20 Questions to Get You from Zero Chinese to Basic Fluency (Part 4)

In this series we will take a look at approximately 20 basic, high frequency questions and answers that will help you with your communication skills in Mandarin Chinese. Please feel free to answer the questions in Mandarin or pinyin in the reply to the best of your ability.
If you are beyond the basic Chinese level, perhaps you would like to answer the questions with a more in depth response, using more colloquial language, providing some helpful tips and cultural information or correcting the answers (or questions) for all who are new to Mandarin.

Follow me, let’s learn basic Chinese now:

Last time we took a look at how to say, 
”What is this?” in Chinese. If you missed that discussion, take some time to 
go back and check it out.

#16: How to ask How are you doing in Chinese

Today we run into someone we haven’t seen in a bit and we ask, “How are you doing?” Here is the question and answer:

Nǐ zuìjìn zěnmeyàng?
How are you doing?

Wǒ hěn hǎo. Xiè xie. Nǐ ne?
I’m good. Thanks. And you?

Think of all the ways that you could greet someone in English: How are you? What’s up? How have you been? How are you doing? How is it going? How have you been lately? What’s new? What’s going on? They are all slightly different, but they all get the same point across.

This happens in Chinese too. There are lots of ways to greet people. Which greeting you use might depend on your relationship with the person, the time of day or the kind of response you are looking for. Today we will be looking at two ways to greet someone with the question, “How are you doing?” If you are looking for some hip ways to greet your friends, check out Brandon’s post on how to say,
 “What’s up?” in Chinese

Our question today doesn’t match up with English very well at all. The word order and word choice is very different from English. There is no verb in the sentence and to make things worse, the words don’t translate very easily.

So today we’ll take a slightly more detailed look at what is going with this question so you can get a handle on it. The first word,
你(Nǐ) is no stranger to us. It means “you” and it often comes at the beginning of a question, so no surprise here. The next word is
最近(zuìjìn) and it means “recently.” This is one of those times that taking a closer look might help you remember the characters and help you to make a connection when you see them in another context.

The character 
最(zuì) is a superlative meaning “most.” You can put it in front of any adjective and it gives it the –est treatment: like biggest, smallest, etc. For example, we can say 最好(zuì hǎo) to mean “best.” In our question
 最(zuì) is connected to
近(jìn) which means “close.” The character
 近(jìn) can also be used to talk about distance between two places that are “close.” So
 最近(zuìjìn) means “most close” in a metaphorical sense. You can take it to mean “most close
 time” or maybe “most close
 to you.” It’s a slippery word and can take a bit to get used to.

At any rate, the best translation we have for it is “recently” or “lately.” Finally we have
 怎么样(zěnmeyàng). There are few phrases that are as versatile as
 怎么样(zěnmeyàng) in Chinese. Its flexibility makes it a must-know phrase, but that also means that it can have a lot of meanings. In our question here,
怎么样(zěnmeyàng) just means “how.” But, of course, we have three characters, so let’s take this phrase apart to understand it a little better.

The character
怎(zěn) means “how” in this context, but it can also mean “why” or “what.” The character
么(me) has no meaning. All you really need to know is that it is just something that gets thrown in with a few of the question words: 什么(shénme) 什么时候(shénme shíhou) and 怎么(zěnme). The character
样(yàng) is kind of ambiguous. It can mean,
“kind” “way” “style” or
 “type.” It isn’t very helpful for us. A very rough literal translation of these three characters might be “what way.”

Put the whole question together and you get, “You most close what way?” That’s a very sketchy translation to say the least, but it can help you to remember the characters and make a connection when they come up in other contexts. Now, after all that being said, if you just remember
 你最近怎么样?(Nǐ zuìjìn zěnnmeyàng?) as a chunk that means, “How are you doing?” you’ll be just fine!

The answer gives the information you’d expect (a subject and an adjective to describe it) but Chinese is unique when it comes to adjectives. We start out with
 我(wǒ) which means “I.” The next word is
 很(hěn) which means “very.” But there are two things that are odd about this.

First, Chinese doesn’t use a form of the word “to be” with adjectives. For example, in English you might say, “I
am good” so you would expect the Chinese translation to be 我是好(Wǒ
shì hǎo).
THIS IS NOT CORRECT. Chinese doesn’t use the verb 是(shì) with adjectives.

The second odd thing is that the word 很(hěn) in this context doesn’t really carry much meaning with it. Yes, the word
 does mean “very” but if you really wanted to say “very good” in this context, you would probably replace
 很(hěn) with another word. Here
 很好(hěn hǎo) will mean just plain old “good” as often as it will mean “very good.”

You might be wondering if you can just skip the
 很(hěn) altogether. In this particular sentence, the answer is yes, but with other adjectives, not with 
好(hǎo). The general rule is that adjectives that are only one syllable will get
 很(hěn), or some other modifier, in front of them. The next sentence simply means “thanks.” The character
 谢(xìe) means “to thank” and Chinese likes to keep things symmetrical, so the syllable is repeated.

We’ve seen the last sentence before. The character
 你(nǐ) means “you” and
 呢(ne) is a particle that just acts as a question mark that the speaker needs to say. So our literal translation is, “I (very) good. Thanks. And you?”
Below are some other common responses to the question
 你最近怎么样? (Nǐ zuìjìn zěnmeyàng?)

不错。 (Bú cuò.) Great. (lit. not bad)
还好。(Hái hǎo.) Good. (lit. still good)
还可以。(Hái kěyǐ.) Okay.
我很忙。(Wǒ hěn máng.) I’m very busy.
不太好。(Bú tài hǎo.) Not too good.
不好。(Bù hǎo.) Not good.

More Info:
In English we can use the question, “How are you doing?” to mean something more like, “How are you feeling?” or “What’s the matter?” There are a few ways to hint at this in Mandarin as well. You can say, 你怎么了?(Nǐ zěnme le?) or you can say 什么事?(Shénme shì?). Below are some ways to respond:

我饿了。(Wǒ è le.) I’m hungry.

我渴了。(Wǒ kě le.) I’m thirsty.

我病了。(Wǒ bìng le.) I’m sick.

我不舒服。(Wǒ bù shūfu.) I don’t feel well. (lit. I not comfortable.)

我很累。(Wǒ hěn lèi.) I’m tired.

我很困。(Wǒ hěn kùn.) I’m sleepy.

我很冷。(Wǒ hěn lěng.) I’m cold.

我很热。(Wǒ hěn rè.) I’m hot.
*Note: the adjectives 饿(è) 渴(kě) and 病(bìng) do not use 很(hěn) as a modifier.

#17: How to ask What does she look like in Chinese

Today our friend is telling us about someone else and we are asking, “What does she look like?” Here is the question and answer:

Tā zhǎng de zěnmeyàng?
What does she look like?

Tā hěn piàoliang.
She is very pretty.

Asking what someone looks like in Chinese isn’t too hard despite the fact that the question doesn’t resemble the English at all. This is one of those cases where the Chinese makes more sense than the English. The English question, “What does she look like?” is obscured a bit. If you were trying to learn English, you might expect to hear an answer comparing the person with a noun, not an adjective:
Q: What does she look like?
A: She looks like a model.
In comparison, the Chinese question is a lot more logical. Let’s take a look.

The word 她(tā) means “she.” (Note: the masculine “he” has the same pronunciation but uses a different character, 他) The next word, 长 (zhǎng) has a few meanings, but here it would literally mean “grow.” The character得(de) is a particle and it has no meaning here. In the question it is used to connect the verb with the adjective to tell how the “growing” is done (in this case, the growing is pretty.)

That’s the detailed explanation of the two characters but it might be more practical to just remember that when长(zhǎng) combines with得(de) the meaning is “looks like” or “appears.” We looked at怎么样(zěnmeyàng) in detail in question #16, so there is no need to go over each character again individually. 怎么样(zěnmeyàng) just means “how” in our question. When you put it all together you get something like, “She grows how?” or “She looks/appears how?” Now let’s go on to the answer.

The answer gives the information you’d expect (a subject and an adjective to describe it) but Chinese is unique when it comes to adjectives. We start out with 她(tā) which means “she.” The next word is 很(hěn) which means “very.” But what makes Chinese different is that it doesn’t use a form of the word “to be” with adjectives. For example, in English you might say, “She is pretty” so you would expect the Chinese translation to be 她是漂亮(Tā shì piàoliang). THIS IS NOT CORRECT. Chinese doesn’t use the verb 是(shì) with adjectives in this grammar pattern.

The final word is漂亮(piàoliang) which means, “pretty.” The definitions of the individual characters don’t help out much here, so it’s best to just remember them together as “pretty.” So all together we get, “She very pretty.” Now you might be asking yourself, can I use the长得(zhǎng de) in the answer? Sure. Your answer would look like this, 她长得很漂亮(Tā zhǎng de hěn piàoliang.)

More Info:
You can replace 漂亮(piàoliang)in the answer with any one of the adjectives below to describe a person’s physical traits.

好看 - Hǎokàn – good looking
难看-Nánkàn – ungly (lit. hard look)
可爱- Kě’ài – cute
老-Lǎo – old
年轻-Niánqīng – young
高-Gāo – tall
矮-Ǎi – short
胖-Pàng – fat
瘦-Shòu – thin

#18: How to ask What is she like in Chinese

We know from question #17 that she is pretty. But now we want to know about her personality and we’re asking, “What is she like?” Here is the question and answer:
Tā de xìnggé zěnmeyàng?
What is she like?

Tā hěn yóuhǎo.
She is very friendly.

We first saw the phrase 怎么样(zěnmeyàng) back in question #16, “How are you doing?” As you can see now, we’re getting a lot of mileage out of it. It’s useful because it works in a lot of basic patterns. But perhaps more importantly, it gives your language ability some depth. You no longer have to simply spell out the details of your life in objects (nouns) and actions (verbs). Now you can use 怎么样(zěnmeyàng) get to the details about those objects and actions. You can also express your thoughts and opinions. That’s deep stuff. This lesson gets you to that next level. Let’s take a look.

The character 她(tā) means, “she.” The particle 的(de) has no meaning by itself. When you combine
的(de) with a person’s name or a pronoun it makes that noun or pronoun possessive. So
她的(tāde) means, “her.” Next is the word
性格(xìnggé). The character
性(xìng) means “character” “disposition” or “temperament.” The character
格(gé) means “standard” or “style.” So you can see that together
性格(xìnggé) is pretty close to the English, “personality” “disposition” or “temperament.” Finally we come back to
怎么样(zěnmeyàng). We took a detailed look at
怎么样(zěnmeyàng) back in question #16 so you can
go back and check it out if you are curious about the individual characters. But in this context it is easiest to just translate
怎么样(zěnmeyàng) as “how.” All together the literal translation is, “Her personality how?” Now let’s check out the answer.

The answer gives the information you’d expect (a subject and an adjective to describe it) but Chinese is unique when it comes to adjectives. We start out with 她(tā) which means “she.” The next word is 很(hěn) which means “very.” But what makes Chinese different is that it doesn’t use a form of the word “to be” with adjectives. For example, in English you might say, “She
is friendly” so you would expect the Chinese translation to be 她是友好(Tā
shì yóuhǎo). THIS IS NOT CORRECT. Chinese doesn’t use the verb 是(shì) with adjectives in this grammar pattern. The final word is
友好(yǒuhǎo). The character
友(yǒu) means, “friend” or “friendly”and the character
好(hǎo) means, “good” so it is easy to see how
友好(yǒuhǎo) matches up with “friendly” in English.

More Info:
You can replace 友好(yǒuhǎo)in the answer with anyone of the adjectives below to describe a person’s physical traits.

和气-Héqì – nice, kind
吝啬-Lìnsè – mean
外向-Wàixiàng – outgoing
害羞-Hàixiū – shy
矜持-Jīnchí – reserved
平静-Píngjìng – calm
懒惰-Lǎnduò – lazy
勤奋-Qínfèn – hardworking
聪明-Cōngmíng – smart, clever
笨-Bèn – stupid
严-Yán – strict
随和-Suíhé – easy going

#19: How to ask How was the movie in Chinese

Today we are catching up with a friend about what we did over the weekend and we are asking, “How was the movie?” Here is the question and answer:

Zhè bù diànyǐng zěnmeyàng?
How was the movie?
Wǒ juéde hěn yǒu yìsi.
I thought it was very interesting.

We’ve come a long way in only 19 question. When we started out we could only ask and tell our names, and now we are about to give our opinions on films. It feels very civilized, doesn’t it? And you’ll be glad to know that 怎么样(zěnmeyàng) is back again so there is very little new stuff to learn in this lesson. So let’s take a look.

The character 这(zhè) means, “this.” Chinese doesn’t have a word for “the” so you’ll always need to use words like “this” and “that” in contexts where English might use “the.” The next word 部(bù) is a
measure word for movies. Measure words are used when you are pointing out an object (this pen, that pen) or when you are counting objects (1 pen, 2 pens, 3 pens). We have measure words in English too: a pair of pants, a flock of geese, a cup of coffee. But there are lots more in Chinese and they are used more often.

To be honest, this is kind of a pain when you are first learning the language. The best thing to do is just try to remember the measure words with their objects when they come up in context. Trying to memorize all the measure words and the categories of things they measure, or count, isn’t really a good use of your time at this point. Okay, enough about measure words.

The next word is
电影(diànyǐng). This is a fantastic translation. At this point you may not know that Chinese doesn’t create new characters for new words. Instead they just recycle characters that already exist. So when new inventions pop up, Chinese has no choice but to dig through thousands of characters to match the symbols with the object.

The character
电(diàn) means “electric.” The character
影(yǐng) means, “shadow.” So together we get “electric shadow.” That’s genuine poetry right there! Finally we come to
怎么样(zěnmeyàng) which means, “how.” The rough literal translation is one that’s likely to stick with you, “This electric shadow how?” Okay, let’s take a look at the answer. This answer starts out differently from the other answers in this mini-怎么样(zěnmeyàng) series. We are giving our opinion here so instead of starting out with a word for “it” we say 我(wǒ) which means, “I.” The character 觉(jué) means “sense” or “feel.”

The character
得(de) is a particle that could translate as “ability” but it doesn’t really add much meaning in this context. So you might want to think of
觉得(juéde) as “feel ability” just for the purpose of remembering the two characters. We don’t need to use a word for “it” in the answer.

The next word is
很(hěn) which means “very.” (Chinese does not use 是(shì) to describe objects with adjectives). Finally we have
有意思(yǒu yìsi). The character
有(yǒu) means, “to have.” The character
意(yì) means “meaning” and
思(si) means “thinking” or “thought.”

So if something “has meaning thought” then it’s logical that it is interesting. The rough translation to get you thinking in this Chinese sentence pattern is “I think very interesting.”

More Info:

You can replace 部电影(bù diànyǐng) in the question with other diversions to ask questions about all kinds of entertainment. Remember, each of the first characters is the measure word for each form of entertainment.

本书 - Běn shū – a book
本杂志 - Běn zázhì – a magazine
个视频 - Gè shìpín – a video
场游戏 - Chǎng yóuxì – a game (general word for game)
个网络游戏 - Gè wǎngluò yóuxì – an online game
个应用程序 - Gè yìngyòng chéngxù – an app
个电视节目- Gè diànshì jiémù – a TV program
场音乐会 - Chǎng yīnyuè huì – a concert
场演出- Chǎng yǎnchū – a performance (concert, show, play)
场球赛 - Chǎng qiúsài – a ball game

You can replace 有意思(yǒu yìsi) in the answer with any of the adjectives below.
好看-Hǎokàn – great, excellent
棒-Bàng – great
好玩-Hǎowán – fun
好笑-Hǎoxiào – funny
带劲儿-Dàijìn er – exciting
好美-Hǎoměi – beautiful
还行-Hái xíng – okay
不好玩-Bù hǎowán – not fun
美意思-Méiyìsi – not interesting
无聊-Wúliáo – boring
长-Chǎng – long
奇怪-Qíguài – strange
差劲-Chàjìn – horrible


#20: How to ask How do you say ‘fortune cookie’ in Chinese

Today we are at a bit of a loss for words and we’re asking, “How do you say, ‘fortune cookie’ in Chinese?” Here is the question and answer:

“Fortune cookie”中文怎么说?
“Forture cookie” zhōngwén zěnme shuō?
How do you say “fortune cookie” in Chinese?

xìngyùn bǐnggān.
“xìngyùn bǐnggān.”

We’ve finally come to the end of our 20 Questions to Basic Fluency series and we are wrapping up with one of the most useful questions. This question not only helps you learn new words and saves you when you’re in a jam, but it also gives you a productive pattern that allows you to ask how to do anything. Let’s look at the question.

“Fortune cookie” can obviously be replaced with anything you need to know about. If you don’t know what the thing is or if the person you’re speaking to doesn’t know English you can just say, 这个(zhè ge) which means “this” or 那个(nà ge) which means “that” and continue with the rest of the question. The word 中文(zhōngwén) means “Chinese.” You could also replace this with 汉语(hànyǔ) or 普通话(pǔtōnghuà) both of which also mean Mandarin Chinese.

Another option is to just drop the word for “Chinese” altogether since it’s probably pretty obvious which language you are inquiring about. The word
怎么(zěnme) means “how” and the word
说(shuō) means “say.” It’s really just that easy. But now let’s divide this question in half between
中文(zhōngwén) and
怎么(zěnme). You’ll notice that when you look at the sentence this way, the order of the two halves is reversed from English. Now let’s just look at
怎么说(zěnme shuō). This is a great pattern to know because placing
怎么(zěnme) in front of a verb can ask how something is done.

怎么做 – how to do something
(zěnme zuò)

怎么学 – how to learn/study something
(zěnme xúe)

怎么走 – how to get somewhere
(zěnme zǒu)

怎么看 – how to see or read something
(zěnme kàn)

怎么弹吉他 – how to play guitar
(zěnme tàn jíta)

怎么知道 – how to know something
(zěnme zhīdao)

This works with most common verbs. You can also ask if someone knows how to do something or say that you know how to do something by using this pattern:

你知道怎么跳舞?– Do you know how to dance?
(Nǐ zhīdao zěnme tiàowǔ?)

我知道怎么打网球。– I know how to play tennis.
(Wǒ zhīdao zěnme dà wǎngqiú)

All you need to do is replace the final verb with another verb and you’re all set. For a list of more activities that can work in this pattern check out Question #4.

More Info:
The phrase 怎么会(zěnme huì) falls into this pattern and is very productive in it’s own right. You can use it alone as a question to mean, “How come?” or “How can that be?” You can also add information to ask about how something could be possible:

你怎么会来?- How come you came?
(Nǐ zěnme huì laí.)

你怎么会没来?– How come you didn’t come?
(Nǐ zěnme huì méi laí.)

他怎么会走得这么快?– How come he’s walking so fast?
(Tā zěnme huì zǒu de zhème kuài?)

怎么会有这么多车子?– How come there are so many cars?
(Zěnme huì yǒu zhème dūo chēzi?)

怎么会下雨了?– How can it be raining?
(Zěnme huì xìayǔ le?)

The phrase 怎么办(zěnme bàn) is also very useful. Used by itself it means, “What can be done?” or “What can/should I do?” You can add information in front of this phrase to ask, “What should be done about…?”

考试怎么办?– What should I do about the test?
(Kǎoshì zěnme bàn?)

钱包没带了,怎么办?– I didn’t bring my wallet, what should I do?
(Qiánbāo méi dài le, zěnme bàn?)

你知道怎么办?– Do you know what to do?
(Nǐ zhīdao zěnme bàn?)

我不知道怎么办。– I don’t know what to do.
(Wǒ bù zhīdao zěnme bàn.)

Finally, you can use 怎么这么(zěnme zhème) plus an adjective to express, “How could something be so…!”

怎么这么贵!- How could it be so expensive!
(zěnme zhème guì!)

怎么这么慢!- How could it be so slow!
(zěnme zhème màn!)

怎么这么难!- How could it be do difficult!
(zěnme zhème nán!)

And just to bring things full circle, let’s reference Question #1 “What’s your name?” You can also use this question to ask what something it called:

这个叫什么?- What is this called?
(Zhè ge jiào shénme?)

Our answer is really just a blank to be filled in by the information you are looking for. You might hear 这是(zhè shì) in front of it to say, “this is” but this is really a case where answering in an incomplete sentence is okay. *Note: Fortune cookies are mostly a western phenomenon. You might have a tough time finding them in the China!

That brings us to the end of the 20 Questions to Basic Fluency series here on DigMandarin. We hope that the questions and patterns that we’ve covered will be useful and helpful to you. The idea here is to give the beginner a quick reference guide to communicating in Mandarin, so be sure to go out there and use this in the wild. Thanks for tuning in!

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.