The top ten most useful Chinese phrases for beginners

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…


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


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.


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?

5. Sorry


I’m sorry.


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


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.


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.


yào hē chá ma?
Do you want tea?

Yes I want

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.


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

Other suggestions?

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.

9 responses to “The top ten most useful Chinese phrases for beginners

    1. Thanks for the contribution 😉
      Before anybody goes using this phrase, to “eat someone’s tofu” means to ‘feel them up’, or touch them in any way without consent.

      1. I learnt this the hard way by eating the last bit of tofu at a bbq and saying to the girl across from me “哦对不起我吃你的豆腐”

        It’s still a running joke xD

        1. I didn’t realize it was specifically without consent. Good to know…

          Maybe it’s not really the kind of thing to joke about?

          1. It is used jokingly here in Taiwan, and that’s a funny story about you coming across this phrase at a BBQ 🙂

            I think a good example might be a guy at a club deliberately touching up against a girl, she could then say 他吃了我的豆腐.

  1. Good list. I actually think 不好意思 is more common and useful than 對不起,particularly in Taiwan. 對不起is more of an apology for something bad you’ve done to another person while 不好意思 is good for showing that you are aware of any kind of slight inconvenience you may have caused such as accidentally getting in someone’s way or even just interrupting a conversation to ask a question. Note that 不好意思 and 對不起 are both less frequently heard in the Mainland (particularly the north), at least in my experience.

  2. I learned this phrase while teaching at a school in Shanghai when I complained to female colleagues about the unwanted attention of a male colleague who gave me a necklace as a gift as an excuse to get too close. I didn’t find their laughter or the phrase comforting at all….I expected outrage. Sexual harassment is mostly a thing of the past in Scottish staffrooms, thank goodness.

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