Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Best Way to Learn Chinese is in Chinese

This was the turning point that totally accelerated my study of Chinese: When I knew enough phrases to start learning Chinese in Chinese. In other words, yeah, I'd been meeting up with a few of my Chinese friends every week, practicing with them, and when I could do that without speaking English at all, that's when things really took off.

Image source.

Three reasons for this:
  1. My goal is to speak Chinese, right? Maybe a good method to do that is, you know, by speaking Chinese.
  2. If I asked in Chinese, they replied in Chinese, which helped me become familiar with some conversational vocabulary that I wouldn't have thought to ask.
  3. Do you know how it feels to realize "wow, I just had an entire conversation with no English"? I want to help you feel that. It's awesome.
So, I've made a list of "all" the words you need to know in order to learn Chinese in Chinese. And if you're studying any other language, I recommend finding the corresponding phrases in that language- you will learn so much faster if you find a conversation partner and quit speaking English.

Also: Even if you don't have any intention of learning Chinese, I recommend taking a look at how I've translated phrases and the literal meanings of each word. You'll be surprised and fascinated. Chinese grammar is completely different from English.

Since this list is quite long, I've (somewhat arbitrarily) divided it into different levels. Don't worry about learning the whole list right now- just learn one level at a time. Also, I've used ___ and ~~~ as placeholders- in real life you would fill those in with whatever vocabulary you're asking about.

(And OF COURSE there are variations on the wording of all of these. I'm just giving you one way to say them.)

Without further ado:

Level 1:

___怎么说? (zěnme shuō) = "How do you say ___?" 
(or just 怎么说? (zěnme shuō) = "How do you say it?")
怎么 (zěnme) = "how"
说 (shuō) = "say"

你说什么? (nǐ shuō shénme) = "What did you say?"
你 (nǐ) = "you"
说 (shuō) = "say"
什么 (shénme) = "what"

___什么意思? (shénme yìsi) = "What does ___ mean?"
(or just 什么意思? (shénme yìsi) = "What does that mean?")
什么 (shénme) = "what"
意思 (yìsi) = "meaning"

这个 (zhège) = "this" or "this one"
Several of the phrases I'm giving you have blanks where you would fill in the word you're asking about. Or just point and say "这个 (zhège)".

怎么写? (zěnme xiě) = "How do you write it?"
(or ___怎么写? (zěnme xiě) = "How do you write ___?")
怎么 (zěnme) = "how"
写 (xiě) = "write"

Level 2:

什么? (shénme) = "What?"

说得对吗? (shuō de duì ma) = "Did I say it right?"
说 (shuō) = "say"
得 (de) = [this word comes after a verb when you want to modify it with an adverb]
对 (duì) = "right"
吗 (ma) = [you throw this on the end of a statement to turn it into a question]

写得对吗? (xiě de duì ma) "Did I write it right?"
写 (xiě) = "write"
得 (de) = [this word comes after a verb when you want to modify it with an adverb]
对 (duì) = "right"
吗 (ma) = [you throw this on the end of a statement to turn it into a question]

怎么发音? (zěnme fāyīn) = "How do you pronounce that?"
怎么 (zěnme) = "how"
发音 (fāyīn) = "pronounce"

怎么用? (zěnme yòng) = "How do you use it?"
(or ___怎么用? (zěnme yòng) ="How do you use ___?")
怎么 (zěnme) = "how"
用 (yòng) = "use"

Level 3:

可以说___吗? (kěyǐ shuō ___ ma) = "Can I say ___?"
(when you want to check if you're understanding the word right, and you make an example sentence)
可以 (kěyǐ) = "can"
说 (shuō) = "say"
吗 (ma) = [you throw this on the end of a statement to turn it into a question]

___的~~~ (de) = "~~~ as in ___"
Okay, this is unique to Chinese and REALLY REALLY important. So, Chinese has a lot of words which are completely different words (different characters) but pronounced the same. So if someone tells you a character that's pronounced zi, you wonder which zi they're talking about. If it's this one 自, they might answer "自己的自 (zìjǐ de zì)" which means "zi as in zi ji." The idea is to give an example of a word containing the character in question.
(自己 (zìjǐ) means "self", if you were wondering.)

发音得对吗? (fāyīn de duì ma) = "Did I pronounce it right?"
发音 (fāyīn) = "pronounce"
得 (de) = [this word comes after a verb when you want to modify it with an adverb]
对 (duì) = "right"
吗 (ma) = [you throw this on the end of a statement to turn it into a question]

几声? (jǐ shēng) = "Which tone?"
In Chinese, each character has one of the four tones as part of its pronunciation.
几 (jǐ) = "which number"
声 (shēng) = "tone"

拼音是什么? (pīnyīn shì shénme) = "What's the pinyin for that?"
Pinyin is the pronunciation, written in "English letters". For example, the pinyin for "对" is "duì".
拼音 (pīnyīn) = "pinyin"
是 (shì) = "is"
什么 (shénme) = "what"

Level 4:

比如 (bǐrú) = "for example"
You can even use this as a question.

跟___一样吗? (gēn ___ yīyàng ma) = "Is it the same as ___?"
跟 (gēn) = "with"/"and"
一样 (yīyàng) = "the same"
吗 (ma) = [you throw this on the end of a statement to turn it into a question]

___和~~~什么不一样? (___ hé ~~~ shénme bù yīyàng) = "What's the difference between ___ and ~~~?"
和 (hé) = "and"
什么 (shénme) = "what"
不一样 (bù yīyàng) = "different"

再说一遍 (zài shuō yībiàn) = "Can you say it again?"
再 (zài) = "again"
说 (shuō) = "say"
一遍 (yībiàn) = "one time"

如果 (rúguǒ) = "if"
This is useful when describing possible scenarios in which you would use certain words.


不明白 (bù míngbái) = "I don't get it."
不 (bù) = "no"/"not"
明白 (míngbái) = "understand"

加油! (jiāyóu) It means "keep at it", "good luck", "you got this", things to that effect. (Oh, but the literal translation is "add oil.") Image source.
如果你不说英文,中文也会学得更快!(rúguǒ nǐ bù shuō yīngwén, zhōngwén yě huì xué de gèng kuài)

If you don't speak English, you can learn Chinese even faster!

Click here for more posts about learning Mandarin.


  1. I found my way here from reddit. Good post, thank you. I've added these to my notes.

  2. I'm still at the beginning stages of learning Mandarin, and I'm mostly picking it up from interacting with my husband and my in-laws. I do use some of those phrases, but I'd add:
    Wo3 dong3 le = I understand
    Wo3 ting1 bu4 dong3 = I don't understand
    I also use zhe4ge and zhe'er (Beijing accent) a lot.

  3. Yeah those are good ones. :) Are you learning to read the characters too? (You definitely should- there's a ton of meaning in them.) Here are the characters for those phrases:
    我懂了 (wǒ dǒngle)
    我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng)
    这个 (zhège) / 这儿 (zhè'er)

    But I generally don't use ”我听不懂“ (wo ting bu dong) because it seems like the meaning is more like "I can't understand" (and gets interpreted as "I can't understand Chinese, I'm white, talk to me in English"), rather than "I missed it, give me another chance."

    Good luck learning Chinese! It's a totally awesome language. 加油!