Chinese has very little in common with languages such as French, English, German or Spanish. This makes it difficult to ask even the most basic question, which is why plenty of foreigners quickly get discouraged when trying to learn Chinese.
In order to make the beginning a bit easier, this article will provide some simple and useful words and sentences which most newcomers to China will probably be using very frequently.
Before reading any further, I would strongly recommend reading David Makovsky’s article about the Chinese tones. Unlike English, Chinese uses various tones which must be understood if one is to make substantial progress in Chinese. That is not to say that you won’t be understood by others if you try to communicate without using the proper tone. Keep in mind that trying to speak Chinese like you would speak English will make communication very difficult and tiring as a lot of Chinese will ask you to repeat countless times before what you’re saying is finally understood.
Some readers might be tempted to go straight for new sentences and skip learning the bases. I cannot stress enough that taking some time to really understand the groundwork of Chinese will be a lot more beneficial in the long run then just blindly memorizing sentences. If you would rather skip pinyin and the tones, you may go straight to the "Simple Sentences" section below.
The sentences and words in this article will be written in "pinyin". "Pinyin" is a romanization system for the Chinese language. In other words, it allows foreigners (and younger Chinese children) to determine how to pronounce Chinese words. Once again, getting familiar with pinyin is also of vital importance to communicating in Chinese. In fact, having a sound understanding of both the tones and pinyin will save you a considerable amount of time in the future as communication will just be so much easier.
Some Simple Sentences
In this section, I will provide some useful, simple sentences.
"My name is X"
Wo3 Jiao4 X
*Note: "X" here means the name of the person. In other words, if your name is Robert you should say:
Wo3 Jiao4 Robert.
"What time is it?"
*Note: Asking for the time without knowing numbers in Chinese is pretty much useless…
"How much is it?"
Duo1 Shao3 Qian2?
*Note: a very useful sentence. Keep in mind that, from my own experience, foreigners are sometimes charged higher prices than other Chinese. Make sure to ask other Chinese how much you should pay for an item or a service first. This will give you a good idea as to how much you should pay. Bargaining is also possible in China (although not everywhere such as in supermarkets).
"Left, right, go straight"
Zuo3 Bian1, You4 Bian1, Zhi2 Zou3
*This is especially useful when taking a cab or listening to directions.
"Where is X?"
X Zai4 Na3 Li3
Dui4 Bu4 Qi3