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…
Precede any question to a stranger or service person with this phrase and exude politeness.
Qǐngwèn, xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ?
2. This/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?
It’s best to ask the price before flashing any cash about.
Zhège duōshǎo qián ?
How much (money) is this one?
4. Where is the ___?
You’ll be thankful you know this phrase when nature calls or you just need to find an ATM.
Qǐngwèn, gōngyòng diànhuà zài nǎlǐ ?
Excuse me, where is the payphone?
A slight variant would be ‘Is there a ___ here?’:
Qǐngwèn,zhè li yǒu ATM ma?
Excuse me, is there an ATM here?
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
If someone apologises to you, or gives you some bad news, you can use this phrase to say “never mind”.
7. Simple directions
As Branden mentioned in his comment, these are very useful for taxi rides.
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”.
8. 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.
Nǐ yào hē chá ma?
Do you want tea?
Yes I want
No (I don’t want)
10. 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.
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. If you know of any phrases that you think would be useful to beginners post ’em below in the comments.