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”.
Seldom – hen3shao3
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.