Moving countries comes naturally to the seasoned international school teacher, but many will tell you that having no knowledge of a local language can make some of the daily encounters we all take for granted back home a bit of a struggle. China is no exception in this regard. With its hustle and bustle and busy city-living, a bit of Chinese can help cut through the noise and get you on the fast track in a new life in China. Knowing even just a few words and short phrases can give you the kind of soft landing here that can mean the difference between a first few weeks of aggravation or of daily triumphs.
While English is spoken more and more in China's major cities, apart from a boisterous “Hello!”, many of the people employed in the service industry that you will encounter on a daily basis will still have little to no English. Whether you are communicating with a driver or buying produce down the street from your house, knowing a few useful Mandarin phrases can go a long way. (Don’t be afraid to use your hands too.)
We chatted with a couple of International School of Beijing (ISB) teachers, Josie O'Reilly, from Elementary PE, and Sarah Fenwick-Ross, Grade 2, to get their top tips on some key Chinese phrases when first out and about on the streets of Beijing. Here are their top picks:
nĭ hăo (你好) Pronounced Nee Haow
This is the most common greeting in Chinese. (There’s no shame in starting from the ground floor.) It literally translates to "you good" but has a meaning more akin to "nice to see you". It’s best just to think of it as “hello”. If you add the character ma 吗 after it, it turns it into a question. Now you have “Nihao, nihao ma?” (Hello, how are you?)
xièxie (谢谢) Pronounced Shi-eh Shi-eh
This means “Thank you”. Whether you are asking a question in your native tongue or in Chinese, a polite thank you in Chinese will go a long way.
bú kè qì (不客气) Pronouced Boo-ke-chi
If you are saying thank you, be sure to listen out for this phrase in response. It means “You’re welcome” and literally means “You’re being too polite” (not a bad thing to be if you’re trying to find your way in a new city).
wǒ-tīng-bù-dǒng 我听不懂 Pronounced Woh-ting-boo-dong
A godsend for anyone learning a second language: “I don’t understand.” This phrase literally translates to “I hear you but don't understand”. It is clear and concise and will signal that some hand gestures and signing may be in order to continue the conversation. What's great about Chinese is that you can shorten it even further – "Bu dong – I don’t understand" – and still get your point across.
Nĭ huì shuō Yīngyŭ ma? 你会说英语吗 Pronounced Nee-hway-shwoah-ying-yuu-ma
“Do you speak English?” As mentioned earlier, English is more prevalent nowadays in China's major cities, so it never hurts to ask if someone speaks English. While many people may be shy to speak in front of you, many times their English will better than your Chinese!
zàijiàn 再见 Pronounced Z-eye – ji-en
This is the most basic and common send off in Chinese. It’s polite to say goodbye, but its literal translation of "see you again" is sure to leave you hopeful you’ll be making plenty of fast friends.
A note about tones: if you’re worried about the idea of speaking in a tonal language, don’t be. Just get talking. Your best allies are your ears. Listen to what you hear back and try to imitate what you hear. You’ll be ready to join a Chinese debate team before you know it.