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Want vs. Need in Chinese Posted by on Mar 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

As an English teacher, I’ve found myself teaching the difference between “want” and “need” very often. There’s a big difference between wanting and needing something, and there are also many ways to express these in English. Today I’m turning the tables as I teach you, our fabulous readers, how to talk about wants and needs in Chinese:

Want

There are two words that are commonly used in Chinese to mean “want,” and a third that combines the two of them:

  • 想 – xiǎng

  • 要 – yào

  • 想要 – xiǎng yào

If there’s any difference, it’s probably akin to saying “I’d like…” (我想 – wǒ xiǎng) versus “I want…” (我要 – wǒ yào). This is actually important in English, where it’s considered more polite to use the former, but you don’t really need to worry about that in China.

In my years of living here, I have noticed the different situations that these words are usually used in. The word 想 is often used to express the desire to do something in the future – for example when discussing dinner plans with a friend.

I want to eat hot pot.

I want to eat hot pot.

  • I’d like to eat hot pot. (我想吃火锅 – wǒ xiǎng chī huǒ guō)
  • She’d like to travel to Thailand. (她想去泰国旅游 – tā xiǎng qù tài guó lǚ yóu)
  • We’d like to study English. (我们想学习英文 – wǒ men xiǎng xué xí yīng wén)

The word 要 is often used in situations such as ordering food, buying something, or taxing a taxi. It’s more immediate and direct:

Cup of coffee in the big time.

I want coffee!!!

  • He wants a cup of coffee. (他要一杯咖啡 – tā yào yī bēi kā fēi)
  • I want that blue shirt. (我要那个蓝色的衬衫 – wǒ yào nà gè lán sè de chèn shān)
  • We want to go to the airport. (我们要去机场 – wǒ men yào qù jī chǎng)

Don’t worry about the difference, though. You can use both of them, so go ahead and change it up once in a while if you want. Whichever word you choose, people will understand that you want something. Honestly, I rarely hear anyone say 想要 – Chinese people are all about simplifying things and using less words. Why use two characters when you can just use one? Here’s a great YouTube vid that shows you a bunch of examples in action:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTky2gu4bSM

Need

Just like in English (need, must, have to, etc.), there are multiple words you can use in Chinese. The two most common are:

  • 需要 – xū yào

  • 得 – děi

The difference between these two is similar to saying “I need…” (我需要 – wǒ xū yào) versus “I must/I have to…” (我得 – wǒ déi). You may have noticed the character 要 there again. That’s right, the same character can be used for “want” and “need” – no wonder my Chinese students are always confusing the two! Here are some more examples to help you out:

We really need to study Chinese if we're going to understand this menu...

We really need to study Chinese if we’re going to understand this menu…

  • I need to find a job. (我需要找工作 – wǒ xū yào zhǎo gōng zuò)
  • We need to study Chinese. (我们需要学习中文 – wǒ men xū yào xué xí zhōng wén)
  • He needs to go to Hong Kong for a business trip. (他需要去香港出差 – tā xū yào qù xiāng gǎng chū chāi)

It should be noted that the character 得 is often used as a particle and pronounced “de.” To review the other use of this character, check out the post called “You Speak Chinese Very Well.” Here are a few sentences using it to mean “must/have to”:

  • It’s too late, I have to go home. (太晚了,我得回家 – tài wǎn le, wǒ déi huí jiā)
  • They’re waiting for us, we have to go. (他们在等我们,得走了 – tā men zài děng wǒ men, déi zǒu le)
  • You must go see a doctor. (你得去看医生 – nǐ déi qù kàn yī shēng)

Check out this video for more uses of 得:

Don’t Want, Don’t Need

You may have noticed that she also covered the negative form in that last video. To make most of the above words negative, simply add the character 不:

  • don’t want/wouldn’t like (不想 – bù xiǎng)

  • don’t want (不要 – bú yào)

  • don’t want (不想要 – bù xiǎng yào)

  • don’t need (不需要 – bù xū yào)

  • don’t have to (不用 – bú yòng)

There are two things to note here. One is that in both 不要 and 不用, the word 不 changes from the fourth to the second tone. This is one of those tricky tone rules in Chinese – when followed by a word that’s also a falling tone, 不 changes to a rising tone. Also, as mentioned in the video it’s not common to say 不得, but rather 不用 when you don’t have to do something.

Now you’re ready to talk about what you want/need or don’t want/don’t need in Chinese. Don’t forget, you need to improve your Chinese by learning a new word every day!

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


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