Essential Phrases in Mandarin - What are they?

Hey guys - Taffy, Goose Egg and I want to create some giveaway cards to promote, and we’d like to have essential Mandarin phrases on one side. (The other side of course would promote Taiwanease more explicitly through logo/artwork, etc.)

We’d like to have the characters (traditional, of course), the meaning in English, and the Hanyu Pinyin phonetics. My initial thought is to not use tone marks with the phrases, as they are meaningless to anyone who doesn’t have experience with the language, the very people we’re targetting with these cards, but if you have a strong argument in favour of including tone marks, I’d like to hear it.

What we really need are the phrases you think a new arrival needs to know, no matter what their demographic. They could be tourists, visiting business people, FOB teachers, whatever. They could even be themed: Hotel Mandarin, Nightlife Mandarin, socializing Mandarin, taxi Mandarin, restaurant Mandarin, etc. The cards aren’t very big - the size of a standard business card - so we can’t put more than two or three phrases on a card without making it look too cluttered, so keep that in mind when you’re coming up with them.

PS humorous replies will probably be floundered sooner rather than later - we’d like to get this up and running fairly quickly. Bu hao yi se :blush:

The bathroom. Where’s the bathroom?! Essential for anyone out on the town:

請問, 洗手間 在 哪裡?

qingwen, xishoujian zai nali?

Ok. Now if these cards are intended for people with absolutely no Chinese experience, they likely won’t be able to read Hanyu pinyin, tones or no tones.

Perhaps you should improvise a system that English speakers with zero Mandarin phonetics training would be able to read and create something approaching the correct sounds; something like in the Lonely Planet phrase books: Ching wun sheeshow jeeyan zigh naw lee?

To expand on Toasty’s suggestion:

請問, x在哪裡?
Qingwen, (x) zai nali?
Excuse me, where is (x)?

And some basic (x) words, like 捷運站/jieyun zhan/MRT station, 共車站/gongche zhan/bus stop, 廁所/cesuo/toilet, etc.

And perhaps, for the benefit of those who already know mainland-style Mandarin, a few with the more common words/phrases that are different in Taiwan?

[quote=“Toasty”]Perhaps you should improvise a system that English speakers with zero Mandarin phonetics training would be able to read and create something approaching the correct sounds; something like in the Lonely Planet phrase books: Ching wun sheeshow jeeyan zigh naw lee?[/quote]No, no, a thousand times no! (Unless it’s done parenthetically to the real pinyin, perhaps. And then you’ve got the problem of crossing accents: they way you pronounce that improv might be entirely different to the way I would. Tomato/tomato and all that.)

Wo Yao Yi Ping Pi Jiao - I’d like a bottle of beer

Hao Piao Liang - Beautiful

Ni Jie Hun Le Ma - Are you Married

Shall I go on?

Edit: Sorry fogot the most useful
Ni Shuo Ying Wen Ma? - Do you speak English?

Shouldn’t that me “Ni hui yingwen ma”?

Oh, and not to be a prick, but:
Wo yao yiping pijiu
Hao piaoliang
Ni jiehun le ma?

And another one, vital to survival in Taiwan:
Hao keai wo!
Like, OMG, that’s like, so cute!

This is great guys - thanks and keep 'em coming! :bow:

I would include the numbers 1 through 10 一 二 三 四… as well as the words for hundred and thousand-- perhaps even the hand signs for 1 through ten as well. These were essential survival skills in my first little while. That and the ubiquitous. 多少錢? duo shao qian

Are you blue or green?

If you put ice in my beer, I will kill you


I would strongly recommend adding the diacritical tone marks. People who don’t understand them can easily ignore them. They’re not so hard to add, typographically. And the sharper customers will catch on to them; they intuitively match what happens with the pitch (unlike Church or Thai systems).

It’s a very difficult dilemma. On the one hand, you don’t want to introduce yet another ad hoc system of romanization. On the other, the q, x, zh, j, c and -ian/yan vowel are particularly non-intuitive. One solution: footnote how to pronounce these. Not very practical for small handout cards. Another: do minimal damage to the pinyin by altering only a little: change q to ch, for example, and x to sh or hs, but then you get all screwed up on syllables that are otherwise identical, e.g., qi and chi becoming both chi. So then you need to go another step, converting to, say, chee and chr, and similarly for the x/sh pair, rewriting xi and shi as shee (or hsee) and shr. The zh/j becomes jee and jr. Finally, the c changes to ts, the z to dz, and the -ian/yan to -ien/yan.

Personally, I agree with Tetsuo. I wouldn’t do all this unless it were parenthetical to Hanyu Pinyin, and perhaps labeled “pinyin” and “intuitive”, respectively.

Here’s a sample from one website (although it contains errors):

[quote]Word or Phrase Pinyin Approximate Sound in English
Hello ni hao nee how
Good morning zao an dzao an
Good evening wahn an wan an
Good-bye zai jian dzai jee-en
Please qing ching
Thank you xie xie shee-eh shee-eh
I’m sorry dui buqi doo-ay boo-chee
May I please ask your name? qingwen guixing ching-win gway-shing
My name is… wode mingzi shi waw-duh ming-dzih shur
I am wo shi waw shir
Good; very good hao; hen hoa hao; hun hao
Excerpt from Africa, Europe & Asia: Ready to Use Interdisciplinary Lesson and Activities for Grades 5-12.[/quote]

The above basics should of course be on the cards too, after correcting the errors.

As for the most useful and basic phrases, you can go through any introductory textbook or guidebook to glean them; I don’t have any handy right now, but will contribute some basics off the top of my head. The 3rd tones are converted to numerals because my encoding for that diacritical is not supported via this browser and/or Forumosa.


多少錢? duōshao3 qi

You want a bottle of ass peppers?

The three most essential words in Chinese:

你好 (ni3 hao3): Hello
謝謝 (xie4 xie): Thank you
啤酒 (pi2 jiu3): Beer

[quote=“Chris”]The three most essential words in Chinese:

你好 (ni3 hao3): Hello
謝謝 (xie4 xie): Thank you
啤酒 (pi2 jiu3): Beer[/quote]

All of which are understood in English here.

Hall O
San Q


Some phrases to get one to the doctor/ hospital.
Some word for women to shout if they are being harrassed.

me wen ti - the ultimate expression

Please put on standard Pinyin with tone marks, and refrain from making up your own “pronunciation” system alongside it. There are a lot of Web sites that have pronunciation guides, including audio files, and standard Pinyin is going to be easier for them to relate to than some mishmash of unrelated something-or-other.

I would stay away from the strictly “bachelor” phrases unless you are thinking of producing different versions of the card.

How big is this card, anyway??

mei banfa - the penultimate (just before zaijian).


i would like to agree with those advocating for adding the tone marks. as a beginner in mandarin i checked out a book/cd from our library. it started out with how to pronounce the vowel combinations as well as the constanants mentioned. it also explained the tones. the cd was helpful for learning this.

so with a very basic understanding of the language i think you should include tones for beginners who have some experience and want to continue to improve.

maybe you could have 2 cards in the beginning of the pack. one with tone explantion and one with pronunciation. then the rest of the pack would be the words and phrases with the pinyin and characters. people could refer back to these 2 cards while learning the rest of them.


To clarify, I suggested using a system utilizing English phonetic rules because the target audience for these cards likely has no Mandarin training. Without training, one cannot properly read hanyu pinyin. In a recent visit home, someone happily told me they practiced kee gong. Of course, he meant 氣功 qi4gong1, but the guy read the hanyu pinyin using English phonetic rules because he had no clue how to read it properly.