Category: Basic Chinese Words

Jan 02 2010

How to Say “Hello” & “Goodbye” in Chinese

Perhaps you already know how to say this common greeting, but do you know what you are actually saying ?

The common way to greet in Mandarin Chinese is :

ni3 hao3 – 你好

People will tell you this means “hello” in English but in my opinion that is a very poor translation.  When I personally am studying new words I like to know the literal translation of everything I learn.  That way I know how to use those words in other situations and I can also recognize them when they are used elsewhere.

When you say “ni3 hao3 – 你好” you are actually saying “you good”.  That’s what those 2 words literally translate as.  By telling someone they are good you are essentially saying “hello” or in otherwords you are greeting them.

If you want to ask someone “how are you” you simply add the question tag “ma” to the end of the sentence :

ni3 hao3 ma1 ? – 你好吗 ?

So now you are turning the statement “you good” into a question “are you good?” which is how to ask someone “how are you?”.  In English we might say “Hello, how are you?” but in Chinese you can’t say “nihao, nihao ma?” – that just sounds ridiculous.

Another way to ask someone “how are you” is by saying “you how about?” :

ni3 zen3meyang4 – 你怎么样 ?

You could also just say “zen3meyang4” as the “you” is implied by whom you are talking to.  “zenmeyang” means “how about” or “what about”.

Now for goodbye :

zai4jian4 – 再见

Here again we don’t literally have “goodbye” as there is no word that I know of in Chinese to say goodbye.  However in English “goodbye” is what we say when we part and in Chinese “zaijian” is the common parting phrase which literally means “again see”.  So you are basically saying “see you again”.

Another common parting phrase is :

xia4 ci4 jian4 – 下次见

Notice “jian4” is again the last word, so we have the word “see” used once more.  The first word “xia4” can be translated as “next” but also can mean “under”.  The “ci4” means “time” or “instance” i.e. “this is the third time/instance this has happened”.  So the farewell phrase above simply means “next time see” or “see you next time”.

When learning new Chinese words I recommend breaking them down individually to know their literal meaning.  This will help you to understand the language better.  When you know how Chinese speakers “think” you will be better able to grasp the language and speak like a native.

Jan 01 2010

Months of the Year & Days of the Week

Here is another simple way to demonstrate how Chinese is easy.

If you can count to 12 in chinese and also say the word for “month” and “week” (i.e. a total of 14 words) not only are you able to say those 14 words, but you can also say all of the months of the year and the days of the week from Monday to Saturday without learning any extra words.

That’s because the months of the year in Mandarin Chinese are simply expressed as :

1 Month = January = yi1yue4

2 Month = February = er4yue4

3 Month = March = san1yue4

4 Month = April = si4yue4

5 Month = May = wu3yue4

6 Month = June = liu4yue4

7 Month = July = qi1yue4

8 Month = August = ba1yue4

9 Month = September = jiu3yue4

10 Month = October = shi2yue4

11 Month = November = shi2yi1yue4

12 Month = December = shi2er4yue4

So think of how much harder for a speaker of Mandarin to learn English.  Being able to count to 12 offers them no advantage in being able to say the months of the year.  They simply must memorize those 12 new words, but for us we just remember to say the month number and then the chinese word for month and there you have it.  So easy.

Days of the week are the same principle :

Week 1 = Monday = xing1qi1yi1

Week 2 = Tuesday = xing1qi1er4

Week 3 = Wednesday = xing1qi1san1

Week 4 = Thursday = xing1qi1si4

Week 5 = Friday = xing1qi1wu3

Week 6 = Saturday = xing1qi1liu4

The only exception to this rule is Sunday.  It is NOT expressed by saying “Week 7” as you would expect but instead it can be expressed by saying “week” and then the word for “sun” as in “xing1qi1ri4”, or by saying “week” and then the word for “day” or “sky” which is “tian1”, as in “xing1qi1tian1”.

Dec 27 2009

Mandarin Chinese Question Words + Grammar (Who, What, Where, Why, When, How)

Allow me to introduce the most common question words and some examples on how to use them.

Who = shei2 or shui2 (shei2 I believe is more common and is what I personally use)

In English “who” is normally the first word in a question whereas in Chinese it can appear at the end or beginning depending on the question.  Here are some examples :

Who are you ? = ni3 shi4 shei2 ? (literally = you are who ?)

Who would like to eat lunch ? = shei2 xiang3 chi1 wu3fan4 ? (literally = who would like eat lunch – here the grammar and word order is identical to English)

Who is the best ? = shei2 shi4 zui4hao3de ? OR zui4hao3de shi4 shei2 ? (literally = who is best ? OR best is who ?)

What = shen2me

In English “what” is normally the very first word in a question, however in Mandarin it is commonly the last word.

For example the question :

What are you doing tomorrow ?

In Chinese is :

Ni3 ming2tian1 hui4 zuo4 shen2me ? (literally = you tomorrow will do what?”)

Some more examples :

What is this ? = zhe4 shi4 shen2me ? (literally = this is what?)

What would you like to eat ? = ni3 xiang3 chi1  shen2me ? (literally = you would like eat what ?)

What is your problem ? = ni3de wen4ti2 shi4 shen2me ? (literally = your problem is what ?)

Dec 21 2009

Chinese Mandarin Adverbs of Frequency – Always, Never, Sometimes etc

Here are the most common Chinese adverbs of frequency.  I will list them in there correct sequence from “never” to “always” :

Never – cong2mei2you3

I always like to look at the individual meanings of each character as it helps you to learn extra vocabulary and understand how Mandarin Chinese works.

In the case of “never” above we have 3 Chinese character or words used to express “never”.  The first one “cong2” literally means “from” or “since”.  This word would be used in sentences like “I come from China” or “I have been here since 2000″.  The “meiyou” is one of the most common expressions you will ever use in Chinese as it means “not have” or “don’t have” or “nothing” because “you” is the verb “to have” and “mei” is like the word “don’t” or “not” (negative).  “meiyou” can also mean “no” in many situations.  So, in order to express the adverb “never” you are literally saying “since/from nothing”.


Here we have 2 words, both of which are very high frequency in Mandarin.  The first word “hen3” means “very” and can be put in front of pretty much every adjective in the language.  In fact, Chinese tend to put the word “hen” in front of every adjective even when they don’t mean to convey the idea of “very”.  It’s very rare that I ever hear someone using an adjective without the word “very” in front of it.  Perhaps this is because the language has so many words that sound alike, when you hear the word “hen” your brain automatically expects an adjective to follow.  This is just my personal observation, but in any case “hen” is a word you will use every single day that is for sure.  The second word “shao3” means “few, little or lack”.  So the adverb “seldom” is expressed by saying “very few”.  Now the exact same word can also be used to express having very little of something.  For example if you only have a few books you could say “hen3shao3” to describe how you don’t have a lot or many books.  Therefore the word can be used in different scenarios and situations.  The context of the sentence tells you whether the speaker is saying “seldom” or “very few/little”.  If someone is talking about an action or habit logic dictates that the person is saying they “seldom” do that action, but if someone is referring to things then logic dictates that “henshao” means few in quantity.

Perhaps you may think this makes the language confusing, but I find it very logical.  I also think it makes vocabulary very easy to learn as you don’t need to learn 2 words ie “seldom” AND “very few”.  One Chinese word conveys both meanings, you just need to learn all the ways in which you can use that word.

Once in a while, occasionally – ou3er2

Analyzing the 2 words here I’m afraid doesn’t do much as far as I can see.  For example “ou3” is used in the word “idol” which in chinese is “ou3xiang4”.  It is also used in the word “spouse” as in “pei4ou3”.  So I don’t see any relationship with it’s other meanings and this word “occasionally”.  The second character “er2” is also something with little meaning on it’s own.  It is used in many ways and in many words.  For example “in addition” = “er2qie3”.  By itself it’s hard to define what “er2” means.

Sometimes – you3shi2hou4

The first word or character here is “you3” which is the same “you3” as used in the word “never” above and means “to have”.  “you” is a very high frequency word in Mandarin Chinese and you will likely be using it everyday.  The second word “shi2” is always used in connection with “time”.  It doesn’t normally appear by itself as in this case it is followed by “hou4” which means “wait or await”, but also “hou4” doesn’t normally appear by itself either.  Most Chinese “words” are a mixture of 2 or more “characters”.  The characters all have individual meanings but when combined together create words with meaning.  Like for example the character “fire” and the character “mountain” can be used individually but when used together “fire mountain” create the word “volcano”.

So in the case of “sometimes”, although we have 3 characters, it’s really 2 words “have” and “time or occasion”.  This logically conveys the idea of “sometimes” as you are literally saying “there are times” when you do something.  The word “shi2hou4” is used in many ways.  For example the question word “when” is “shen2me shi2hou4” which is literally “what time”.  You would also use the word “shi2hou4” in a sentence like “When I was in Beijing”.  That sentence would  literally be expressed in Chinese as “I at/in Beijing’s time” or “wo3 zai4 bei3jing1 de shi2hou4”.  You are talking about the time you were in Beijing.

Generally, normally, usually – tong1chang2

This doesn’t have much of a logical breakdown either that I can see, but it’s still good to understand the individual characters and how else they are used.  “tong1” is commonly used in 2 ways that I can think of.  First is the word “tong1guo4” which means “through” as in “to go through” something or “pass through” something.  Another frequent word where “tong1” appears is in “jiao1tong1” which means “traffic” or “communications”, more commonly “traffic” though.  I haven’t seen it used very often as “communications”.  The character “chang2” can mean “ordinary, common normal or always”.  In fact it is used in our next adverb.

Frequently, often, regularly – jing1chang2

The “chang2” here is the same as the “chang2” above so no need to talk about it again.  The “jing1” can mean “scripture” as in the word for Bible “sheng4jing1” with “sheng4” meaning “holy”.  Funny enough, similar to the word “tong1” above “jing1guo4” also means to “pass by or go through”.

Always – zong3shi4

The first character “zong3” means “total, comprehensive, general, overall”.  It is used in many words for example “headquarters” “zong3bu4” and “president” “zong3tong3”.  The second character “shi4” is extremely high frequency as it is the verb “to be” as in “I am, you are, he is” etc.  So here the word for “always” is fairly logical as the “zong3” gives the idea of power, and the verb “to be” just strengthens it even more to convey the ultimate adverb “always”.

There are of course many other adverbs in Mandarin Chinese that pretty much have the same meanings of the words above.  For example the word for “day” “tian1” if said twice “tian1tian1” can mean “daily” yet another adverb of frequency.  However the adverbs I have presented above are the most common and I recommend learning these first as they are the highest frequency.

Dec 20 2009

Mandarin Chinese Question Words

Here are the most common question words in Chinese

Wh0 – shei2 / shui2 (shei2 is most common but shui2 is used by some people depending on where they are from)

What – shen2me

Where – na3li3

When – shen2me shi2hou4 (literally “what time”)

Why – wei4shen2me (literally “for what”)

How – zen3me

How about / What about – zen3me yang4

When using the question words above you wouldn’t need to use the question tag “ma” because by using a question word we already know it’s a question being asked.  You could however optionally use the “ne” at the end of a sentence using one of the question words above, but “ne” would be optional.  Perhaps similar to how is English we might say “huh” or “eh” at the end of a sentence.

However if you were asking the following question :

Do you know where the post office is ?

Asking this question in Chinese WOULD require the use of “ma” because you aren’t asking WHERE the post office is, you are asking if the person KNOWS where it is.  So the real question is “Do you know something”.

If you didn’t use “ma” at the end of the question then you would literally be TELLING the listener that they know where the post office is.  The “ma” is required to make the statement “You know where the post office is” into a question.  So you would literally say ?

You know post office located where “ma” ?

That is the word order.  You could of course use the other way of asking questions in mandarin and avoid the “ma” by saying :

You know don’t know post office located where ?

By using the “know don’t know” phrase you don’t need to use “ma”.  All “ma” questions can also be asked by stating both the positive and negative in the question instead.

Dec 06 2009

Basic Chinese Pronouns

When learning a language we all need to start somewhere, and perhaps the best place is the pronouns.

I = Wo3

We = Wo3 men

You = Ni3

You PLURAL = Ni3 men

He/She/It = Ta1

They = Ta1 men

Notice in Mandarin you can simply add the word “men” to pluralize pronoun. “I” becomes “WE” simply by adding “men”.   So you only need to learn 4 words :

wo3, ni3, ta1, & men

With those 4 words you are able to say :

I, We, Me, Us, He, She, It, Him, Her, They, Them

Notice in English we have “I” and “ME”.  Because we would never say “please give it to I”.  We must change “I” to “ME” but in mandarin this phenomenon doesn’t exist, again making it that much easier to learn this language

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