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20 Questions to Get You from Zero Chinese to Basic Fluency (Part 2)

#6: How to ask What are you doing in Chinese(the present tense)

Today we are looking at the present tense in Chinese and asking, “What are you doing?” Unlike some other aspects of Chinese, using verb tenses is pretty simple. Here is today’s question and answer:

      
Q: 你在做什么?
 Nǐ zài zuò shénme?

What are you doing?

A: 我在看电视。
 Wǒ zài
 kàn diàn shì.

I am
 watching TV.

The word
在 (zài) in this context tells you that you are in the present continuous tense, or in simpler terms, it acts as the “-ing” that we put on the end of our verbs in English. So in our examples above,
在做 (zài
zuò ) means “doing” and
在看 (zài
kàn ) means “watching.” Just replace the
看电视 (diàn shì)in the answer to tell about different actions that you are doing. Here is a list of some common actions that work well in this pattern:

起床 - Qǐ chuáng – get up
做早饭 - Zuò zǎofàn – make breakfast
吃早饭 - Chī zǎofàn – eat breakfast
看报纸 - Kàn bàozhǐ – read the newspaper
喝咖啡 - Hē kāfēi – drink coffee
喝茶 - Hē chá – drink tea
洗碗 - Xǐ wǎn – wash dishes
上楼 - Shàng lóu – go upstairs
洗澡 - Xǐ zǎo – take a shower
刮脸 - Guā liǎn – shave (face)
化妆 - Huà zhuāng – put on make up
拢头发 - Lǒng tóufa – comb hair
上厕所 - Shàng cèsuǒ – use(go to) the bathroom
刷牙 - Shuā yá – brush teeth
穿衣服 - Chuān yīfu – put on clothes
下楼 - Xià lóu – go downstairs
开车 - Kāichē – drive a car
坐公共汽车 - Zuò gōnggòng qìchē – on the bus
坐地铁 - Zuò dìtiě – on the subway
走路 - Zǒulù – walk
骑车 - Qí chē – ride a bike
路上- Lùshàng – on the road/on the way
上课 - Shàngkè – in class
上班 - Shàngbān – at work
玩 - Wán – play
吃午饭 - Chī wǔfàn – eat lunch
下课 - Xiàkè – get out of school
下班 - Xiàbān – get off of work
做作业 - Zuò zuò yè – do homework
整理 - Zhěnglǐ – straighten up
洗衣服 - Xǐ yīfu – wash clothes
睡午觉 - Shuì wǔjiào – take a nap
做晚饭 - Zuò wǎnfàn – make dinner
吃晚饭 - Chī wǎnfàn – eat dinner
上网 - Shàngwǎng – go on the internet
聊天 - Liáotiān – chat
取钱 - Qǔ qián – take out money
上街 - Shàng jiē – go shopping
买菜 - Mǎi cài – go grocery shopping
看书 - Kàn shū – read a book
休息 - Xiūxi – rest
睡觉 - Shuìjiào – sleep

Remember, when you add
在 (zài) in front of any of these actions, it means you are “doing” that action – for example, “sleep” will change to, “sleeping.” And if you have nothing to do, you might say
没事做!(Méi shì zuò!) “There’s nothing to do!”

#7: How to ask What did you do yesterday in Chinese(the past tense)

Today we are looking at the past tense in Chinese and asking, “What did you do yesterday?” Unlike some other aspects of Chinese, using verb tenses is pretty simple. Here is today’s question and answer:

      7

Q: 你昨天做了什么?Nǐ zuótiān zuò le shénme?


What did you do yesterday?

A: 我昨天吃了中国菜。
Wǒ 
zuótiān chī
 le zhōngguó cài.




Yesterday I ate Chinese food.

Notice that the verb 吃 doesn’t change, or get conjugated. Adding
 了 behind the verb in this context signifies that the action is completed. So 吃了
translates to “ate” in this sentence. The past tense can be flexible in Chinese, but for now, just follow this pattern:

SUBJECT + 
TIME MARKER + VERB +
了+ OBJECT
For example: I +
yesterday + ate +
了+ Chinese food.

In Chinese, the subject and the time marker can sometimes be switched, but the meaning stays the same. Here are some examples of both cases :

      
我昨天看了书。Wǒ 
zuótiān kàn
 le 
shū.
Yesterday I read a book.

这周末我去了公园。
Zhè zhōumò wǒ qù le
gōngyuán.
I went to the park this weekend.

今天我喝了三杯咖啡。
Jīn tiān wǒ hēle sān bēi kāfēi.

TodayI drank three cups of coffee.

There are some instances where
了 might show up in a different location in the sentence or it may not be used at all. But for now just include a time marker and put the
了right after the verb (and before the object) in your sentence and you can be pretty sure that you are forming the past tense correctly. (It’s also worth mentioning that
了
can sometimes refer to the future, so don’t assume that
了
is always used to make something past tense.) Here are some past tense time markers that you can use in this pattern:

今天 - Jīn tiān – today
昨天 - zuó tiān – yesterday
前天 - qián tiān – the day before yesterday
大前天- Dà qiántiān – three days ago
以前 - yǐqián – before
这周末 - zhè zhōumò – this weekend
这个星期 - zhège xīngqī – this week
上个星期 - shàng gè xīngqī – last week
上上个星期-shàng shàng gè xīngqī – week before last
这个月- zhè gè yuè – the month
上个月- shàng gè yuè – last month
上上个月- shàng shàng gè yuè – the month before last
今年 - jīn nián – this year
去年 - qù nián – last year
前年 - qián nián – the year before last year
大前年- Dà qiánnián – three years ago

Check out
 Question #4 and Question #6 for lists of verbs with objects that will work well in this pattern.

[/accordian_item] [accordian_item accordion_active=”no” accordion_title=”#8: How to ask What are you doing tomorrow in Chinese(the future tense)” icon=”Choose Icon”]

Today we are looking at the future tense in Chinese and asking, “What are you doing tomorrow?”
Unlike some other aspects of Chinese, using verb tenses is pretty simple. Here is today’s question and answer:

      
Q: 你明天要做什么?Nǐ míngtiān
 yào zuò shénme?

What do you 
want to do tomorrow?

A: 我明天要去博物馆。
Wǒ míngtiān
 yào qù bówùguǎn.
I 
want to go to the museum tomorrow.

Just as in the past tense and present tense, the verb in the question,
 做 (zuò), and the verb in the answer,
 去 (qù), don’t need to be changed, or conjugated. To form the future tense simply put
 要 (yào) in front of the verb.

The verb 
要 (yào) by itself means “want” but in this context it functions as “will” or “want to” or “going to.” If you’ve been studying Chinese for a bit you may have also noticed that
 会 (huì) can be used to form the future in the same way. Either one is fine to use to form the future tense, but for now let’s just use
 要 (yào) to keep things simple.

So you may be asking yourself, “what if I don’t want to go to the museum? What if I want to talk about what I’m going to DO (or what I want to DO) tomorrow?” If you want to talk about actions that you will do in the future, you can just replace
去博物馆 (yào qù bówùguǎn)in the answer above with any action.

So… say you want to see a movie tomorrow, you would say:

我明天要看电影。Wǒ míngtiān
 yào kàn diànyǐng.
If you want to
 GO see a movie tomorrow, you can say:

我明天要去看电影。Wǒ míngtiān
 yào
 qù kàn diànyǐng.

Check out
 Question #4 and
 Question #6 for some extensive lists of verbs that will work well in this pattern.

Here is a list of places that you might be going to tomorrow:

城市 - Chéngshì – the city
市中心 - Shì zhōngxīn – downtown
市场 - Shìchǎng – the market
商场 - Shāngchǎng – the mall
商店 - Shāngdiàn – the store (a shop)
超级市场 - Chāojí shìchǎng – grocery market
药店 - Yàodiàn - the pharmacy
饭店 - Fàndiàn – restaurant
面馆 - Miànguǎn – noodle shop
路边摊 - Lù biān tān – street vendor
咖啡馆 - Kāfēi guǎn – the cafe
茶馆 - Cháguǎn – tea house
酒吧 - Jiǔbā – the bar
图书馆 - Túshū guǎn – the library
书店 - Shūdiàn – the bookstore
公园 - Gōngyuán – the park
博物馆 - Bówùguǎn – the museum
学校 - Xuéxiào – school
办公室 - Bàngōngshì – the office
工作 - Gōngzuò – work
教堂 - Jiàotáng – church
银行 - Yínháng – the bank
邮局 - Yóujú – the post office
海边 - Hǎibiān – the ocean
湖边 - Hú biān – the lake
河边 - Hé biān – the river
山 - Shān – the mountains
沙漠 - Shāmò – the desert
农场 - Nóngchǎng – the farm
工厂 - Gōngchǎng – the facotry
体育馆 - Tǐyùguǎn – the gym
游泳池 - Yóuyǒngchí – the pool
球场 - Qiúchǎng – the (ball) field/court
高尔夫场 - Gāo’ěrfū chǎng – the golf course
自动取款机 - Zìdòng qǔkuǎn jī – the ATM
机场 - Jīchǎng – the airport

#9: How to ask Where is the bathroom in Chinese

Today’s question, “Where is the bathroom?” is probably one of the most important to know in any language. Asking for the location of something in Chinese is wonderfully simple, so let’s take a look.

      
Q:
厕所在哪儿?
Cèsǔo zài nǎ’er?
Where is the
 bathroom?

A: 在那里。
Zài
 nàlǐ.

It’s
 there.

First let’s check out the question. All you need to do is start out your question with the place you want to know about. In this case,
 厕所 (cèsǔo). Next, the verb
 在(zài) means “is.” (*Note: You may remember that 是(shì) also means “is” as in, 我是美国人(Wǒ shì měiguó rén) “I
am American.”

The verb 在(zài) is used to express“to be” when you want to know where something is. You can’t use 是(shì) in this context.) Finally, use
 哪儿(nǎ’er) which means “where.” It’s backward from the English word order but still very easy to understand. The beauty of this pattern is that you use it for people, places, and things so it’s very high frequency and very flexible. The answer is even simpler.

To respond you once again use the verb
 在(zài). But here you can leave out the place that you asked about in the question. We do the same in English too. Once you’ve established that “the bathroom” is the topic in question, there is no need to repeat it in the answer. Can you say it again? Sure thing. Place 厕所 (cèsǔo) in front of 在(zài) and you’re good to go.

The end of the sentence is where you find the information about where the place is. In our answer we have
 那里(nàlǐ) which means “there.” Obviously there could be a lot of information about directions to the place you are asking about so
 那里(nàlǐ)is just one of many options. Notice that now the word order matches with the English exactly.

More Info:
You may have noticed that 哪儿(nǎ’er) in the question and 那里(nàlǐ) in the answer have a similar pronunciation and that the characters almost look identical. The little 口 in front of 哪儿(nǎ’er) signifies that it is a question and it means “which.” If 口 isn’t in there, then it isn’t a question and it means, “that.” Another important point is that 儿(er) and 里(lǐ) are interchangeable in this context. You can use either one with 哪(nǎ) and 那(nà) and be perfectly correct.

Here is a list of places that you might need to ask about. Just substitute any one from the list below for 
厕所 (cèsǔo)in the question:


Q:
 厕所在哪儿?

城市 - Chéngshì – the city
市中心 - Shì zhōngxīn – downtown
市场 - Shìchǎng – the market
商场 - Shāngchǎng – the mall
商店 - Shāngdiàn – the store (a shop)
超级市场 - Chāojí shìchǎng – grocery market
药店 - Yàodiàn - the pharmacy
饭店 - Fàndiàn – restaurant
面馆 - Miànguǎn – noodle shop
路边摊 - Lù biān tān – street vendor
咖啡馆 - Kāfēi guǎn – the cafe
茶馆 - Cháguǎn – tea house
酒吧 - Jiǔbā – the bar
图书馆 - Túshū guǎn – the library
书店 - Shūdiàn – the bookstore
公园 - Gōngyuán – the park
博物馆 - Bówùguǎn – the museum
学校 - Xuéxiào – school
办公室 - Bàngōngshì – the office
工作 - Gōngzuò – work
教堂 - Jiàotáng – church
银行 - Yínháng – the bank
邮局 - Yóujú – the post office
海边 - Hǎibiān – the ocean
湖边 - Hú biān – the lake
河边 - Hé biān – the river
山 - Shān – the mountains
沙漠 - Shāmò – the desert
农场 - Nóngchǎng – the farm
工厂 - Gōngchǎng – the facotry
体育馆 - Tǐyùguǎn – the gym
游泳池 - Yóuyǒngchí – the pool
球场 - Qiúchǎng – the (ball) field/court
高尔夫场 - Gāo’ěrfū chǎng – the golf course
自动取款机 - Zìdòng qǔkuǎn jī – the ATM
机场 - Jīchǎng – the airport

Understanding directions in another language is notoriously difficult. Your understanding depends as much on your listening comprehension as it does on the other person’s ability to explain the route clearly (and his honesty about whether or not he actually knows where the place is that you are asking about.) As a beginner in this situation, sometimes the best you can do is find out if the place is close or far, have people point you in the general direction and then ask someone else further down the road. So the list below is more of a guide for listening than a structure for how to give directions. Listen for these words to show up in the answer.


A: 在那里。

那里-Nàlǐ – there
这里-Zhèlǐ – here
后面-Hòumiàn – behind
前面-Qiánmiàn – in front
对面-Duìmiàn – opposite
附近-Fùjìn – near
远-Yuǎn – far
旁边-Pángbiān – next to
拐角-Guǎijiǎo – corner
北-Běi – north
南-Nán -south
东-Dōng -east
西-Xī – west
左-Zuǒ -left
右-Yòu – right

#10: How to ask What do you want to do in Chinese

Today we are talking about making plans and asking “What do you want to do?” This is an easy one for English speakers to wrap their heads around, so let’s check it out.

      
Q:你想做什么?
Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?

What do you want to do?

A:我想吃饭。
Wǒ xiǎng chīfàn.

I want to have a meal.

Making plans to do something in Chinese is pretty simple. The nice thing about the structure of this question is that it opens up the door to some other high frequency questions. We’ll check those out later but right now let’s take a look at the question. The Chinese and the English match up nicely here except for the placement of the question word “what.” The English question puts “what” at the beginning of the sentence but the Chinese question places
什么(shénme) at the end of the sentence. The Chinese is actually a bit less complicated because it leaves out the “do” that English uses in this question: “What
do you want to do?” As always, there is no verb changing, or conjugation, in any way. So word for word we end up with a literal translation of, “You want do what?” Pretty straight forward, so let’s move on to the answer.

As you can see, the answer is beautifully simple and matches up with the English meaning and word order exactly. The only tricky part of this is that
吃饭(chīfàn)
means “eat” but it is two characters. The character
吃(chī) means “eat” and
饭(fàn)
means rice. But in this context their combined meaning is simply “eat” or to have a meal.
So the literal translation is, “I want eat.” But there are some variations of the question and answer that you should know. Let’s move on to them below.

More Info:
There are some other ways to ask, “What do you want to do?” in Chinese. Specifically, 想(xiǎng) and 做(zùo) can be replaced with other words. First, the verb 要(yào) can replace 想(xiǎng). What’s the difference? In this context they both mean “want” but 想(xiǎng) softens the question or request. It would be more like saying “I would like” instead of “I want.”

In Chinese culture it is always better to be a bit too polite instead of being slightly rude or informal, so as a beginner it is better to use 想(xiǎng). That being said, you will definitely hear 要(yào) replacing 想(xiǎng) in this context and it will be completely appropriate and not rude at all. Just be aware of the difference and use 想(xiǎng) when in doubt. Next, the verb 做(zùo) can be replaced by 干(gàn). Here there is no real difference. Either one gives you the same meaning in this context so feel free to use them interchangeably here.

It should also be noted in this section that 想 (xiǎng) CANNOT be used to say you want something. You can only use 想(xiǎng) to ask and say you want to DO something. In other words, when you use 想 (xiǎng) to mean “want” it has to be followed by a VERB.

How do you say you want SOMETHING? You use 要 (yào)! But in Chinese, you will be likely to find yourself in a situation where using 想 (xiǎng) + VERB will be very natural and you won’t have to use 要 (yào) + THING and chance sounding rude. Let’s look at why this is so.

Below are some of common questions you might be asked using this pattern. Check out the answers and see if you can spot how the Chinese answer differs from the English
Question and 
Answer

      
Q: 你想做什么? Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?
What do you want to do?
A: 我想吃饭。Wǒ xiǎng chīfàn
I want to eat.
      
Q: 你想买什么?Nǐ xiǎng mǎi shénme?
What do you want to buy?
A:我想买书。Wǒ xiǎng mǎi shū.
I want (to buy) a book.
      

Q: 你想喝什么? Nǐ xiǎng hē shénme?

What do you want to drink?
A: 我想喝水。Wǒ xiǎng hē shuǐ.

I want (to drink) water.
      
Q: 你想吃什么?Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?
What do you want to eat?
A: 我想吃炒饭。Wǒ xiǎng chī chǎo fàn.
I want (to eat) fried rice.

Did you see it? If someone asks you in English, “What do you want to eat?” you are like to reply, “I want fried rice.” Saying, “I want to EAT fried rice” would sound pretty emphatic, like you haven’t eaten in days and must eat fried rice now!

I can’t think of a situation in English where I might be inclined to say, “I want to drink water ” but in Chinese repeating the verb that was asked in the question doesn’t sound strange at all. And for that reason, as a beginner you are still better off using 想(xiǎng) instead of 要(yào).

Below is another common question that uses the same pattern with a different question word.

Question and Answer:

Q:你想去哪里? Nǐ xiǎng qù nǎlǐ?

Where do you want to go?

A: 我想去公园。Wǒ xiǎng qù gōngyuán.
I want to go to the park.

So let’s get back to the original question and answer. If are making plans and someone asks you:

Q:你想做什么?Nǐ xiǎng zùo shénme?
What do you want to do?

You can easily tailor your answer by replacing
 吃饭 (chīfàn)
with any activity that you want to do. Check it out:

A:我想吃饭。Wǒ xiǎng
 chīfàn.
I want to
 eat.

For a list of activities to fill in, go to Question #4, 
”What do you like to do in your free time?”

Maybe you would like to tell the person where you would like to go instead of what you would like to do. If that’s the case then this is the answer for you:

我想去公园。
Wǒ xiǎng qù gōngyuán.

I want to go to
 the park.

For a list of places to go, check out Question #9,
 “Where is the bathroom?”

 

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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