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Language Toolbox: Essential Chinese Phrases to Help You Learn More and Navigate Any Situation in Chinese

When learning Chinese, it is important to ask questions. When you work to clarify meaning, it can accelerate your learning. After learning Chinese for 6 years and also studying Korean, Japanese, and Spanish, I have noticed that there are essential questions that every language learner should have in their toolbox. These Chinese phrases can help you work through difficulties and learn new words quickly.

While working at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), I saw firsthand how students struggle to master one of the hardest languages in the world—and again, these same key questions helped students through this most difficult challenge. MMLA is a four-week long fully immersive summer academy where students must continue speaking the language they are learning throughout the entire day. This can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for students if they do not have the necessary linguistic tools to navigate the uncharted waters of a new language. However, when equipped with this core set of Chinese phrases and an eagerness to ask questions, I have found that students are able to handle any difficult situation, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the words and grammar they may be struggling with.

The first indispensable question is “Can you please speak a little slower?” 你可以说慢一点吗? When just starting out in any language, it can be difficult to interpret and understand when a native speaker talks. One of the main reasons for this has roots in your brain, in your first year of life—after about 10 months, babies begins to specialize in hearing the sounds (called phonemes) of your mother tongue. For example, the difference between r and l in English sounds extremely similar to native Japanese speakers, but to Japanese babies these two sounds are different. This adaptation makes you more effective at learning your own language, but it makes interpreting foreign sounds when you’re older a challenge.

When you are first starting out learning Chinese, it is perfectly acceptable to ask speakers to slow down and even repeat themselves multiple times. Often native speakers are unaware of how fast they are speaking and their speed is just by force of habit. For example, you can say, “Can you repeat what you just said? I didn’t understand.” 没听清楚,你可以再说一遍吗?  Using this question is not a sign of linguistic weakness, but rather a sign of strength. You are showing that you can ask questions in your new language to eliminate confusion. It’s easy to gloss over and nod your head like you have understood what someone has said, but real language learning happens when you admit what you don’t know and ask whomever you are talking to repeat themselves.

The above mentioned Chinese phrases are essential at the beginner and intermediate levels because they allow you to hear the words slowly over again, which gives your brain time to process the many new sounds and linguistic patterns that you are learning.

The next two Chinese phrases are “What does X mean?” X 有什么意思? and “How do you use X in a sentence?” 在句子里面怎么用 X ? These are vital questions to help you understand words that are unfamiliar, and they can put words in context so you can start using them in sentences like a native speaker. When you encounter a word that you don’t understand, the best strategy is to ask the meaning of the word and for an example of how to use it in a sentence: “Can you give me an example of X used in a sentence?” 用这个词在句子里面,可以给我一个例子吗? or “Can you give me an example?” 你可以举个例子给我说吗?

A great habit that effective language learners have is to look up every new word that they encounter. And what if you do not know how to spell the word? You can easily say, “How do you spell the word that you just said?” 怎么拼你刚才说的词? or “Can you write that word down for me?” 你可以写下来你刚刚说的词吗?Training yourself to spell words that you hear is an important part of the language learning process, but sometimes there are words that you simply cannot spell or even hear correctly in a foreign language. When your friend or tutor writes down words that are unfamiliar to you, you can gradually build up the ability to spell new words that you hear. Another way to build up your spelling is to try to guess how to spell it on your phone or dictionary, and then show it to your friend to see if you spelled it right. Over time, you will notice what sounds are challenging for you, and you can specifically focus on training your ear to hear those sounds.

What if you encounter a word when you are reading or out on the street and you don’t know how to pronounce the word? You can say, “How do you say this word?” 这个词怎么说? or “How do you pronounce this word?” 怎么念这个词?Clear pronunciation is important for reaching fluency, and these Chinese phrases will help you learn how to pronounce words like a native.

When you reach an upper-intermediate or advanced level, you will being to encounter many words that are similar or are very close in meaning but are used in a wide range of contexts. The two best ways of clarifying these differences are: 1.) to read more and 2.) to ask native speakers the difference between the words in question. For example, “What’s the difference between A and B?” A 跟 B 有什么差别?and “How do you use these two words in a sentence?” 在句子里面怎么用这两个词? Now, native speakers are sometimes unable to explain the subtle differences between words. They might only be able to give you a general explanation—it’s second nature to them! However, focus on the examples that they provide because they can give you a sense of how to use the words like a local, which is the ultimate goal.

True fluency is being able to use the right words at the right time for the right situation. It is not impressive to know fancy words if you use them incorrectly or in the wrong situation. This is especially true for chengyu 成语. Often times, the English translation provided gives you the sense that these chengyu can be used exactly like their English counterpart. However, that is often not the case. There is usually a historical backstory to the chengyu, and it’s only used in specific cultural contexts that often get lost in translation. I’ve used my fair share of chengyu improperly only to have my friends laugh and proceed to educate me on how to use the chengyu in question properly.

Two important Chinese phrases for determining the appropriate context for a word are “Is this word only used in formal language (written language) or can you use it in any situation?  这个词只能用在书面语还是什么时候都可以用?and simply “Is this word spoken language or formal language?  这个词口语还是书面语?Throughout your journey studying Chinese, you will encounter many words that are in your textbook that you would NEVER use. They maybe outdated. It is important to identify common, current ways of speaking. Try to focus on learning the most frequently-used words, rather than the most complicated or complex words. “Is this word used often? Or does no one use this word?” 这个词常用吗?还是没有人用这个词?

If you spend the time now internalizing these questions, they will reap many benefits throughout your Chinese learning journey. Don’t underestimate the power of asking questions in Chinese. Having these core questions in your toolbox can help you overcome any difficulties you have in the language.

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What is the best question you have found to improve you Chinese? Please share with a comment below!

Language Toolbox

TraditionalSimplifiedPinyinEnglish
你可以說慢一點嗎?你可以说慢一点吗?Nǐ kěyǐ shuō màn yìdiǎn ma?“Can you please speak a little slower?”
沒聽清楚,你可以再說一遍嗎?没听清楚,你可以再说一遍吗?Méi tīng qīngchǔ, nǐ kěyǐ zàishuō yíbiàn ma?“Can you repeat what you just said? I didn’t understand.”
X 有什麼意思?X 有什么意思?X yǒu shé me yìsi?“What does X mean?”
在句子裡面怎麼用 X ?在句子里面怎么用 X ?Zài jùzi lǐmiàn zěnme yòng X?"How do you use X in a sentence?"
用這個詞在句子裡面,可以給我一個例子嗎?用这个词在句子里面,可以给我一个例子吗?Yòng zhège cí zài jùzi lǐmiàn, kěyǐ gěi wǒ yígè lìzi ma? “Can you give me an example of X used in a sentence?”
你可以舉個例子給我說嗎?你可以举个例子给我说吗?Nǐ kěyǐ jǔ gè lìzi gěi wǒ shuō ma?“Can you give me an example?”
怎麼拼你剛才說的詞?怎么拼你刚才说的词?Zěnme pīn nǐ gāngcái shuō de cí?“How do you spell the word that you just said?”
你可以寫下來你剛剛說的詞嗎?你可以写下来你刚刚说的词吗?Nǐ kěyǐ xiě xiàlái nǐ gānggāng shuō de cí ma? “Can you write that word down for me?”
這個詞怎麼說?这个词怎么说?Zhège cí zěnme shuō?“How do you say this word?”
怎麼念這個詞?怎么念这个词?Zěnme niàn zhège cí?“How do you pronounce this word?”
A 跟 B 有什麼差別?A 跟 B 有什么差别?A gēn B yǒu shénme chābié?“What’s the difference between A and B?”
在句子裡面怎麼用這兩個詞? 在句子里面怎么用这两个词?Zài jùzi lǐmiàn zěnme yòng zhè liǎng gè cí?“How do you use these two words in a sentence?”
這個詞只能用在書面語還是什麼時候都可以用?这个词只能用在书面语还是什么时候都可以用?Zhège cí zhǐ néng yòng zài shūmiànyǔ háishì shénme shíhòu dōu kěyǐ yòng? “Is this word only used in formal language (written language) or can you use it in any situation?"
這個詞口語還是書面語?这个词口语还是书面语?Zhège cí kǒuyǔ háishì shūmiànyǔ?"Is this word spoken language or formal language?"
這個詞常用嗎?還是沒有人用這個詞?这个词常用吗?还是没有人用这个词?Zhège cí chángyòng ma? Háishì méiyǒu rén yòng zhège cí?“Is this word used often? Or does no one use this word?”
  • robbie

    谢谢你这个很帮粗我学习中文

  • Galit Shmueli 徐茉莉

    Thanks for this neat list! About row 8 of the table: 你可以寫下來你剛剛說的詞嗎? doesn’t it mean “Can you write down the word that you just said?” (a bit different from the current English translation)

  • FrancesFu

    “Can you give me an example” in Chinese, we would like to say: “你可以給我舉個例子嗎?”or you may say: “你可以給我說個例子嗎?” but it is a little bit weird if you say:”你可以舉個例子給我說嗎?”