(One) idiot’s guide to survival Chinese

As promised, here is just a small fraction of what I was taught at Omeida for anyone who might like to arm themselves with a bit of vocab prior to visiting China. These are the words and phrases I found most useful, or that I just happened to like. 🙂

Word of warning – I am neither an expert on Chinese nor even a novice at it; I am also not a teacher.

The first column is the word/phrase written in Pinyin. I have included tone marks, but I am not even going to begin to attempt to explain the tonal subtleties of Chinese. See here for just a brief intro if you are interested.

The second column is my attempt to explain my understanding of the pronunciation (minus the tones, as mentioned). Pronunciation examples in quotation marks indicate that the pronunciation is like or similar to that word in English. Examples without quotation marks are my attempts to give a phonetic example of how something should sound. Please note that the pronunciation is based on American English.

Please note as well that any mistakes are my own and not a reflection of Omeida! I apologize to anyone who might be offended by my neophyte grasp of Chinese. 😉

Chinese Pinyin Pronounciation guide English meaning
nĭ hăo  “knee” “how”  hello
xiè xiè shee-ay shee-ay (said quickly so that “shee-ay” sounds almost like one syllable) thank you
hăo ba “how” ba okay, it’s okay
bú kè qi “boo” ka chee you’re welcome (informal)
zài jiàn  zie (rhymes with “bye”) jee-en good bye
qĭng wèn ching “when” excuse me
zhè ge juh guh this/this one/this thing or item (good for pointing to items on a menu or in a shop)
pí jiŭ “pee” “geo” beer
shuĭ shway water
kā fēi kah “fey” coffee
duō shăo qián? ““d’oh” show (rhymes with how) shee-en (like the French word “chien”) how much does this cost?
cè suŏ tseh so-ah (said quickly so that “so-ah” sounds almost like one syllable) (this one was so hard for me to pronounce!) toilet
wŏ bù zhī dào “woah” boo juh dow (like dow stock exchange) I don’t know
wŏ yào chī fàn “woah” yow (rhymes with how) chih fan (pronounced somewhere between “fan” and “fun”) I want to eat (something/a meal)
chī băo le chih bow leh (bow leh sounds a bit like the woman’s name “Paola” with a “b”) I’ve had enough to eat
hăo chī “how” chih yummy (applies to food only)
yì bān bān ee ban ban so so, average, not so exciting
zhè shì shén me? juh sheh shen muh what is this?
fàn diàn fan (pronounced somewhere between “fan” and “fun”) dee-“anne” restaurant
wŏ lèi le “woah” “lay” leh I am tired
măi dān “my” dan check (if you want to ask for the bill in a restaurant, just shout this out)
hăo bù hăo “how” “boo” “how” literally “good not good” it means do you want it or don’t you want it? i.e. if someone is offering you something like food. Respond with “hăo” if you want it; “bu hăo” if you don’t
bù yào “boo” yow (rhymes with “how”) I don’t want. You can use it to specify what you don’t want “bu yao ka fei” – I don’t want a coffee or on it’s own to refuse something offered.
wŏ yào yī píng pí jiŭ “woah” yow (rhymes with “how”) ee ping “pee” “geo” I want one bottle of beer
wŏ ài nĭ “woah” “eye” “knee” I love you.
shuĭ niú shway “neo” water buffalo
péng you pung “yo” (rhymes with owe) friend
nán guà nan (similar to nan bread) gwah pumpkin


ee one
èr “are” two
sān san three
s’ four
ooh five
liù “leo” six
chee seven
bah eight
jiŭ “geo” (sounds like geo-thermal) nine
shí shih ten
shí yī shih ee 11
shí èr shih “are” 12
èr  shí “are” shih 20
èr  shí yī “are” shih ee 21
băi “bye” 100 as a unit of measure
yī băi ee “buy” 100
èr băi “are” “buy” 200
líng ling zero

More resources

I found a simple website that has sound clips for loads of words if you’d like to hear some pronunciation:


These podcasts are also not bad to get some useful phrases to take with you (samples available on iTunes):


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