When learning a language in a country where it’s actually spoken, you’ll start to pick up on certain expressions before long. On the subway, in the shops, at a restaurant, and everywhere in between, you constantly hear people speaking the language. At first, this can be overwhelming and confusing. My first few weeks in China will always stand out in my memory, as I understood absolutely zero Chinese and I lived in an area of Beijing with no foreigners and no real sign of my mother language anywhere, with the exception of the familiar golden arches of McDonald’s about a 15 minute walk from our apartment complex. Being able to understand some of the language and put it to use was a slow and gradual process that took a few months. Once I started studying Chinese, I began to pick up on more and more expressions that I was hearing on a daily basis.
To help you in your Chinese studies, I’m going to introduce ten of these common expressions that you will often encounter when using the language:
1. 喂 – wéi
We all know that “Hello” in Chinese is “你好” (nǐ hǎo), and that’s almost always used as a greeting here. Listen to any phone conversation in Chinese, though, and you’ll notice that they don’t usually begin with a “你好.” When people answer their phone here, the common expression used is “喂” (wéi). It will often be immediately followed by “你好,” so it doesn’t really have any special meaning. To sound more like a native speaker and not a total n00b, try using this whenever you answer your phone.
2. 你干嘛? – nǐ gàn ma
This expression can be translated as “What are you doing?”, and it is very commonly used in China. It’s not very polite, though, so you wouldn’t use this if, for example, you wanted to ask someone out and needed to know what they were doing that night. It’s more often used in situations like these: a. someone close to you (friend, relative, partner) is doing something strange and/or stupid; b. you are angry with someone out in public, like if they cut in front of you.
3. 你来了！ – nǐ lái le!
This one basically means “You’re here!” It’s used as a sort of greeting when someone shows up. For example, our ayi (阿姨 – Ā yí) at my office always says this when I walk in to start my shift – “Sasha… 你来了!” There’s a bonus expression in this one for you. The word “阿姨” means “auntie,” but it’s not only used for actual family members. It can also be used to address a woman older than you, or even as a job title, as most ladies who work as housekeepers/nannies are simply called “阿姨” as well.
4. 好久不见 – hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn
We all know the expression “Long time no see!”; this is how you say it in Chinese. Use it when you run into someone you haven’t seen for a while, or in my case, use it to joke around with your lazy students who don’t often come to class.
5. 太… 了 – tài… le
You’ll hear this all the time with an adjective placed in the middle. It means “too (adjective)”, as in “It’s too expensive!” (太贵了 – tài guì le), “I’m too busy!” (我太忙了 – wǒ tài máng le), or “It’s too far away!” (太远了- tài yuǎn le)
6. 好的 – hǎo de
This basically means “OK” or “allright.” You’ll always hear people use this when making plans or discussing what to do. For example, if I say “Let’s go to the bar” (咱们去酒吧 – zán men qù jiǔ bā), you can just respond with “好的.”
7. 还行 – hái xíng
This one can basically mean the same thing as “好的”, but it’s more for describing your feelings, some place, or something. For instance, if I ask “How have you been?” (你最近怎么样? – nǐ zuì jìn zěn me yàng), you could answer with “还行”, as in “I’ve been OK.” In this case, you wouldn’t answer with “好的.” Or, if someone asks you “How’s your Chinese?” (你的汉语怎么样? – nǐ de hàn yǔ zěn me yàng), you could say “还行”, as in “It’s alright.”
8. 不错 - bú cuò
This expression means “not bad,” and it is very often used. Chinese people have a tendency to say that something is “not bad” instead of calling it “good.” I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me ,”Your Chinese isn’t bad” (你的中文不错- nǐ de zhōng wén bú cuò). Use it to talk about movies, books, food, or just about anything.
9. 一点儿 - yì diǎn er/有点儿 – yǒu diǎn er
Both of these expressions mean “a little,” but they have different uses. For example, you could say “I’d like to drink a little bit of coffee” (我想喝(一)点儿咖啡 – wǒ xiǎng hē yì diǎn er kā fēi). While “一点儿” is used for an affirmative or positive expression, “有点儿” is used as a negative. You could say, “I’m a little fat” (我有点儿胖 – wǒ yǒu diǎn er pàng) or “It’s a little cold here” (这里有点儿冷 – zhè lǐ yǒu diǎn er lěng). Since you’d rather get something cheap than expensive, you’d say “It’s a little expensive. Can it be a little cheaper?” (有点儿贵 . 便宜一点儿可以吗 – yǒu diǎn er guì. pián yi yì diǎn er kě yǐ ma).
10. 没事 – méi shì
You’ll hear this expression very often, and it basically means “no problem” or “it’s nothing.” You may hear it after you thank someone, or if you ask whether something is alright. I find myself using it all the time, and that’s probably because I hear it all the time.
Try putting these common expressions to use and improve your fluency in Mandarin Chinese in the process. Also, don’t forget that you can learn a new Chinese word every day through our website.