Chinese language : Lesson 2

In our introduction to the Chinese language section we explained the use of tones in mandarin and provided the building blocks so basic sentences could be read and understood. Lesson 2 builds on that knowledge with some commonly used phrases.

language, school , children
Teaching Chinese. Traditional characters for 'what is your name'

All the Chinese words that are mentioned are either introduced in this lesson or elsewhere in the language section.


welcome huān yíng
please; permit; to ask qǐng
ask wèn
thanks xiè xiè
no problem méi guān xì
you're welcome bù xiè
goodbye zài jiàn
happy gāo xīng

The Chinese are a polite people and will thank you if helped in any way. As well as ni hao to say hello you will often hear the word huanying as welcome; it means hearty greeting. The word please is not quite as widely used as it is in English and reserved for a relatively large favor. It is usually put first in a sentence and often in conjunction with wen if asking a question.

The easiest and universal way to express gratitude is with thank you xie xie. This is an example where repeating a character softens its meaning making it less formal. If you thank someone or they thank you there is a phrase that is often used as a reply to thank you it is mei guan xi; it can be translated as no problem but more accurately means no consequence. You can also say bu xie which also means no need to thank / you're welcome it does not mean no thanks. When you want to say farewell; say zai jian it literally means see you again. If you are pleased or happy then gao xing is a useful word to include.

Names and Titles

Mr. xiān shēng
Miss xiǎo jiě
Mrs. tài tài
old; venerable lǎo
friend péng yǒu
comrade tóng zhì
named jiào
what shén me

When addressing people there are conventions regarding names and titles that need to be followed. The first and most important rule is that the order of names is family name followed by given name rather than the other way around. So Xi Jinping is Mr. Xi with given name Jinping. There are only a few family names in use in China, indeed China is sometimes known as the ‘hundred names’, there are tens of millions of people with the same family name. It is therefore important to use the given name as well as the family name. Only close family members and friends are greeted with just their given name. On meeting someone for the first time, formal titles are used: Mr. xian sheng; Miss xiao jie and Mrs. tai tai.

In conversation it’s usual to acknowledge a person’s relative age, this is done by putting old or young before the name. Xiao is used for young people (under 35) and lao for older people (ten years older than yourself or over 40). These are used after first getting acquainted.

In Mao’s China everyone as known as tong zhi comrade it literally means same purpose. The term has faded from use. You may still hear it as an announcement to a group of people in the plural form: tóng zhì mén but it is now also used as a slang term for a homosexual.

It is useful to know the word for friend peng you, a common word for a child is xiao peng youlittle friend’.

To ask someone their name you can say:

please; permit; to ask

called; named
shén me

What is your name?. In response you say wǒ jiào followed by your name.

Lantern Festival, festival, Shanghai
China,Shanghai,Yu Garden,the Lantern Festival 2012 Image by North sea deamer available under a Creative Commons license

Mandarin Tones

We have been careful to avoid introducing too many things at once. Although we have used the pinyin tone marks above the vowels we have not formally introduced them (Our language introduction does have a section on the pinyin tones but they are so important that they are listed again here). In Chinese getting the vowel tones correct is just as important as getting consonants right, they are a part of the language not an optional extra. The vowel sounds can be any of the these five tones, using the wrong tone gives the wrong word.

1First: (-) level high tone shīTo lose, to fail, to miss
2Second: (/) rising tone shíTime
3Third: (v) falling then rising tone shǐTo start, to begin
4Fourth: (\) sharply falling tone shì Life, generation, age
Finally a rarer fifth neutral tone where the tone is muted and not stressed.

With the character yǒu - friend we have a clash with yǒu - have and these two characters share the same third tone so you can only distinguish them by their context. These are examples of homophones, all languages have them, in English write, rite, wright and right are pronounced the same but written differently just like yǒu and yǒu in Chinese.

This and that

We have already mentioned use of shén me; it is almost impossible to converse without using words like this and that and other indefinite relations.

this zhè
that; which

However zhè can be pronounced as zhèi and nà as nèi just to complicate matters a little.

where nà r

The use of ér is a feature of spoken Chinese. On its own it means child usually son but it is also put at the end of a number of words to give it an 'r' ending. This is a feature of the dialect in the Beijing area . To avoid confusion nar is usually used with another character zai which on its own means located; at and together also means where.

where zài nà r

The suffix ér is also used to modify this into here.

here zhè r
who shéi

As well as asking where; you also need to ask people who they are. Shei can also be pronounced as shuí - it is less formal than shéi.

To complete the set, the usual way to ask when is to say what time? which is:

time shí hòu

Time and Date

We have a separate showing how to say the date and time using Chinese numbers which are one of the first things to learn in Chinese.

Essential in spoken Chinese are the words for yesterday, tomorrow, next week and so on. As Chinese does not use tenses of verb you need to indicate past; present; future in other ways. The easiest method is to put a ‘time phrase’ at the start of the sentence, the tense of a verb following it will then be understood correctly.

today jīn tiān
tomorrow míng tiān
day after tomorrow hòu tiān
yesterday zuó tiān
one week yī gè xīng qī
next week xià gè xīng qī
last week shàng gè xīng qī
this month zhè gè yuè
next month xià gè yuè
last month shàng gè yuè
one month yī gè yuè
this year jīn nián
next year míng nián

palace, eunuch, Beijing
Entrance through the Gate of Peace at the Lama Temple Beijing (Yonghegong), or Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple or Yonghegong Lamsery, a renowned lama temple of the Yellow Hat Sect of Lamaism. Building work on the YongHeGong Temple started in 1694 during the Qing Dynasty. It originally served as an official residence for court eunuchs. It was then converted into the court of Prince Yong Zheng (Yin Zhen), a son of emperor KangXi. After YongZheng's ascension to the throne in 1722, half of the building was converted into a lamasery, a monastery for monks of Tibetan Buddhism, while the other half remained an imperial palace. November 2006. Image by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada available under a Creative Commons license

Common words

To make our examples a little more varied here are some more common Chinese words that are very useful.

very hěn

Often heard to add emphasis as in very good : hen hao

weather tiān qì

The word for weather is made out of the characters for heaven and air.

wait děng

Deng is a useful word to know when traveling it is often prefixed with please : qing deng

Sentences and phrases

Here are some phrases and sentences using the words introduced in this lesson.

clothes; dress; garment

affair; business; matter

person; employee; member

Waiter. Asks a waiter to come over to serve you.

nǐ hǎo
venerable; old
forest; woods

Hello Mr. Lin. Greeting for someone old or older than yourself with family name Lin.

Tiananmen Square
tiān ān mén
zài nà r

Where is Tiananmen Square?. Asking directions to the famous landmark, Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

zhōng guó
I (me)

gāo xīng

I am delighted to be in China. Like many sentences there is no need for the English ‘am’, it is inferred from its context.

he; she; it


nà r

Where has he gone?. The past tense gone is split by the term where, this is an example of a difficult direct transliteration.

jīn tiān
tiān qì
good; correct; OK

The weather is good today. There is no need for a verb in this phrase, ‘is’ is implied.

shén me
shí hòu

What time is it?. A useful phrase to ask the time.

is; yes; correct
wǒ de
'of'; spread

This is my ticket. Use of this and that is essential for statements and questions.

zǒu le

Who has left?. Who is just put in place of a person. The same pattern is used in English.

míng tiān
see; meet

See you tomorrow. We came across jian in the word for goodbye zai jian again see.



sky; day

Which day do you leave?. Using which/that automatically turns the sentence into a question.

tā mén
next year
míng nián

měi guó

They are going to America next year. In Chinese, the time phrase has to be put before the verb, in English it would be put at the end.


bù xiè不谢 you're welcome
děng wait
gāo xīng高兴 happy
hěn very
hòu tiān后天 day after tomorrow
huān yíng欢迎 welcome
jiào named
jīn nián今年 this year
jīn tiān今天 today
lǎo old; venerable
méi guān xì没关系 no problem
míng nián明年 next year
míng tiān明天 tomorrow
that; which
nà r那儿 where
péng yǒu朋友 friend
qǐng please; permit; to ask
shàng gè xīng qī上个星期 last week
shàng gè yuè上个月 last month
shéi who
shén me什么 what
shí hòu时候 time
tài tài太太 Mrs.
tiān qì天气 weather
tóng zhì同志 comrade
wèn ask
xiān shēng先生 Mr.
xiǎo jiě小姐 Miss
xià gè xīng qī下个星期 next week
xià gè yuè下个月 next month
xiè xiè谢谢 thanks
yī gè xīng qī一个星期 one week
yī gè yuè一个月 one month
zài jiàn再见 goodbye
zài nà r在那儿 where
zhè this
zhè gè yuè这个月 this month
zhè r这儿 here
zuó tiān昨天 yesterday

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See also