After studying Chinese language and culture intensively for five years, living in Singapore for a year, and living in China for three years, I found that in my everyday Chinese conversations, I developed a useful tactic. I use a small set of common Chinese phrases that can make a big difference in most conversations. These phrases are short, easy to learn, and quickly effective. Integrating them into your vocabulary will give your communication skills an immediate boost, helping you to fit in seamlessly with native Chinese speakers. So, without further ado, let’s uncover these nine key conversational Chinese phrases.
#1: 哪里哪里(nǎlǐ nǎlǐ)
— “Not at all”.
You can use this very polite and subtle phrase to respond humbly when a person heaps praise on you. This phrase often makes native speakers beam with appreciation when they see you putting your language skills to use.
While this phrase is used rarely by foreigners, Chinese natives use this phrase instinctually due to their upbringing in a self-effacing cultural environment. This expression has the power to enhance your credibility as a linguist as well as an individual who is well mannered and cultured.
A: 你的汉语真不错！(Nǐde hànyǔ zhēn búcuò!) Your Chinese is really good!
B：哪里哪里！(Nǎlǐ nǎlǐ!) No no, not at all.
A：你真了解中国。(Nǐ zhēn liǎojiě Zhōngguó.) You really know China well.
B：哪里哪里！(Nǎlǐ nǎlǐ!) No no, not at all.
#2: 哎呀(ài ya)
— “Oh, my!”.
This is an exclamation that expresses surprise or astonishment. It can convey dissatisfaction or mild amazement, and even break the ice in social situations.
Foreigners using this often makes locals smile, making you appear endearing – a valuable trait for an easier life in China.
A: 最后一班地铁已经错过了。(Zuìhòu yī bān dìtiě yǐjīng cuòguòle.) The last subway train has already left.
B：哎呀！太可惜了。(Ài ya! Tài kěxīle.) Oh, my! What a bummer.
A：哎呀，小心车！(Ài ya, xiǎoxīn chē!) Oh, my! Watch out for the car!
B：吓死我了。(Xià sǐ wǒle.) It scared me to death.
#3: 借过一下(jiè guò yī xià)
— “Excuse me, let me through.”
This Chinese conversational phrase requires no explanation, as the country has a booming population of 1.4 billion, who, as a principle, are never inclined to give you the right of way while travelling. Note that 一下(yī xià) is added here for politeness and can be omitted as needed.
不好意思，借过一下！我要下车了。(Bù hǎo yìsi, jièguò yīxià! Wǒ yào xià chēle.) Sorry, let me through! I need to get off the bus.
借过一下，我要出去。(Jièguò yīxià, wǒ yào chūqù.) Excuse me, I need to go out.
#4: 干嘛 (gàn má?)
— “What the heck?!”
When you’re sick and tired of being polite and courteous, run out of patience, and wish to express your annoyance, 干嘛（gàn má） is your best bet. For instance, if a cabbie is taking you for a grand ride, or a street vendor is trying to rip you off, or a scooter driver is honking at you to move ahead when you’re stuck in a jam, 干嘛（gàn má） will create an effect of shock and awe. It will make them aware that you’re not just a gullible tourist and can handle them well on their home turf.
#5: 救命 (jìu mìng)
You may encounter danger in any part of the world at any time. When you’re venturing into unknown territory, it’s crucial to have basic survival tools to protect yourself or assist others. 救命 (jìu mìng) , although short, has a powerful impact in any dangerous situation. Moreover, English isn’t a universal language; people speak different languages in different parts of the world. If you only remember a single phrase from this list, remember 救命 (jìu mìng).
#6: 太贵了(taì guì le)
– “Too expensive”
Bargaining is the way of life in China. Except for supermarkets and shopping malls, you have the right to bargain everywhere, especially in retail stores. Though it might seem strange, many Chinese people have preconceived notions that Westerners are all wealthy. Even if you want to buy souvenirs or t-shirts, using this phrase can help you save money. Some Chinese people enjoy the bargaining process and find it enjoyable. So, do as the Romans do, try your hand at bargaining yourself and enjoy the experience.
#7: 对不起(duì bù qǐ)
“Hello” and “sorry” are the two most common phrases that one needs to know while learning any language. “Hello” is simple greeting used to express politeness. “Sorry” is a polite word that indicates respect as well. To a certain extent, 对不起(duì bù qǐ) can be used to say “sorry” or even “excuse me.” Despite the many cultural differences between English and Chinese, 对不起(duì bù qǐ) will help you smooth things over.
#8: 随便(suí biàn)
— “As you like.”
If you have pleasant interactions and friendly relationships with Chinese people, you’ll encounter this word quite frequently. For instance, when you’re deciding where to go and what to eat for a meal, your companions might respond with this word. At first, you might feel awkward since you’re not familiar with the culture. However, Chinese people aren’t frequently assertive; they want to show respect and courtesy to you as a guest in their country. In due time, you’ll establish the dynamics of your relationship with them, and they’ll feel more comfortable making decisions.
A：你想吃什么？(Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?) What do you want to eat?
A：你明天想去哪儿玩？(Nǐ míngtiān xiǎng qù nǎr wán?) Where do you want to go tomorrow for fun?
#9: 真的吗(zhēn de ma)
This is one of the most essential Chinese conversational phrases. It can convey various emotions such as astonishment, suspicion, and shock, among others. By using this phrase, you can encourage others to keep the conversation going and maintain momentum. It’s also effective as a filler.
A: 你的中文说得和中国人一样好。(Nǐ de zhōngwén shuō de hé Zhōngguó rén yīyàng hǎo.) Your Chinese sounds just as good as a native’s.
B：真的吗？哪里哪里。(Zhēn de ma? Nǎlǐ nǎlǐ.) Really? No no, not at all.
A：你走错路了。(Nǐ zǒu cuò lùle.) You took the wrong path.
B：真的吗？我再看看地图。(Zhēn de ma? Wǒ zài kànkàn dìtú.) Really? I’ll check the map again.
In conclusion, these simple yet impactful Chinese conversational phrases have proven to be valuable assets in my journey of language and cultural immersion. From fostering connections with locals through polite acknowledgments to confidently maneuvering through various situations with expressions of surprise, annoyance, or curiosity, these phrases have transcended language barriers and enriched my experiences.
While my five-year study of the Chinese language and culture has provided me with a foundation, it’s the practical application of these phrases in real-life conversations that has truly elevated my communication skills. Through interactions laden with 哪里哪里(nǎlǐ nǎlǐ), 哎呀(ài ya), and 真的吗(zhēn de ma), I’ve not only navigated everyday dialogues but also nurtured relationships and garnered genuine smiles.
Language is more than words; it’s a bridge that connects hearts and minds. The ability to express oneself in a foreign tongue opens doors to understanding, empathy, and appreciation. These common Chinese conversational phrases have served as the keys to unlock such connections and enhance my cross-cultural experiences.
So, whether you’re exploring the bustling streets of China or engaging with Chinese speakers in your own corner of the world, remember that a few well-placed words can transform your interactions and leave a lasting impression. As language learners, let’s embrace the power of these phrases and continue to bridge gaps, forge bonds, and make our conversations truly meaningful.