obviously a list of the most important phrases is completely subjective and depends on your where you’ll be using the phrases, and a follow up comment by Brandon came from the point of view of teaching some essentials someone who had been dropped in Shanghai, and it’s this list that I’d like to follow up on.
Here’s my list of the top ten most useful Chinese phrases for beginners who are planning to travel or live in a Chinese speaking country:
1. Excuse me/May I ask…
qǐngwèn\ Excuse me/May I ask…
Precede any question to a stranger or service person with this phrase and exude politeness.
請問，洗手間在哪裡？（请问，洗手间在哪里？）\ Qǐngwèn, xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ?
2. This/That one
Zhè ge\ This/this one
Nà gè\ That/that one
Perfect for pointing out objects in a shop that you want to buy. Use with 多少錢（多少钱）for greater effect
3. How much money?
duōshǎo qián\ How much money?
It’s best to ask the price before flashing any cash about.
這個多少錢？ (这个多少钱？）\ Zhège duōshǎo qián ?\ How much (money) is this one?
4. Where is the ___?
zài nǎlǐ\ Where is the ?
You’ll be thankful you know this phrase when nature calls or you just need to find an ATM.
請問，公用電話在哪裡？（请问，公用电话在哪里？）\ Qǐngwèn, gōngyòng diànhuà zài nǎlǐ ?\ Excuse me, where is the payphone?
A slight variant would be ‘Is there a ___ here?’:
請問，這裡有ATM嗎？（请问，这里有ATM吗？）\ Qǐngwèn,zhè li yǒu ATM ma?\ Excuse me, is there an ATM here?
Duìbùqǐ\ I’m sorry.
Bàoqiàn\ I’m sorry.
Both phrases essentially the same, though in my experience 抱歉 is a bit more serious, so use 對不起 as a catch all. Bumped into someone? 對不起！
6. Never mind/It’s okay
Méiguānxì\ Never mind/It’s okay
If someone apologises to you, or gives you some bad news, you can use this phrase to say “never mind”.
7. Simple directions
Zhí zǒu\ Straight ahead
Zuǒ zhuǎn\ turn left
Yòu zhuǎn\ turn right
As Branden mentioned in his comment, these are very useful for taxi rides.
請直走然後過紅綠燈右轉就到了（请直走然后过红绿灯右转就到了）\ Qǐng zhí zǒu ránhòu guò hónglǜdēng yòu zhuǎn jiù dàole\ Please go straight ahead, then after the traffic lights turn right and we’re there.
In addition to turning left and right, it’s also useful to know how to say “on the left or right”.
Yòu biān\ On the right
Zuǒ biān\ On the left
8. I don’t understand
Wǒ tīng bù dǒng\ I don’t understand.
Sometimes you’ve just got to throw your arms in the air and admit you don’t understand, hopefully the other person will simplify their instructions, and not just raise their voice as is common in the west!
9. I want/I don’t want
Useful in both asking questions and replying.
你要喝茶嗎？（你要喝茶吗？）\ Nǐ yào hē chá ma?\ Do you want tea?
我要\ yào\ Yes I want
我不要\ Wǒ bùyào\ No (I don’t want)
10. Meal number X
X hào cān\ Meal number X
If you find yourself in a fast food restaurant and can see what you want but you’re not sure how to pronounce it, use the number instead.
一個三號餐（一个三号餐）\ Yīgè sān hào cān\ A number 3 meal.
Here’s the list complete list in brief for quick reference
- 請問（请问 qǐngwèn） excuse me/may I ask…
- 這個（这个 Zhè ge）This one. 那個（那个 Nà gè）That one.
- 多少錢（多少钱 duōshǎo qián） how much money?
- ___在哪裡？（___在哪里？ ___zài nǎlǐ）Where is the ___?
- 對不起（对不起 Duìbùqǐ）I’m sorry.
- 沒關係（没关系 Méiguānxì）Never mind/It’s okay/
- 直走（直走 Zhí zǒu）Straight ahead. 左轉（左转 Zuǒ zhuǎn） Turn left.右轉（右转 Yòu zhuǎn）Turn right.
- 我聽不懂（我听不懂 Wǒ tīng bù dǒng）I don’t understand.
- 要/不要 （yào/bùyào）I want/ I don’t want.
- X號餐（X号餐 X hào cān）Number X meal
As I mentioned above, a list like this is completely subjective, so you might have your own opinion about which phrases are most useful.