Chinese Travel Phrases
Huānyíng! Welcome to the Fodor's Chinese Language Page, brought to you by the language experts at Living Language. Here you'll find over 150 essential phrases for your trip.
Mandarin Chinese is spoken as a native language by about 900 million people. It's the most widely spoken language in the world, the official language of mainland China and Taiwan, and one of the official languages of Singapore. The other major Chinese dialect, Cantonese, is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, the Guangdong ("Canton") province and Guangxi autonomous region in China, and by many Chinese living outside of China. However, we will only cover Mandarin Chinese here.
The Chinese phrases seen here are all written in pīnyīn, the standard romanization alphabet (transliteration) for Mandarin Chinese used in mainland China.
For beginners, Chinese pronunciation can be intimidating at first. Unlike English, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that every syllable in the language is pronounced with a different tone. These tones are very important, because if you pronounce a syllable with the wrong tone, it can mean something entirely different than what you intended.
Using the vowel a as an example, the first tone, ā, is high and neutral. The second tone, á, goes from middle to high, as if you were asking a question. The third tone, ǎ, goes from middle to low to high, as if stretching out a question. Finally, the fourth tone à goes from high to low, as if you were answering a question. There is also a neutral tone, a, which is unmarked and, of course, neutral in tone.
Here are some examples of how tone can affect meaning: liū (to skate), liú (to flow), liǔ (willow), liù (six). An example of a neutral tone is ma, which is a Chinese particle that goes at the end of a sentence to indicate that it is a question, as in Nǐ hǎo ma? (How are you?)
Although this may seem difficult, pronunciation and recognition of the tones will eventually come naturally with — what else? — time and practice.
Chinese words are made up of one or more syllables (a syllable is equal to one character in Chinese writing). When dealing with a word that contains more than one syllable, it's important to realize that each syllable in that word also has its own, independent meaning or use. Once you start to learn the meaning of some common syllables, then you can often deconstruct the meaning of the full word.
For example, zhōng is a syllable that means middle or central. It is used in many, many words, including zhōngxué (middle school), zhōngwǔ (noon), zhōngfàn (lunch), zhōngnián (middle-aged), Zhōngdōng (Middle East), and, most importantly, Zhōngguó (China).
The other syllables in these words also help indicate meaning: xué in zhōngxué means study, wǔ in zhōngwǔ means noon, fàn in zhōngfàn means meal, nián in zhōngnián means year, dōng in Zhōngdōng means east, and guó in Zhōnggu� means country. As you can see, in Chinese, China literally means central country or, as it's often translated, middle kingdom.
Although pronunciation, vocabulary and, not surprisingly, reading and writing can be a challenge for many students of Chinese, Chinese grammar is actually relatively straightforward.
- There are no conjugated verb forms in Chinese, which means that Chinese verbs don't change form based on subject (I, you, he/she, etc.) or on when the action is taking place (past, present, future, etc.). So, for example, the Chinese verb sh� can mean to be, is, am, are, was, were, and so on.
- There are also no plural forms in Chinese. In other words, xuésheng (student) can be translated as either student or students, depending on the context.
- There are no articles (the, a/an) in Chinese. Therefore, xuésheng can actually mean any of the following: student, a student, the student, etc.
- Unlike many other languages, such as French and German, there is no gender in Chinese.
- Chinese doesn't make it too easy for you, however. For instance, it does have special words called "measure words." Measure words are used to quantify a noun, and usually have to be placed between a number or demonstrative (this, that) and a noun. There are different measure words for different nouns. Let's look at the phrase three books as an example. In Chinese, you wouldn't just say three books, you would say sān běn shū, which breaks down as sān (three) + běn (measure word for books) + shū (book/books).
Free Fodor's Newsletter
Subscribe today for weekly travel inspiration, tips, and special offers.