When you travel to Beijing, especially if you plan to get good deals in the markets or take a few taxis it may be a good idea to learn some Mandarin phrases. Although staff in the higher end China hotels may speak some English, not much is spoken in many others which can be a problem should you have an issue with your room.


The term ‘Mandarin’ is technically the name of the Beijing dialect group within the Chinese language as opposed to the actual language name. Officially the correct name for the language itself is ‘Modern Standard Chinese’, known locally as ‘Pǔtōnghuà’ (meaning the common dialect’), however most western countries refer to it simply as ‘Mandarin’.


There are over 800 million speakers of Mandarin throughout the world and it is one of the six official languages for the United Nations. It is not the easiest of languages to learn, mostly due to its tonal structure and use of characters rather than a standard alphabet.


Mandarin has four tones and these are what differentiate words that otherwise appear to have the same pronunciation. For example, the word ‘ma’ can mean mother, horse, hemp and scold dependant on the tone used to pronounce it, and in addition it is also used to make a statement into a question, for example:

Nǐ jiào Ceri (You are called Ceri)

Nǐ jiào Ceri ma? (Are you called Ceri?)


Tones in Mandarin

The four tones are known as:

  • 1st (high tone)
  • 2nd (high rising tone)
  • 3rd (low falling-rising tone)
  • 4th (high falling tone)


Understanding Pinyin

Pinyin was introduced in 1958 as a method of writing Chinese with the common Roman alphabet and is a helpful tool in learning how to pronounce Mandarin. Pinyin is used throughout most urban areas on signs and shops, however it is less common outside of the big cities and many native Chinese can’t understand it. Pinyin is a simple system to use providing you understand the rules of pronouncing letters, for example ‘c’ is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in ‘boats’ and ‘x’ like the ‘sh’ in ‘shoulder’.


It is still wise to carry a phrasebook around with you as a guide, and also they commonly have Chinese character definitions which is ideal if you plan to visit more rural locations. If you intend to stay in Beijing longer than a few days, there are also language schools located throughout the city, such as ‘That’s Mandarin’ which has locations in the main expat area of ‘Dongzhimen’ and the student district of ‘Wudaokou’.


There are also applications for the iphone and blackberry which you can download to help you with the language further, including a Chinese to English dictionary (for more information check out this page).


Here are some common phrases to get you started for when you travel to Beijing:

Hello Nǐ hǎo

Goodbye Zài Jiàn

Thanks Xiè xiè

Yes Shì

No Bùshì

Do you speak English? Nǐ huìshuō Yīngwén ma?

How much? Duō Shǎo?


Two Er

Too expensive Tàiguì le!


Jack Li
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