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20 Questions to Get You from Zero Chinese to Basic Fluency (Part 3)

#11: How to ask do you have a fork in Chinese

We are having some trouble with chopsticks and we’re asking “Do you have a fork?”

Here is the question and answer:

Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu chāzi?
Do you have a fork?

When you are learning a foreign language sometimes the differences between it and your native language can be stark.  This is one of those times.  But before we begin to take a look at this question, you should know that there are two ways to ask it that are both very common in Chinese.

The question above is pretty exotic to English speakers, but it is a basic structure that you absolutely have to know, even as a beginner.  We’ll take a look at the other way to ask this question later on.
The question above is what we call a “yes/no” question because when you ask it you can simply reply with “yes” or “no.”  The word choice isn’t so different from English but the structure makes it sound very blunt.  Here is the literal translation:  “You have not have fork?”

We can structure the question like this in English too: “Do you have a fork or not?” or “Do you or don’t you have a fork?”

But this structure in English almost always implies that the person asking the question has just about had it with the other person and wants to know once and for all about the fork in question.   But in Chinese this is perfectly normal and doesn’t hold any implications about the person’s emotional state.

Notice that the Chinese question doesn’t use “Do…” at the beginning.

We also don’t have to use “a” before “fork.”  Chinese is very streamlined in this way.  There are no words for “a” and “the” in Chinese.  There are ways to ask about “this” “that” “these” and “those” and you can also ask about numbers of things.  But if you are just wondering if someone has something in general, like a fork, a pen or a phone, then you just follow the pattern in the question above.  Now let’s look at the answer again:


Do you notice something strange about how this kind of question is answered?  After seeing the question, the answer sure does look logical.  It simply says, 
”Not have.” And yes, it is quite short, but the English equivalent, “no,” is even shorter.

Hmmm…  Well, this is a “yes/no” question but notice that there is no “no” (or yes) in our answer.  There is a negative word,
 没(méi), but “no” doesn’t show up as it would in English.

For example, in English a full answer to this “yes/no” question would be “No, I don’t have a fork.”  But in Chinese there are no words for “yes” and “no!”  So now you maybe you are wondering what the person might say if he did have a fork.

In that case, the answer would be,
 有(yǒu).  In Chinese you need to answer “yes/no” questions by repeating the verb in the question for “yes” or by putting a negative word in front of the verb for “no.”  This happens often and it doesn’t happen with just verbs.  Adjectives can follow the same pattern.  But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look at this structure in some other common verb examples.

But… before we do that, you need to know that
 没(méi) is used to negate the verb
 有(yǒu).  But you also need to know that
 没(méi)  IS NOT used to negate most verbs.  The word
 不(bù)gets the job of putting a slash through your average verb.  Both words are negative and both would translate to “not” in this context.  Below are some other common “yes/no” questions. You can choose to add the pronoun at the beginning of the sentence or leave it out.

Question: 他在不在? Tā zài bú zài? Is he here?
Answer: 不在。 or 在。

Question: 你是不是美国人? Nǐ shì bú shì méigūo rén? Are you American?
Answer: 我不是美国人。 or 我是美国人。

Question: 你能不能跑? Nǐ néng bù néng pǎo? Can you run or not?
Answer: 不能。 or 能。

Question: 你会不会说英文? Nǐ hùi bú hùi shūo yīngwén? Can you speak English?
Answer: 不会。 or 会。

Question: 你要不要喝茶? Nǐ yào bú yào hē chá? Do you you want tea?
Answer: 不要。 or 要。

Question: 你想不想吃饭? Nǐ xiǎng bù xiǎng chīfàn? Do you want to eat?
Answer: 不想。 or 想。

Question: *你喜不喜欢上网? Nǐ xǐ bù xǐhuān shàngwǎng? Do you like to go online?
Answer: 不喜欢。 or 喜欢。

Question: *我可不可以进去? Wǒ kě bù kěyǐ jìnqù. Can I go in?
Answer: 不可以。 or 可以。

*Check out how the two character verbs
 喜欢(xǐhuān) and
 可以(kěyǐ) can be shortened to just the first character in front of
 不(bù)in this pattern. You don’t have to shorten it, but it is very common and a lot less cumbersome to say.

More info:
The verb 
有(yǒu) in our question
 你有没有叉子? means “have.” But if we leave out the pronoun
 你(nǐ) we would translate this question a little differently. So in the question
 有没有叉子? the verb
 有(yǒu) might better be translated as “there is” as in, “Is there a fork (around here)?” or literally, “There is, there is not a fork?” This is very simple but important to know. In English for example, if you want to know if someone is occupying a restroom you may ask at the door, “Is there someone in there?” but we would probably not say “Are YOU in there?” unless you were pretty certain of who was the occupant. Similarly, in Chinese asking
 有没有人?(Yǒu méiyǒu rén? – Is there a person or not?) is a less personal question. So to sum up this point,
 你有没有… means, “Do you or don’t you have…” and
 有没有 (Yǒu méiyǒu…?) means,
 “Is there or isn’t there…?”

Even more info:

The other way to ask our yes/no question,
 “Do you have a fork?” is
 你有叉子吗? (Nǐ yǒu chāzi ma?)
 The word order in this question matches up well with English,
 “You have fork (question particle)?” Here the 
吗 just tells us that this is a question, similar to how
 “Do” signifies a question in the English question. This is also a very common pattern and while adding
 吗 is the easier way to go for English speakers, it is still just as important to be able to use the
 有没有 (and the “Verb不 Verb”) pattern.

Below are some things that you might want to ask if a person has, or not. Just replace
 叉子 in the question 
你有没有叉子? with one of the things from the list below.

  • 刀 - Dāo – knife
  • 勺子 - Sháozi – spoon
  • 筷子 - Kuàizi – chop sticks
  • 啤酒 - Píjiǔ – beer
  • 可乐 - Kělè – cola
  • 一瓶水 - Yī píng shuǐ – a bottle of water
  • 笔 - Bǐ – pen
  • 纸 - Zhǐ – paper
  • 手机 - Shǒujī – cell phone
  • 烟 - Yān – cigarette
  • 钱 - Qián – money
  • 信用卡 - Xìnyòngkǎ – credit card
  • 护照 - Hùzhào – passport
  • 自相车 - Zìxíngchē – bike
  • 车子 - Chēzi – car

#12: How to ask how much in Chinese

Today we are in the marketplace and we’re asking, “How much?”
Here is the question and answer:

Duōshao qián?
How much?

qī kuài jiǔ máo jiǔ fēn qián.

Money can be difficult to deal with in another language. Numbers have a way of resisting the mind’s attempts to switch from one language to another. If the language has a different way of expressing monetary units, like Chinese, then the job is even tougher.

So in this lesson we won’t look at everything you need to know about money, but rather just the absolute basics of what you should know about shopping in places where Chinese is spoken. Let’s take a look at the question.

The words for “How much” are
 多少(duōshao). The character
 多(duō) means “more” or “many.” The character
 少(shao) means “few” or “less.” The character
 钱(qián) means “money.” So
 多少钱(duōshao qián) might seem to have a connotation of “more or less money?” That might be good way to remember the characters but it is not a very good translation. This question isn’t asking for an estimate of how much something costs. It is simply asking the price of something. But it can be useful to keep a loose translation for
 多少(duōshao) in your mind because it can also be used to ask about numbers in general, not just to ask “how much” or “how many.” We’ll talk more about that later. Now let’s look at the answer.

In the US, we might say this price as, “Seven dollars and ninety nine cents” or we might just say, “Seven ninety nine” or if we want to round it up we might say, “8 bucks.” This kind of thing happens in Chinese too. The base monetary unit in China is 元(yuán) but most people will say
 块(kuài)instead in everyday speech. It’s kind of the same as “dollar” and “buck” in English.

Next we have some words that don’t have a translation in English. Chinese uses measure words to hold the 10’s and 100’s place when talking about money:
 毛(máo) is used for the tenths place and 
分(fēn) is used for the hundredths place. The word
 钱(qián) on the end just means “money.”

Just as in English, Chinese speakers may choose to leave out some of the pieces of information above, but not the numbers of course! As a beginner, it is best to use all the measure words above. It’s a good communication strategy (and good practice) to repeat the price after you hear it with all the information to make sure you’ve understood. And when in doubt, ask the person to write the number down.

More Info:
The characters 多少(duōshao)can also be used to ask about a phone number.

Nǐ de shǒujī hàomǎ shì duōshǎo?
Whatis your cell phone number?

Wǒ de shǒujī hàomǎ shì bāliù qīwǔsān líng jiǔ.
My cell phone number is 867-5309.

The important thing to remember about
 多少(duōshao)is that it is used to ask about numbers. It is most often used to ask “how much” or “how many” but it can be a bit more flexible and be used outside of that context as well.

Chinese Numbers

*It is important to note that Chinese uses numerals (1, 2, 3…) just as English does. So you are likely to see prices, phone numbers, years, etc. expressed in numerals, not just Chinese characters.

  • 一 Yī – 1
  • 二 Èr – 2
  • 三 Sān – 3
  • 四 Sì – 4
  • 五 Wǔ – 5
  • 六 Liù – 6
  • 七 Qī – 7
  • 八 Bā – 8
  • 九 Jiǔ – 9
  • 十 shí – 10
  • 十一 Shíyī – 11
  • 十二 Shí’èr -12
  • 十三 Shísān – 13
  • 十四 Shísì – 14
  • 十五 Shíwǔ – 15
  • 十六 Shíliù – 16
  • 十七 Shíqī – 17
  • 十八 Shíbā – 18
  • 十九 Shíjiǔ -19
  • 二十 Èrshí – 20
  • 二十一 Èrshíyī – 21
  • (numbers to 99 follow the same pattern)

Chinese numeration

When dealing with larger numbers, Chinese is the same as English in most aspects. Chinese uses words for hundred, thousand, million and billion. But unlike English, Chinese kind of starts over after the thousands place and reuses the characters for tens, hundreds and thousands in combination with the word for the “ten thousand’s” place, 万(wàn).

This pattern happens again after the hundred thousands place. In other words, the Chinese number system uses the thousands place in the same way English uses the hundreds place. The prefix characters, 千,百,十 are always reused and the base character are changed every four places. The easiest way to explain this is to see it illustrated. Check out the number below.

1, 0 0 0, 0 0 0, 0 0 0 (one billion)
十亿 亿 千万 百万, 十万 万 千, 百 十 个
shíyì, yì qiānwàn bǎiwàn, shíwàn wàn qiān, bǎi shí gè

#13: How to ask what time does the show start in Chinese

Here is the question and answer:


Yǎnchū jǐ diǎn kāishǐ?
What time does the show start?

Qī diǎn bàn.

Telling time in Chinese is refreshingly easy and logical. But there are some minor differences from English that could lead to major difficulties, so we are going to keep it as simple as possible. We will focus on the most basic way to express time so that you can know what to listen for when you hear it and so that you can tell time easily. Let’s look at the question.

Notice that the word order is different from English. The event comes first in the sentence, in this case it is the show,
 演出(yǎnchū). Next is the
 “what time” part of the sentence. It is important to know here that
 几(jǐ) doesn’t mean “what” and 
点(diǎn) doesn’t mean “time.” These characters are used to refer to how many “points” or “dots” are indicated by the hands on the clock.

So imagine an old analogue clock with no hour numbers on it, just dots. The hour hand is somewhere over in the 7 o’clock area, but it’s kind of hard to tell. So you start counting the dots. Sure enough you count seven dots. Now the question makes a little more sense:
 “The show / how many dots / start?” If it is helpful for you, you might even want to remember the translation of this question as,
 “At what point does the show start?” instead of “What time does the show start?”

The final piece is
 开始(kāishǐ) which means
 “start.” We put “start” at the end of the question in English too, which is convenient. Just as we can replace “the show” with other events, we can also replace “start” with other words: end, open, close, arrive, and leave. We’ll take a look at how to do that later. Now let’s learn how to tell time.

Begin by saying the hour. In our answer we have seven, 七(qī). Next you need to say “dots,” 点(diǎn). Sometimes you’ll hear or see 钟(zhōng) next, which means “clock” but let’s just keep it simple and stick with 点(diǎn). Now we are ready to talk about the minutes in our time. In our time we have 半(bàn) which means “half.”

So the time in our answer is literally “seven and a half dots.” Using “quarter” hours is also very simple. For “quarter after” use 一刻(yí kè), which means “one quarter.” For “quarter of” use 三刻(sān kè), which means “three quarters.”

If you want to be specific about the minutes you can simply say the number of minutes as you would say any other number. So 7:17 would be 七点七十(qī diǎn qīshí). But you need to know two things about expressing minutes.

First, if you have minutes from :01 to :09, you usually say the preceding zero, or 零(ling) in Chinese. So 7:05 would be 七点零五(qī diǎn ling wǔ). Second, it is also common to put 分(fēn) on the end of the sentence to say “minutes.” So 7:05 could also be expressed 七点零五分(qī diǎn ling wǔ fēn). But you never need to use 分(fēn) with half hours and quarter hours. It is only used when you are naming the number of minutes.

More Info
Maybe you want to ask about when, but not necessarily about the hour. For example, you might want to ask, “When are you going to China?” In this case you are not expecting the person to answer with a time, but rather some future date. Here Chinese works a lot like English.

The characters for “when” in Chinese are 什么时候(shénme shíhòu) and they mean “what” and “time” respectively. But the 时候(shíhòu) part of this means time in general and isn’t specific to just clock time, therefore the meaning is closer to “when” than to “what time.” So you might be wondering if 什么时候(shénme shíhòu) can replace 几点(jǐ diǎn) in our question above. Well, yes it can.

Yǎnchū jǐ diǎn kāishǐ?
What timedoes the show start?

Yǎnchū shénme shíhou kāishǐ?
Whendoes the show start?

And now you might be wondering why not just use 什么时候(shénme shíhòu) all the time since it can do 几点(jǐ diǎn)’s job and more. The English translations above illustrate the answer pretty well. It’s important to know how to construct this question with both “what time” and “when” in English. The same goes for Chinese.

But since we are primarily concerned with time in this lesson, 几点(jǐ diǎn) is the most logical option. Also, you need to use 点(diǎn) to tell the time anyway. Plus, it’s easier to say than 什么时候(shénme shíhòu).

A wee bit more

Many countries, including China, use the 24-hour clock for transportation time and other scheduled events. This is its own source of troubles for Americans who aren’t used to this system. We won’t complicate things by looking at it here. Just know that it works the same way as the patterns above. But it might be helpful to know how to express AM and PM. These are the three times of day that will be used with telling time:

早上 下午 晚上
zǎoshang xiàwǔ wǎnshàng
morning afternoon evening/night

Just add these expressions to at the beginning of the sentence in front of the hour to specify the time of day.

Zǎoshang qī diǎn bàn.
7:30 am (in the morning)

Here are some examples of how to ask questions about time and how to answer. Remember the basics that we covered in our first question and answer, but be aware of the other options that might pop up.


演出几点开始? 七点一刻。
Yǎnchū jǐ diǎn kāishǐ? Qī diǎn yīkè.
What time does the show begin? 7:15

演出几点结束? 七点一半。
Yǎnchū jǐ diǎn jiéshù? Qī diǎn yībàn.
What time does the show end? 7:30

商店几点开门? 七点三刻。
Shāngdiàn jǐ diǎn kāimén? Qī diǎn sān kè.
What time does the store open? 7:45

商店几点关门? 七点零七。
Shāngdiàn jǐ diǎn guānmén? Qī diǎn líng qī.
What time does the store close? 7:07

火车几点走? 七点钟零七分。
Huǒchē jǐ diǎn zǒu? Qī diǎn zhōng líng qī fēn.
What time does the train leave? 7:07

火车几点到? 七点钟四十七分。
Huǒchē jǐ diǎn dào? Qī diǎn zhōng sìshíqī fēn.
What time the train arrive? 7:47

现在几点? 七点。
Xiànzài jǐ diǎn? Qī diǎn.
What time is it? 7:00

#14: How to ask when is your birthday in Chinese

Today we are talking about the most important day of the year, your birthday! It’s not only important on a personal level, but it also teaches you the pattern for expressing dates. And in Chinese, this pattern is very easy. Let’s take a look at the question and answer.

Nǐ de shēngrì shì jǐ yuè jǐ hào?
When is your birthday?

Wǒ de shēngrì shì shí yī yuè èrshísì hào.
My birthday is November 24th.

You can see that the word order and word choice are different from English, but this is one of those cases where the differences don’t seem to matter much.

The sentence starts out with 你(nǐ) which means “you.” The character 的(de) can have lots of meanings, but here it just changes the “you” into the possessive “your.”

Next, the character 生(shēng) means“birth” and the character日(rì) means “day.” We couldn’t ask for a simpler translation.

Next, the character 是(shì) means “is.” Now we’re on to the date. The character 几(jǐ) means “what.”

You might remember that 什么(shénme) also means “what.” But the two are not interchangeable. When used in a question, 几(jǐ) always asks for “what number.” The character 月(yuè) means month. So 几月(jǐ yuè) means, “what number month.”

So you might be asking yourself why we need to use “what number” to talk about months. Chinese uses numbers from 1 to 12 for months rather than names as in English. So January is literally “first month.” We’ll see more about this below.

Now for the day; The character 号(hào) is really the most confusing part of all this. The 号(hào) means “number.” Why Chinese doesn’t use the word “day” here is a mystery. But regardless, in this context, 几号(jǐ hào) means “what day.”

The literal translation, “Your birthday is what month what day?” definitely sounds foreign and maybe even a bit robotic. But it is easy to understand and remember and as we will see later, the pattern can be used to ask about any date. Now it’s time for the answer.

The first part of the answer 我的生日是… (Wǒ de shēngrì shì…) just repeats the question. The only difference is that you need to replace “your” 你的(nǐ de) with “my” 我的 (wǒ de). The next part of the answer is also a repetition of the question. All you need to do is replace
几(jǐ)in both places with the number for the month of your birthday and the number for the date of your birthday. Look at the pattern below.

Question Answer
…几月几号? …十一月二十四号.
…jǐ yuè jǐ hào? … shíyī yuè èrshísì hào.
…what month what day? … 11th month 24th day.

More Info:
Here are some cosmic connections to help you remember this pattern. First, 日(rì) means “day” but it is also the character for “sun” and 月(yuè) means “month” but it is also the character for “moon.” This makes a lot of sense since the movement of the sun defines a day and the movement of the moon defines a month. The characters even kind of look like stylized representations of the sun and the moon (especially the moon with its crescent stroke).

Also, you might remember that 什么时候(shénme shíhou) means “when.” So why not use it in this question and avoid the 几月几号(jǐ yuè jǐ hào) altogether? You certainly could do that. The question would then look like this:

Nǐ de shēngrì shì shénme shíhou?
Whenis your birthday?

We didn’t include 什么时候(shénme shíhou) in our original question because you need to know the 几月几号(jǐyuè jǐ hào) pattern to be able to say the date anyway. But please know that 什么时候(shénme shíhou) is ok here too.

Finally, the day and date are always wrapped up with one another so let’s take a quick look at the days of the week. There are a few ways to express the days of the week in Chinese, but we are going to take a look at the most common. To ask “What day?” you say, 星期几?(Xīngqí jǐ?). To answer, you just replace 几(jǐ) in the question with a number. Just like Chinese months, Chinese days are expressed with numbers. Here are the days of the week:

星期一 星期二 星期三 星期四 星期五 星期六 星期天
xīngqí yī xīngqí èr xīngqí sān xīngqí sì xīngqí wǔ xīngqí liù xīngqí tiān
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

Notice that the Chinese week starts on Monday and that Sunday uses the character 天(tiān) and not the number 7, 七(qī). You cannot put 星期(xīngqí) and 七(qī) together to mean Sunday.

And while we’re at it…

Asking someone’s age in China isn’t as taboo as it can be in the west, so it might come up. There are a few ways to ask how old a person is, but we’ll just look at one here. This question also uses 几(jǐ) to ask “what number year?”

Question Answer
你今年几岁? 我今年四十岁。
N ǐ jīnnián jǐ suì? Wǒ jīnnián sìshí suì.
How old are you (this year)? I’m 40 years old (this year).

Personalizing your Q and A

Here are some examples of how you can ask and answer questions about dates. To change the question simply put the event you want to ask about in front of 几月几号(jǐyuè jǐ hào).

Question / Answer
圣诞节是几月几号? 十二月二十五号。
Shèngdàn jié shì jǐ yuè jǐ hào? Shí’èr yuè èrshíwǔ hào.
When is Christmas? December 25th.

聚会是几月几号? 三月十五号。
Jùhuì shì jǐ yuè jǐ hào? Sān yuè shíwǔ hào.
When is the meeting? March 15th.

你去中国几月几号? 八月八号。
Nǐ qù zhōngguó jǐ yuè jǐ hào? Bā yuè bā hào.
When are you going to China? August 8th.

*Note: You will often see Chinese dates written with numerals. For example:

Question Answer
聚会是几月几号? 3月15号。

#15: How to ask what is this in Chinese

Today we are almost too scared to open our mouths to ask, “What is this?” There are few things more frightening than being in a foreign country and having to face food that doesn’t resemble… well, food. Here is the question and answer.


Zhè shì shénme?
What is this?


Zhè shì dòufu.
This is tofu.

Despite some of the complexities that Chinese can throw at you, it can also be beautifully simple. This is one of those times. The question is a mirror image of the English and the answer matches up exactly with English. Let’s look at the question first.

The question is in the reverse order of the English sentence, but since there are only three words to deal with this isn’t much of an obstacle. The first character is
这(zhè) and it means
“this.” The character
是(shì) means
“is.” Finally,
什么(shénme) means
“what.” So the literal translation is,
“This is what?” – beautiful and simple. Now let’s look at the answer.

The answer follows the same word order as the question. (Notice that in English we switch the word order from question to answer. We do this a lot and it makes learning English a bit complicated for foreigners.) All we need to do in the Chinese answer is replace the question word,
什么(shénme), with a thing and you’re done.

In our answer we have
豆腐(dòufu). So the literal translation for the answer is,
“This is tofu.” (We’re likely to complicate things even a little more in English by replacing “This…” in the question with the word “It…” in answer: “It’s tofu.”)

More Info

We’ve seen 什么(shénme) before and we’ve had some other words that we can also translate as “what.” But 什么(shénme) is the stock translation for “what.” You can say 什么?(shénme?) all by itself if you didn’t hear someone to mean, “What?” Or, if you did hear the person, but you can’t quite believe what the person said, then you can also say 什么(shénme) to show your incredulity. So as you can see, in this context 什么(shénme) works the same as the word “what” does in English.

Getting more specific

You might find yourself in a situation where saying, “what is this?” might sound a little too blunt. Let’s say you are at someone’s home for dinner. Dinner is served and you’d like to know the name of the dish. In this situation, saying, “what is this?” can sound rather rude. In other contexts, asking, “what is this?” can make you seem one chopstick shy of a pair.

Imagine you are in a tea house in Shanghai. A cup of tea is placed in front you. You want to ask what kind of tea it is. But if you ask, “what is this?” people are likely to smile at you sympathetically and say, “tea.” Luckily, asking about kinds of things uses the pattern that we’ve reviewed above. All you need to do is add the kind of thing you want to know about at the end of the question, 这是什么_____?(Zhè shì shénme_____?) You are literally saying, “This is what_____?” Take a look at the examples below.

Zhè shì shénme cài?
What kind of food is this?

Zhè shì shénme chá?
What kind of tea is this?

Zhè shì shénme ròu?
What kind of meat is this?

Zhè shì shénme shūcài?
What kind of vegetable is this?

Zhè shì shénme shuǐguǒ?
What kind of fruit is this?

Zhè shì shénme jiǔ?
What kind of alcohol is this?

Zhè shì shénme píjiǔ?
What kind of beer is this?

Zhè shì shénme dōngxi?
What kind of thing is this?

*Note: If you need to say “that” instead of “this” you just replace 这(zhè) with 那(nà).

Nà shì shénme?
What is that?

Now it’s your turn. Try to tell about the topics above and I will launch more topics for learning basic Chinese later.

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Matt Sikora

Matt is a certified foreign language instructor(English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) with 20 years experience in the US and abroad. He focused on developing online communicative environments for students in their language of study. Provides classes for personal, educational and corporate enrichment that blend face-to-face instruction with current technology to create individualized learning paths.

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