It can be intimidating going to China for the first time, especially if you don’t speak the language. During my first trip to train in Beijing back in 1999 I couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese and constantly relied on my friends to translate for me. Even just to do something simple like buy a bottle of water.
Since that time I’ve picked up a decent amount of Chinese. I’m not fluent by any stretch of the imagination but I know enough to get by and I can’t tell you how much more comfortable it is to be in China. If I had known back then what I know now, without a doubt my experiences would have been so much richer.
I recently realized that this website lacks any way to help people deal with the language barrier when they want to go to China. It is one of the biggest “fear factors” people deal with and it’s time to put an end to this oversight.
This the first of two (or maybe three) blogs related to the Chinese language. Specifically, I’ll lay out a framework from which you can “hack” together enough Chinese to get by. In the next article I’ll give you some wushu-specific vocabulary and phrases that you’ll need to know, but first we have to lay the foundation.
But before getting in to the details, let’s talk a bit about the mindset you need when approaching a language study project.
Why studying won’t help your Chinese
Recently I’ve been reading a lot from Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months, and, while I’ve followed him and his blog for the better part of the past 7 years, my recent language learning project (more on that in a future blog) has prompted me to revisit his materials.
In fact, he talks about mindset too. It turns out that the two of us are of a similar thought in this area.
A lot of people are afraid to speak a new language. It is a fear stemming from a misunderstanding of how language acquisition works.
Because languages are taught in school, most people look at languages as an academic endeavor. You go to a class, read a book, learn rules and memorize vocabulary lists. This is how most language classes go, and the reason why most high school graduates can barely speak the language they spent 4 or 5 years studying.
The problem? Communication is not an academic endeavor. It is a skill. And like any skill — wushu, dance, painting, writing, etc. — the only way to get better is to actually do it.
This is not to discount the person who pursues an academic study of languages. Because it can certainly be pursued in that way. But, at least the way many languages are taught in schools, many years of book studying doesn’t necessarily mean you will be conversant in the language. While understanding a language can be an academic field of study, being able to converse in the language is a specific set of skills that is either related or unrelated to academics (depending on your interests).
For myself, first and foremost I view a language as a method of communication. And communication is a skill, not a subject. While studying from a book can improve your knowledge-set, only practicing and taking action can improve a skill-set.
So, the first paradigm shift is to view language learning as a practice, not as information to gather. Being comfortable in a new language requires you to produce the language, and that is really the only true test of language ability.
Trying to be perfect will actually delay your progress
The second mindset is to embrace mistakes. Mistakes are how you improve. Period.
You didn’t come out of the womb being able to speak your native language, right? Nope. Even after a solid decade of being immersed in the language and using it every day you were still only at a primary school level, still making plenty of mistakes.
View language learning like wushu training. In the beginning you make a LOT of mistakes, and are constantly getting corrected by your coach. You aren’t born with a perfect mabu or za chuan, and if you walk into the wushu guan assuming you’ll do everything perfectly from the start, you’re in for a whole world of disappointment.
Waiting until you do something perfectly, actually delays your progress with a skill.
That’s right. Believe it or not, the best way to take forever getting good at something is to wait until you’re good at something before doing it. Ironically, the fastest way to improve is not worry about how good you are, and just do it as frequently as you can.
Embrace your mistakes and know that, the more you make, the faster you will be amazing at whatever you want to do — whether it is wushu or the Chinese language.
Okay, so now that we have the right mindset, I am going to share 9 things about the Chinese language that will give you a basic, functional skill set to start communicating (brute force style) with people in China. Will you be fluent? Hahahahaha. Of course not. (Did I just laugh at you in my blog?)
But it will give you a good foundation to express your basic needs and thoughts to those around you.
I limited this to just the absolute basics you need, which you can learn on your flight to China. Absorb these language hacks and when you touch down in China you’ll be well on your way.
By the way, since we’re focusing on oral communication, I’m not going to be talking about characters and reading. That is a subject for a different day and not really relevant for what you need when you get off the plane.
In this article I’m approaching things from the level of a beginner who needs to quickly pick up useable Chinese to survive for a few weeks in China and communicate in a simple manner. If you are planning on living in China or want to study Chinese in school, then this might not be for you. And, if you are planning to study high levels of Chinese literature or grammatical structure, then this may not be for you either.
These are “hacks” to help someone get up to speed quickly in Chinese, but like any set of “hacks”, if you are going to pursue the super-high levels of something, then you will need to get some focus and invest some time.
But, if you’re heading to China soon and just want to learn enough Chinese to communicate for a few weeks with a coach, then this should help you out.
Ok, so with all those disclaimers out of the way, lets get started!
1. Chinese Grammar in a nutshell
The first thing to understand about Chinese is that they have similar sentence patterns as English. Unlike languages like Japanese or Korean, where you stick the verb at the end of the sentence (SOV style), you can formulate a lot of the sentences the same way you do in English.
For example, in English you would say:
“I ate noodles”
and in Chinese you would also say:
“Wo chi le mian” or “I ate noodles”.
One exception you should know is when asking questions.
In English you usually put the question word at the beginning, like “where is the sword?”. In Chinese you put it at the end, as in “the sword is where?” But even if you totally butcher things and say it in the English way, people will get the general idea of what you’re trying to say.
The second thing to understand about Chinese is that, in the beginning levels, the grammar is SUPER SIMPLE. There is almost no verb conjugation at all. Whereas in English you have to turn a verb like “to eat” into “ate”, “have eaten”, “eat”, “eating”, etc., in Chinese, you basically just have “chi”.
The only time you will need to do any modification to a verb is when you say something in the past tense. But that is super easy too. Just add a “le” after the verb and you’re done. Suddenly “chi” (eat) becomes “chi le” (ate). Simple, right? (I’ll get more into verb tenses in a moment.)
Oh, and guess what? It gets even better! There are almost no prepositions in Chinese too. Chinese is about as close to speaking like a caveman as you can get. In Chinese you don’t “go to the market”, you just “go market”.
And basically that is all the grammar we’re going to cover. Did you expect more? Sorry to disappoint you.
The main things to remember are that sentences are similar to English (SVO = Subject > Object > Verb), and there is basically no verb conjugations or preposition.
Got it? Okay … let’s move on …
2. Asking Questions
When we ask questions in English there are six main interrogative (question) words we use. They are:
What, who, where, when, why, and how
These are the famous 5 W’s and 1 H that we learn in school. It is the foundation of any question you may ever want to ask.
And, similarly, there are just 6 words you need to know to ask any question in Chinese. They are:
- Shenme (what)
- Shei (who)
- Zhenme (how)
- Na Li / Na’er (where)
- Shenme shihou (when)
- Wei shenme (why)
Now, the cool thing is that these words can actually be expressed using other, simpler words:
- Shenme (what)
- Shenme ren (what person = who)
- Shenme fang fa (what method = how)
- Shenme difang (what place = where)
- Shenme shihou (what time = when)
- Wei Shenme (by means of what = why)
You may have noticed they all have a word in common: “shenme”, which means “what”. Just by knowing this one single word you can actually ask a TON of questions.
We can actually do this in English too. Instead of asking “when is the wushu class?” you could ask “what time is the wushu class?” or instead of asking “who are you?” you could ask someone “what person are you?”.
Is this elegant? No, of course not. But when trying to just get your point across and communicate with someone in this “brute force” manner, you don’t need to be elegant — you need to be effective.
Generally speaking it is easier to understand words you hear than produce words from memory. So, as long as you know what one of the question words means when you hear it (for example, “na li”, which means “where”), then that is good enough for now.
For the purposes of developing communication skill, just focus on whatever gets the job done. Later, once you’re comfortable, you can expand your skills further.
One final thing about asking questions. If you don’t use one of the 6 interrogative terms above, you can also turn a statement into a question in one of two ways:
1. Add a “ma” at the end.
2. Create an “or” statement by adding a negative verb.
I’ll talk about #2 below when I tell you how to make something negative, but for now just know that if you put a “ma” at the end of a sentence it turns it into a question.
For example, “wo chi le mian” (i ate noodles) becomes a question with “wo chi le mian ma?”, meaning “I ate noodles?” (or “did I eat noodles?”)
Of course, if you have to ask someone if you just ate noodles, then learning Chinese is the least of your problems. 😉
To summarize this point, the most important words to know to ask a question in Chinese is “shenme” and “ma”. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
3. The only 3 nouns you need to know.
While there are obviously a TON of nouns in Chinese, there are really just 3 that you absolutely need to know to get your point across. They are:
- Ren (person)
- Di Fang (place)
- Dong Xi (thing)
As you’ll recall from primary school, the definition of a noun is a “person, place or thing”, so knowing these three words will allow you to express a lot of ideas pretty well.
If you combine these with the interrogative question words you just learned, you can ask just about any question you can think of.
If you don’t know the word for “straight sword” (Seriously? How do you not know that?), and you want to say “Is that your straight sword?”, just point at the object and say “Is that your thing?” and they’ll know what you mean.
Not sure of the word for “teacher”, “waiter”, “policeman” or “astronaut”? Just replace it with “person” to get your point across.
Again, this isn’t elegant, but it’s effective. I can remember specific situations when I said “Where is the restaurant person?” (“Fandian ren zai shenme difang?”) when I couldn’t remember the word for waiter/waitress. Not pretty, but it worked!
You may have noticed that there is one other word that would be handy to know. I didn’t include it in the list above because it isn’t as essential, but some people also define a noun as a “person, place, thing or idea”, so just to be complete I’ll let you know that word too.
- Xiang Fa (idea/thought).
This word is pretty cool because it is made up of two other words that are super useful.
“Xiang” is also the verb “to think”, so for example, “Wo xiang ni shi hao ren”, is “I think you are a good person”. Super helpful when you want to express an opinion.
“Fa” means “law” or “rule”, (and, coincidentally, is also the word that means “France”) so you can use it with other verbs to express a method by which something is done. For example, “Fang Fa”, which means “method”, comes from the word “local”, combined with “rule/law”.
And doesn’t that just make total sense? After all, the method by which you do something is really just your “local rule” for that thing, right? Chinese is filled with these cool, logical associations.
But, getting back to the topic, all you need to remember is “ren”, “di fang” and “dong xi” to replace whatever noun you might not know. Great placeholders to use until you build up a bit more vocabulary.
4. Learning the 5 essential pronouns
In English there are a ton of pronouns. Even just talking about yourself you have three: “me”, “myself” and “I”.
Its a lot to remember for people learning English, but fortunately pronouns are ridiculously simple when studying Chinese. They can all be boiled down to just 5 words:
- Wo (me, myself, I)
- Ni (you, yourself)
- Ta (he, she, herself, himself, him, her)
- Zhe (this, these, here)
- Na (that, those, there)
Again, super simple, and they’re all just one syllable and mostly just 2 letters long.
Modifying these pronouns is also really simple.
For the first three (Wo, Ni, Ta) you can make them plural just by adding “men” to the end. In fact, you can do that with many words that represents people such as “haizi men” (children) or “pengyou men” (friends).
For the last two (Zhe, Na), you can modify them to have a lot more meanings too. There are two main modifiers you can use: “ge” and “li” for “things” and “places”, respectively.
When you add “ge” (which is a counter for objects) after “zhe” or “na”, you end up with “zhe ge” (this thing) and “na ge” (that thing). So, “zhe ge dong xi” means “this thing”.
When you put “li” (which is a measurement of location or can mean “in”) at the end you get “zhe li” (here) and “na li” (there).
“Zhe” and “na” don’t actually have plurals so you don’t put “men” after them. It is understood through the context, so if you are pointing to a big pile of broadswords, and you say “zhe ge”, people will know that you mean all of them, not just one (unless you are pointing at a specific one in the pile).
There are a few things you might hear that are worth mentioning (although for now you don’t need to memorize them to produce it in your own speech):
First, you may hear people add a “yang” after “zhe” for “zhe yang”. “Yang” means “type” or “sample” or “pattern”, so they’re actually saying “this type”. It is used a lot in expressions to say something to the effect of “like this”, for example “Ni zuo zhe yang” (You do it like this).
Second, you may hear “na” sometimes pronounced as “nei”, like in “nei ge”. Think of this just as an alternate way to pronounce the same thing. Also, “nei ge” is sometimes used as a placeholder or stalling tactic when talking, kind of like “ummm” in English, or “da kine” in Hawaiian Pidgin.
Finally, if you’re heading north, you might find that people add an “r” sound to the end of “zhe” and “na” so you get a sound like “Zhar” or “Nar”, but that is just a regional inflection.
Again, you don’t have to produce these as long as you can recognize when some people say it. The main things to remember are the 5 words for various pronouns and the three ways to modify them for plurals (men), objects (ge) or locations (li).
5. The 8 most important verbs you need to know.
In Chinese there are about 8 verbs that you will can use for 80% of the situations you may find yourself in. I’ll just list them out and then show you how to use them:
- yao (to want)
- zuo (to do)
- qv/lai (to go/come)
- shi (to be)
- you (there is)
- zai (to be in/at/on)
- chi (to eat)
- he (to drink)
For the most part they all act the same as their English counterparts. But the first one, “yao” is worth mentioning, because it can be combined with other verbs to provide additional enhancements.
“Yao” (to want) can be added with many of the other verbs to express a desire to do something. So, for example “yao chi” is “want to eat” and “yao qv” is “want to go”.
Both “yao” and “zai” (to be in/at/on) also have an additional functionality with relation to present and future tense, but I’ll get in to that in a minute. Just know that they are super handy verbs, and even better they’re all just one syllable and 2 or 3 letters long.
For the rest of the verbs, as I said, you can use them just like you would in English, but without the headache of figuring out how to conjugate them.
I think this might be a good time to take a quick break and see just how far we’ve come. With what you know you can already express a whole host of thoughts or ideas.
- “Where do you want to go?” becomes “Ni yao qv shenme difang?”
- “What time will you drink this thing?” becomes “Ni shenme shihou he zhege dongxi?”
- “Who eats those things?” becomes “Shenme ren chi na ge dongxi?”
- “Where are you?” becomes “Ni zai na li?”
Okay, so let’s go over the last 4 Chinese hacks to really flesh out your skills and get you on your way.
6. Being negative in Chinese
So far we’ve been positive in everything we’ve said. But what if you want to make something negative. Well, here the simplicity of Chinese grammar works to your benefit.
All you need to know is “bu”. Add this to any verb or adjective and it becomes negative.
- “bu yao” = “don’t want”
- “bu hao” = “not good”
- “bu chi” = “don’t eat”
- “bu zai” = “isn’t in/at/on”
- “bu leng” = “not cold”
The only exception to this is with the verb “you”, which means “to have” or “there is”. Instead of “bu you” you say “mei you”, which becomes “there isn’t” or “don’t have”.
Remember before when I talked about asking questions? Well, the second way to ask a question is to use the negative form of a verb right after the positive form. It’s actually way easier than you might think:
Instead of saying “ma” after the sentence, just change the verb to a double verb with the negative particle between the two verbs.
So, instead of “zai ma?” (is there?) you can say “zai bu zai?” (is (or) isn’t?). “you ma?” becomes “you mei you?”, as well, since it is the one exception to the “bu” rule. But all the other verbs use “bu”. Here are some examples:
- “yao bu yao” = “want (or) don’t want?”
- “hao bu hao” = “good (or) not good?”
- “chi bu chi” = “eat (or) not eat?”
- “zai bu zai” = “is (or) isn’t?”
It is basically the equivalent of the English use of “or” to ask a question. For example, “Do you go or not go?” becomes “ni qv bu qv?” So, we actually do this in English too — but in a more confusing way. Once again Chinese simplifies things for us!
7. The 3 most important words for expressing time
Before we actually get in to expressing different tenses (although I already showed you how to do past tense), let’s talk about words for time.
If we’re going for efficiency and effectiveness, then memorizing long lists of words for “today”, “tomorrow”, “yesterday”, “next week”, “a year from now”, etc., is a bad use of your time.
To be honest, you really only need to know 3 time-related words to survive in Chinese.
- “Yi Qian” (Before)
- “Xian Zai” (Now)
- “Yi Hou” (After)
Which are basically the base words for expressing the past, present and future, respectively. (The “Yi” in the words for “before” and “after” actually means “one”.)
Fortunately, those words also help you when you come across other words.
You can use both “qian” (“before”) and “Hou” (“after”) with directional markers like “mian”, which can mean “side” or “surface”, and you get “qian mian” (“in front of”) and “hou mian” (“behind”).
Two other helpful words are:
- “Shang” (“above”)
- “Xia” (“below”)
You can use these with time to relate to the “next” or “previous” things in a sequence.
To express a previous or next event, you can put “yi” (“one”) after the word, and then a word for the type of event. For example, with “ke” which means “lesson” or “class”, when you say “xia yi ke” you get “next class”, or for “zhan” (which means “station”, like a train station) “xia yi zhan” becomes “next station”.
To talk about an object instead of an event, then use the object counter, “ge” (kind of like “a” or “the” in English) in the same way. Then “xia ge che” becomes “the next car” or “xia ge di fang” becomes “the next place”. But you can use this with time nouns too, so “yue” which means month can be used to get “xia ge yue”, which means “next month”.
But really just remember how to express the past (“yi qian”) the present “(xian zai”) and the future (“yi hou”) and you’ll be able to ask all sorts of things.
Again, not super elegant, but you’ll be able to communicate and that is the goal.
8. Past, present and future tense
We just talked about the past, present and future, but here I’m talking about how to change the tense of a verb.
In English verb tense is super complicated. Just the word for “to be” has “am, is, are, was, were, be, been”. Seriously? 7 words to express just one verb? Fortunately, Chinese just has “zai” for “to be”. Sooooo much simpler!
As you’ll recall, I already told you how to make a verb past tense. Just stick “le” at the end of it.
To make a verb future tense you just stick a “yao” before it. And, as you’ll recall, “yao” means “to want”, so really you’re just saying you want something to happen. As a result, future tense-ing a verb can have a dual meaning. Either “I want to ______” or “I will _____”.
For example, “Wo yao chi fan” can either be “I want to eat” or “I will eat”. Ideally you are going to eat because you want to eat, so it sort of makes sense, right?
For the present tense I’m specifically showing you how to make a verb into an “ing” verb. It’s called “present progressive”, and it’s super simple. Just add “zai” before the verb.
As you’ll recall “zai” means “to be”, so you’re sort of saying the verb is “being” something. So, “zai chi” means “eating” and “zai shuo” means “talking”.
Oh, one thing about “zai” that you should know. It can also mean “again”, but that is actually a different character. But in your travels you may come across someone saying “zai lai”, which actually means “come again” or “do it again”. So, just be aware that while the characters and meaning are different, you’ll come across that sound and may get confused.
So, once again, here are the 3 simple steps for past, present and future tense: “le”, “zai”, and”yao”. Easy, right?
9. Feeling possessive about your Chinese
The last thing you might want to be able to express is ownership or possession. In English we do this with the apostrophe and an “s”, so to talk about the bumper on the car you would say “the car’s bumper”.
Again, English is super complicated. Just think of phrases like “his car” or “her car” or “their car” and you’ll see that the apostrophe-s rule doesn’t always apply. (Wouldn’t it be so much simpler to say “he’s car”?)
But the Chinese version is much simpler. You just add “de” between the owner and the object. So, “my car” becomes “wo de che” or “your kung fu” becomes “ni de gong fu”.
This also opens up a ton of descriptive phrases for you, because now, if you don’t know someone’s name or what to call them, you can say something like “the person who is at the hotel” or “zai fang dian de ren” (“at hotel’s person”), and you’ve suddenly clarified who you’re talking about!
You may note that in that phrase the description comes before the noun in Chinese (“at the hotel”) whereas it comes after the noun in English (“who is at the hotel”). I suppose that is one of the grammatical differences you’ll find, but to be honest, since there is no verb conjugation, it actually makes describing things much easier.
So, long story short, just use “de” to describe possession in Chinese.
What about tones?
I know what your’e thinking. “What about tones?” And it’s true that tones are a part of the language. But I’d like you to think about tones in a slightly different way than what you might be used to.
You see, while it’s true that Chinese is a tonal language, I would venture to say that English (or any language, really) is a (type of) tonal language too. The way you say a word like “what?” can significantly change the nuanced meaning of the word. “Whaaaaaat?” in a rising tone is different than “WHAT??” in a short falling tone.
So, looking at it like that, you’re actually already used to listening for differences in tones. All languages have a sort of “music” to them. You are familiar with the music of your mother tongue, so you just need to get used to the music of Chinese.
All that takes is listening to Chinese and seeing how other people express themselves. If you pay attention then you’ll find yourself adapting to the right tones and saying them without even really trying.
This is also the reason I didn’t include tone marks on the words on this page, for example “Wǒ zài shuō”. Not because I’m lazy (although I sort of am), but because I don’t want you to lose focus on the core purpose of just opening your mouth and saying things. Getting caught up with technical details might distract you from a focus on quickly picking up these “brute force” communication tactics.
And, like I said — you will develop an ear for the right way to say things sooner than you think. Focusing on why you “suck” at Chinese because you can’t get tones, is just a way to distract yourself from actually listening and paying attention to how people talk.
Think less. Do more.
When someone says the number one, “yi”, you will hear it said the right way all the time. (You probably hear this word a lot in your wushu class already.) You know that it isn’t said with the 2nd, 3rd or 4th tones because you usually only hear it the right way.
Or think of it like this. Have you ever noticed how Siri sounds a little “off” from how people actually talk? Instead of “You have an appointment at 3pm with your dentist” she sounds more like “YOU have an appointMENT AT 3 pm with YOUR dentist”. You just know instinctively that it sounds wrong, right? It’s that “robot-speak” effect. The emphasis is on the wrong syllables. And in the same way you’ll eventually realize that Chinese words just sound right when said in certain ways.
It’s the reason you never hear people shout “Jia Yooooooooooou!” at a competition. 😉
In the process of making mistakes (which I hope you’ll do a LOT) you will get corrected or hear other people say things the right way. Well, guess what? You just got a free lesson in how to improve your Chinese! Awesome! Make a mental note of it and move on with some enhanced knowledge.
Yes, it’s really that simple. Why complicate things when you don’t need to?
So, what have we learned? And what is next?
You actually have almost everything you need to survive on your own in China.
No, really, you do. Stop laughing.
From here the only things you really need to focus on are learning nouns, verbs and adjectives that are specific to you and your life. Something I learned from Benny Lewis, which I totally agree with, is to never initially learn vocabulary from a list someone else has put together, because usually 50% (or more) of the words on that list have nothing to do with your life or circumstances.
Do you really need to know the word for “boardroom” or “fax machine”? Probably not. You’re a wushu enthusiast and you’re going to China to train in wushu! So, in the next blog entry I’m going to get in to some specific words and phrases that you will need in those situations with a coach or athlete in the wushu guan.
Beyond that, what I would encourage you to do, is to come up with a list of 10 nouns, 10 adjectives and 10 verbs, that can encapsulate you and your life.
Your hobbies (guitar, painting, music, dance, etc.), your family (sister, brother, parents, in-laws, their work, where they live, etc.) and your life (are you a vegetarian? Buddhist? Chef?) have words that are unique to you. Come up with the ones that are most important to describe you and your life and focus on memorizing them. Those are the words you’ll have to say over and over again.
After that, focus on learning basic nouns, verbs and adjectives that you use a lot in daily life. These are more general words like “sleep” or “food” or “big/small” that come up all the time. For this you can look at one of the many word frequency lists for Chinese and find the nouns, verbs and adjectives that fall in to this category. Again, you really only need about 10 of each, to have a good, useful vocabulary for just about anything you might want to say. (I’ll include a list of these in the next blog post.)
You might think that to become functional in a language you need to learn thousands of words and hundreds of sentence structures, but hopefully you’ve seen here that you really don’t need too much to make significant strides with Chinese.
In this article alone, I’ve only given you around 40 words to learn. If you combine those with the two lists of 30 words, then you’re around 100 words that you need to know to survive really well in China. Just 100 words and learning a few rules! Not too bad, right?
When you think about it, that is not really all that daunting at all.
While you’re waiting for the next blog post to come out, I invite you to check out Benny Lewis’ new “Why Chinese is Easy” course, which he just released last month. It has a ton of really good hacks (a lot more than I covered here) to help beginners with their Chinese study. If you are serious about learning Chinese for more than just a quick trip to train wushu, then I think his strategies will really cut a lot of time off your practice.
He also has a bundle deal if you get his Language Hacking Guide or sign up for his premium course, or get his other “Why Languages are Easy” ebooks. Check it out and let me know what you think if you get them.
So, that’s it for this. As you can see, you can have a pretty functional use of Chinese with just a few key tools in your tool belt. I really hope this helps and I’d love to get your feedback.
Until next time … Train hard!