Travel Tips

When in Beijing, Speak Like the Chinese Do

Locations in this article:  Beijing, China Hong Kong

chinese templeThe opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games are this Friday in Beijing!

If you’re about to get on a plane and fly to China to be a part of the festivities, you probably already know what to pack, what sights to see and what off-the-brochure treats are in store.

But do you know how to communicate with the Chinese?

While there are many variations of language throughout China, the country’s official language is Mandarin. If you want to make yourself understood in Beijing, you might want to learn a few key phrases in Mandarin before you go. Of course, there will be helpful people in and around the Olympic venues who can speak English, but if you want to venture off the brochure, chances are you’ll find yourself trying to communicate with non-English-speaking locals.

Believe it or not, speaking Mandarin is not as daunting as it seems. Just having a handful of words in your language arsenal can mean eliminating some of the headaches of trying to communicate while you’re enjoying all that Beijing has to offer.

First, you should know that Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that the inflection that you use when you speak can change the meaning of a word. Mandarin has four tones:

First tone (-): The voice is high and level, as if holding a note
Second tone (/): The voice rises at the end, as if asking a question
Third tone (/): The voice dips and then rises
Fourth tone (): The voice starts at the top, then fades down quickly

The same word, spoken with the four different tones, can have four different meanings. Many words have both a beginning and an end sound, which combine for a single syllable.

Worried WomanConfused yet? Don’t worry. Most Westerners who are learning spoken Chinese use Pinyin, which is a system that uses the Roman alphabet to approximate the sounds of spoken Chinese.

Pinyin makes learning key Chinese phrases much easier for other cultures. The sounds are not always an exact match, but they are close enough to be understood. Also, the Roman letters don’t always correspond to the sounds that we associate them with in Western culture, but the differences can be overcome with a little practice.

For example (from the BBC guide to Mandarin phrases), “j” sounds like you’d expect, except that your tongue should be touching the top of your bottom teeth. The letter “x” sounds like “s,” again with the tongue on the bottom teeth, and “q” sounds like “ch” with the same tongue configuration.

For “zh,” “ch” and “sh,” move the tip of your tongue toward the back of the roof of your mouth, then pronounce them as “j,” “ch” and “sh,” respectively. Put the tip of your tongue at the base of your teeth for “z” (pronounced “dz”), “c” (pronounced “ts”) and “s” (pronounced “s”). This will take some practice, but it’s worth it!

The good news is that the pronunciation of Chinese sounds doesn’t change much between words. In English, for example, the “ough” sound in the word “rough” is different than “though,” but in Pinyin, there is just one way to pronounce each word. The variations lie in the inflections.

Now that you’ve had an introduction to the Chinese language, what phrases could you need in Beijing? Here are some that might prove to be the most helpful to you. If you are concerned with your inflection or pronunciation, fear not; many Web sites, such as Omniglot, offer sound files that will allow you to hear the words spoken aloud so that you can be sure to mimic correctly.

Hello – Ni hao
Goodbye – Zai Jian
Yes – Shi
No – bu shi (or bu yao if dealing with a street vendor)
Thank you – xie xie
Excuse me – Dui bu qi
Please – Lao jia
Do you speak English? – Nin hui jiang yingyu ma?
Can you help me? – Nin neng bang ge mang ma?
Bathroom – Ce, or ce suo
How much? – Duo Shao?
Very expensive. – Hen Gui.
I don’t understand. – Wo bu dong.

As a backup, write down the name of your hotel or other important destinations in Chinese characters so you can show your taxi driver.

And, of course, carry a phrase book so that if you can’t correctly say what you need, you can always fall back on the the international language of pointing.

Some helpful links: BBC Guide to Mandarin Phrases, ESL Teachers Board, Associated Content (Mandarin Words), Associated Content (Handy Phrases), Beijing Made Easy, Tour Beijing, Beijing Travel Guide

By Erica Adams for

Need more translation help? Check out Lost in Online Translation.

Or take a look at more of our Beijing Olympics coverage …