Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and is one of the official languages of Singapore. In English, it is often just called "Mandarin" or "Chinese". In China, it is called Putonghua (普通话), meaning "common speech", while in Taiwan it is referred to as Guoyu (國語), "the national language." It has been the main language of education in China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) since the 1950s. Standard Mandarin is close to, but not quite identical with, the Mandarin dialect of the Beijing area. In Singapore, it is officially referred to as HuaYu (华语).
Note that while the spoken Mandarin in the above places is more or less the same, the written characters are different. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau all still use traditional characters, whereas Mainland China and Singapore use a simplified derivative. Educated people living in Mainland China or Singapore can still understand traditional character with no problem but not vice versa, for example Taiwanese people may have difficulty recognising some simplified characters.
Map of Chinese dialects
Note that "dialect" has a different meaning when applied to Chinese from when it is applied to other languages.
Chinese "dialects" are mutually unintelligible, as different as, say, Italian and French, which we would call "related languages" rather than "dialects" - using a pure linguistic definition they are distinct "languages".
All Chinese dialects, in general, use the same set of characters in reading and writing. A Cantonese speaker and a Mandarin speaker cannot talk to each other, but either can generally read what the other writes. Even a speaker of Japanese or Korean will recognise many characters.
While formal written Chinese is the same everywhere, there can be significant differences when the "dialects" are written in colloquial form. For example Cantonese as used in Hong Kong, more informal phrasings are used in everyday speech than what would be written. Thus, there are some extra characters that are sometimes used in addition to the common characters to represent the spoken dialect and other colloquial words.
One additional complication is that mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters, a long-debated change completed by the mainland Chinese government in 1956 to facilitate the standardization of language across China's broad minority groups and sub-dialects of Mandarin and other Chinese languages. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and many overseas Chinese still use the traditional characters. In addition, the Dungan language, which is spoken in some parts of neighbouring countries, is considered to be a variant of Mandarin but uses the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Chinese characters.
About one fifth of the people in the world speak some form of Chinese as their native language. It is a tonal language that is related to Burmese and Tibetan. Although Japanese and Korean use Chinese written characters the spoken languages are not related to Chinese. Also, the unrelated Vietnamese language (which uses a distinctive version of the Latin alphabet) language has borrowed many words from Chinese and at one time used Chinese characters as well.
Chinese, like most other Asian languages such as Arabic, is famous for being difficult to learn. While English speakers would initially have problems with the tones and recognizing the many different characters (Chinese has no alphabet), the grammar is very simple and can be picked up very easily. Most notably, Chinese grammar does not have conjugation, tenses, gender, plurals or other grammatical rules found in other major languages such as English or French.
Pinyin allows very accurate pronunciation of Chinese if you understand how it works, but the way that it uses letters like q, x, c, z and even i is not at all intuitive to the English speaker. Studying the pronunciation guide below carefully is thus essential. After you master the pronunciation you still may not be understood, its time to move on to the next challenge, speaking the accurate tones.
Some pinyin vowels (especially "e", "i", "ü") can be tricky, so it is best to get a native speaker to demonstrate. Also, beware of the spelling rules listed in the exceptions below.
as in father; otherwise, pronounced as in "awesome"
a in an
as "a" in "cat" or "back" (just the English short "a" sound)
unrounded back vowel (IPA [ɤ]), similar to duh; in unstressed syllables becames a schwa (IPA [ə]), like idea
as in see or key; after sh, zh, s, z or r, not really a vowel at all but just a stretched-out consonant sound
as in more
as in soon; but read ü in ju, qu, yu and xu
as in French lune or German grün
These are the diphthongs in Chinese:
as in pie
as in pouch
as in pay
as in ya
ia in ' ian'
as in 'yes
as in meow
as in yes
as in Pyongyang
as in mow
as in what
as in war
Chinese stops distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated, not voiceless and voiced as in English. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a distinctive puff of air as they are pronounced in English when at the beginning of a word, while unaspirated sounds are pronounced without the puff, as in English when found in clusters.
Place a hand in front of your mouth and compare pit (aspirated) with spit (unaspirated) to see the difference.
as in spot
as in pit
as in do
as in tongue
as in skin
as in king
as in jeer
as in cheap
as in jungle
as in chore
as in zebra
as in rats
Here are the other consonants in Chinese:
as in mow
as in fun
as in none or none
as in lease but pronounced like a Spanish "r" in "rojo"
as in her
as in sheep
as in shoot
as in fair, but can be "zh" as in "pleasure"
as in sag
as in sing
as in wing but silent in wu. Before a, ai, ang, eng, and/or o, this may sound like the English v/ German w.
as in yet but silent in yi, yu
If you think that is a fairly intimidating repertoire, rest assured that many Chinese people, particularly those who are not native Mandarin speakers, will merge many of the sounds above (especially q with ch and j with zh).
There are a fairly large number of niggling exceptions to the basic rules above, based on the position of the sound:
as u-, so 五百 wubai is pronounced "ubai"
as i-, so 一个 yige is pronounced "ige"
as ü-, so 豫园 Yuyuan is pronounced "ü-üan"
How do I put my tone marks?
If you are confused by how to put tone marks above the Hanyu Pinyin, follow the steps below:
Always insert tone marks above the vowels. If there is more than one vowel letter, follow the steps below:
(1) Insert it above the 'a' if that letter is present. For example, it is rǎo and not raǒ
(2) If not, insert it above 'o'. For example, guó and not gúo
(3) Insert it above the letter 'e' if the letters 'a' and 'o' are not present. For example, jué and not júe
(4) If only 'i', 'u' and 'ü' are the only present letters, insert it in the letter that occurs last. For example, jiù and not jìu, chuí and not chúi. Note, if the vowel present is ü, the tone mark is put in addition to the umlaut. For example, lǜ
There are four tones in Mandarin that must be followed for proper pronunciation. If you are not used to tonal languages, never underestimate the importance of these tones. Consider a vowel with a different tone as simply a different vowel altogether, and you will realize why Chinese will not understand you if you use the wrong tone — mǎ is to mā as "I want a cake" is to "I want a coke". Be especially wary of questions that have a falling tone, or conversely exclamations that have an "asking" tone (eg jǐngchá, police). In other words, pronounced like does not imply meaning. While Mandarin speakers also vary their tone just like English speakers do to differentiate a statement from a question and convey emotion, this is much more subtle than in English. Do not try it until you have mastered the basic tones.
1. first tone ( ā )
flat, high pitch that is more sung instead of spoken.
2. second tone ( á )
low to middle, rising pitch that is pronounced like the end of a question phrase (Whát?).
3. third tone ( ǎ )
middle to low to high, dipping pitch: for two consecutive words in the third tone, the first word is pronounced as if it is in the second tone. For example, 打扰 dǎrǎo is pronounced as dárǎo.
4. fourth tone ( à )
high to low, rapidly falling pitch that is pronounced like a command (Stop!).
5. fifth tone
neutral pitc that is rarely used by itself (except for phrase particles) but frequently occurring as the second part of a phrase.
To be or not to be?
Chinese does not have words for "yes" and "no" as such; instead, questions are typically answered by repeating the verb. Here are common examples:
To be or not to be
是 shì, 不是 bú shì
To have or not have / there is or is not
有 yǒu, 没有 méi yǒu
To be right or wrong
对 duì, 不对 bú duì
你好。 Nǐ hǎo.
How are you?
你好吗？ Nǐ hǎo ma? 身体好吗? Shēntǐ hǎo ma?
Fine, thank you.
很好, 谢谢。 Hěn hǎo, xièxie.
May I please ask, what is your name?
请问你叫什么名? Qǐngwèn nǐjiào shěnme míng?
What is your name?
你叫什么名字？ Nǐ jiào shénmā míngzi?
My name is ______ .
我叫 _____ 。 Wǒ jiào ______ .
Nice to meet you.
很高兴认识你。 Hěn gāoxìng rènshì nǐ.
不客气。 Bú kèqi.
Excuse me. (getting attention)
请问 qǐng wèn
Excuse me. (begging pardon)
打扰一下。 Dǎrǎo yixià ; 麻烦您了, Máfán nín le.
Excuse me. (coming through)
对不起 Duìbùqǐ * or * 请让一下 Qǐng ràng yixià
It's okay. (polite response to "I'm sorry")
拜拜。 Bai-bai (Byebye)
I can't speak Chinese.
我不会说中文。 Wǒ bú huì shuō zhōngwén.
Do you speak English?
你会说英语吗？ Nǐ huì shuō Yīngyǔ ma?
Is there someone here who speaks English?
这里有人会说英语吗？ Zhèlĭ yǒu rén hùi shuō Yīngyǔ ma?
Help! (in emergencies)
晚上好。 Wǎnshàng hǎo.
I don't understand.
我听不懂。 Wǒ tīng bù dǒng.
Where is the toilet?
厕所在哪里？ Cèsuǒ zài nǎli?
Where is the bathroom（polite)?
洗手间在哪里？ Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎli?
Asking a question in Chinese
There are many ways to ask a question in Chinese. Here are two easy ones for travelers...
Verb/Adj. + bù + Verb/Adj.
Example - hăo bù hăo? - Are you all right? (literally - good not good?)
Exception - yŏu méi yŏu? - Do you have? (literally - have not have?)
Sentence + ma
Example - nĭ shì zhōngguóren ma? - Are you Chinese? (literally - you are chinese + ma)
Leave me alone.
不要打扰我。 (búyào dǎrǎo wǒ)
I don't want it! (useful for people who come up trying to sell you something)
我不要 (wǒ búyào!)
Don't touch me!
不要碰我！ (búyào pèng wǒ!)
I'll call the police.
我要叫警察了。 (wǒ yào jiào jǐngchá le)
住手！小偷！ (zhùshǒu! xiǎotōu!)
I need your help.
我需要你的帮助。 (wǒ xūyào nǐde bāngzhù)
It's an emergency.
这是紧急情况。 (zhèshì jǐnjí qíngkuàng)
我迷路了。 (wǒ mílù le)
I lost my bag.
我丟了手提包。 (wǒ diūle shǒutíbāo)
I lost my wallet.
我丟了钱包。 (wǒ diūle qiánbāo)
我生病了。 (wǒ shēngbìng le)
I've been injured.
我受伤了。 (wǒ shòushāng le)
I need a doctor.
我需要医生。 (wǒ xūyào yīshēng)
Can I use your phone?
我可以打个电话吗？ (wǒ kěyǐ dǎ ge diànhuà ma?)
Going to the doctor
I am sick.
我生病了。 (wǒ shēngbìng le)
不舒服。 (bù shūfú)
Sore (In muscle strains).
打喷嚏 (dǎ pēntì)
泻肚子/拉肚子 (xiè dùzi/lā dùzi)
流鼻涕 (liú bítì)
Chinese numbers are very regular. While Western numerals have become more common, the Chinese numerals shown below are still used, particularly in informal contexts like markets. The characters in parentheses are generally used in financial contexts, such as writing cheques and printing banknotes.
〇 (零) líng
一 (壹) yī
二 (贰) èr (两 liǎng is used when specifying quantities)
三 (叁) sān
四 (肆) sì
五 (伍) wǔ
六 (陆) liù
七 (柒) qī
八 (捌) bā
九 (玖) jiǔ
十 (拾) shí
For numbers above 100, any "gaps" must be filled in with 〇 líng, as eg. 一百一 yībǎiyī would otherwise be taken as shorthand for "110". A single unit of tens may be written and pronounced either 一十 yīshí or just 十 shí.
一百 (壹佰) yī-bǎi
二百 èr-bǎi or 两百：liǎng-bǎi
一千 (壹仟) yī-qiān
or 两千 liǎng-qiān
Numbers starting from 10,000 are grouped by in units of four digits starting with 万 wàn (ten thousand). "One million" in Chinese is thus "hundred ten-thousands" (一百万).
一万 (壹萬) yī-wàn
一亿 (壹億) yī-yì
number _____ (train, bus, etc.)
number measure word (路 lù, 号 hào, ...) _____ (huǒ chē, gōng gòng qì chē, etc.)
Measure words are used in combination with a number to indicate an amount of mass nouns, similar to how English requires "two pieces of paper" rather than just "two paper".  When unsure, use 个 (ge); even though it may not be correct, you will probably be understood because it is the most common measure word. (One person: 一个人 yīgè rén; two apples: 两个苹果 liǎnggè píngguǒ; note that two of something always uses 两 liǎng rather than 二 èr).
以后， yǐhòu or shāohòu
半夜 bànyè or 午夜 (wǔyè)
What time is it?
现在几点？ Xiànzài jǐ diǎn?
It is nine in the morning.
早上9点钟。 Zǎoshàng jǐu diǎn zhōng.
下午3点半. Xiàwǔ sān diǎn bàn.
下午3点38分 Xiàwǔ sāndiǎn sānshíbā fēn.
_____ 分钟 fēnzhōng
_____ 小时 xiǎoshí
_____ 天 tiān
_____ 星期 xīngqī
_____ 月 yùe
_____ 年 nián
the day before yesterday
the day after tomorrow
这个星期 zhè ge xīngqī
上个星期 shàng ge xīngqī
下个星期 xià ge xīngqī
Weekdays in Chinese are easy: starting with 1 for Monday, just add the number after 星期 xīngqī. In Taiwan, 星期 is pronounced xīngqí (second tone on the second syllable).
星期天 xīngqītiān or xīngqīrì (星期日)
星期 can also be replaced with 礼拜 lǐbài and occasionally 周 zhōu.
Months in Chinese are also easy: starting with 1 for January, just add the number before 月 yuè.
一月, yī yuè
二月, èr yuè
三月, sān yuè
四月, sì yuè
五月, wŭ yuè
六月, liù yuè
七月, qī yuè
八月, bā yuè
九月, jiŭ yuè
十月, shí yuè
十一月, shí yī yuè
十二月, shí èr yuè
From January to December, you just need to use this pattern: number (1-12) + yuè.
Writing dates in the lunar calendar
If you are attempting to name a date in the Chinese lunar calendar, add the words ‘农历’ before the name of the month to distinguish it from the months of the solar calendar, although it is not strictly necessary. There are some differences: The words 日(rì)/ 号(hào) are generally not required when stating dates in the lunar calendar; it is assumed. Besides that, the 1st Month is called 正月 (zhèngyuè). If the number of the day is less than 11, the word 初 is used before the value of the day. Besides that, if the value of the day is more than 20, the word 廿 (niàn) is used, so the 23rd day is 廿三 for example.
15th day of the 8th lunar month (the mid-autumn festival)
(农历)八月十五 ( (nónglì) bāyuè shí-wǔ).
1st day of the 1st lunar month
(农历)正月初一 ( (nónglì) zhèngyuè chūyī).
23rd day of the 9th lunar month
( 农历) 九月廿三 ( (nónglì) jiŭ yuè niànsān).
When writing the date, you name the month (number (1-12) + yuè), before inserting the day (number (1-31) + 日(rì)/ 号(hào) ). Note that the usage of 号(hào), which is more often used in spoken language, is more colloquial than that of 日(rì), which is more often used in written documents.
一月六号 (yī yuè liù hào) or 一月六日 (yī yuè liù rì)
十二月二十五号 (shí-èr yuè èr-shí-wǔ hào)
黑色 hēi sè
白色 bái sè
灰色 huī sè
红色 hóng sè
蓝色 lán sè
黄色 huáng sè
绿色 lǜ sè
橙色 chéng sè
紫色 zǐ sè
褐色 he sè, 棕色 zōng sè,
Do you have it in another colour?
你们有没有另外颜色? nǐmen yǒu méiyǒu lìngwài yánsè ?
Sè means 'colour' so 'hóng sè' is literally 'red colour'.
More common for brown and easier to remember is 'coffee colour': 咖啡色 kā fēi sè
In most Chinese cities, there are no telephone booths. Instead, small street shops have telephones which can usually be used for national calls. Look for signs like this:
公用电话 Public Telephone
Most cafes are cheaper than in hotels. Many mid-range hotels and chains now offer free wireless or plug-in internet. Those cafes are quite hidden sometimes and you should look for the following Chinese characters:
网吧 Internet Cafe
Can I make international calls here?
可以打国际电话吗? (kěyǐ dǎ guójì diànhuà ma?)
How much is it to America/Australia/Britain/Canada?
Chinese is the most spoken language of the world, with more speakers than the next two, Hindi and Spanish, combined. However, there are still few learners of Chinese in the Western world and you might get weird looks if you say you want to start learning it: "Instead of anger of frustration, the student should instead feel a smug superiority of being ahead of everyone else!"
The first step is to learn to read the romanization with tones. Avoid any phrasebook that does not mark the tones.
For simple sentences, one may be able to get away without tones, but this can cause confusion in more complex situations, so tones are very important. A classic example is the difference between the Chinese characters for "four" (四, sì) and "death" (死, sǐ), different only by tones.
A good idea for practicing is to make Chinese friends online since millions of young people in China also look for somebody to practice English with.
This is a guide phrasebook. It covers all the major topics for traveling without resorting to English. But please Plunge forward and help us make it a star!