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Yuzuki is a Japanese girl I met on the train to Kunming. It was only her third month in China, but thanks to her Asian features, the locals kept approaching her with rapid Mandarin. She was grateful for the opportunities to practice her new language, but consistently had to use her broken Chinese to remind her conversation partners she wasn’t a native speaker. Unlike Yuzuki, my appearance and accent give away the fact I am not fluent in Chinese. Yet the same sentences Yuzuki used can be very useful for any foreigner traveling in China.
对不起 (duìbùqǐ) means “sorry”; 我的 (wǒ de) means “mine”; 中文 (zhōngwén) and 汉语 (hànyǔ) both mean “Chinese language”. The adjective to describe your Chinese can be ranked by the level of your language skill:
Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de hànyǔ hěn zāogāo.
Sorry, my Chinese is poor.
Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de hànyǔ bù hǎo.
Sorry, my Chinese is not good.
Duìbùqǐ, wǒ de hànyǔ bù tài hǎo.
Sorry, my Chinese is not very good.
A musical group named Transition even made a single out of this apologetic sentence:
During my first weeks in China, when I used these three little words frequently, I wasn’t aware of the grammatical complexities of this sentence. It was before I’d learned about the potential complement. To express a potential possibility of achieving an expected result, 得 (de) is inserted between two verbs, or between a verb and a direction. For example:
Xínglǐ bù zhóng, dāngrán bān de shànglái.
The baggage is not heavy, of course we can lift it up.
But potential complements usually appear in negative statements. For example:
Zhège cài tài yóunìle, wǒ chī bù wán.
This dish is too greasy, I can’t finish it.
Duìbùqǐ , wǒ tīng bù dǒng.
Sorry, I can’t understand.
听不懂 means I can’t understand what I’m hearing, so use this sentence carefully, because it may stops the locals’ attempts for conversation with you immediately.
At the beginning of my Chinese studies, I found comfort in the realization that I understood more when the pace of speech was slower. Never be shy to ask your interlocutor:
Qǐng shuō màn yīdiǎn.
Please speak more slowly.
请 (qǐng) means “please”; 说 (shuō) means “to talk”; 慢 (màn) means “slow”; and 一点 (yī diǎn) means “a little” or “a bit”. The construction 请。。。一点 is good for any kind of request. Using this construction makes the application clear and yet polite. For example:
Tài guìle, qǐng piányí yīdiǎn.
It’s too expensive, please give me a better price.
Qǐng kuài yīdiǎn shàng cài, wǒ è jíle.
Please serve the dishes faster, I’m hungry.
When you don’t understand what your conversation partner has just said, you can ask him or her:
Qǐng zàishuō yībiàn.
Please repeat that.
请 (qǐng) means “please”; 再 (zài) means “again” or “more”; 说 (shuō) means to “speak”; 一遍 (yībiàn) means “one time”. The Chinese language uses measure words to count nouns and actions. Every noun has its specific measure word. 本 (běn), for example, is the measure word for books and notebooks. 一本书 (yī běn shū) means “a book”. 位 (wèi), for example, is a measure word for people. 两位人 (liǎng wèi rén) means “two people”. 遍 (biàn) and 次 (cì) are both measure words for actions. For example:
Zhè bù diànyǐng hěn yǒuqù, wǒ yǐjīng kànguò wǔ biànle.
The film is very interesting, I have already seen it five times.
Wǒ qùguò mòsīkē sāncì.
I have been to Moscow three times.