Learn Basic Chinese Words

Are you considering visiting China or looking for ways to connect with Mandarin-speaking friends? Whatever your reasons for learning basic Chinese words and phrases, the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) has your back. To help you get started, we have compiled a list of commonly searched basic Chinese words and phrases.

Before delving in, we encourage you to familiarize yourself with the Chinese pinyin system and basic Chinese grammar.

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How do you say...

1. "Hello" in Chinese

This is probably the most used Chinese phrase. In Chinese, 你 (nǐ) means ‘you’, and 好 (hǎo) means ‘good’. A slight variation of this greeting is 你好吗?, which translates to mean “How are you?” But at the end of the day, there are many ways to say hello in Chinese.

2. "Thank you" in Chinese

Giving thanks in Chinese is easy, just say 谢谢 (xièxie). If you are saying thanks to your teacher, boss or an older person, you can say 谢谢您 (xièxie nín) to show respect towards them. 您 (nín) is the respectful form of 你 (nǐ) which means 'you'.

3. "I love you" in Chinese

爱 (ài) is the word for love in Chinese. Just like in English, it can be used in various situations, from expressing love to your partner, family members, or just to express that you really like something. For example, I love ice cream = 我爱冰淇淋 (wǒ ài bīngqílín).

4. "Yes" in Chinese

If someone asks you something and the answer is “yes,” you can say 是 (shì). However, bear in mind that the words used to say "yes" in Chinese vary depending on the context. For example, you can only use 是 (shì) if the question is phrased “Are you …?”. Whereas, if the question is “Do you …”, you cannot answer affirmatively with 是 (shì), instead you need to use the verb itself. For example,

  • 王: Nǐ shì měiguó rén ma? 你是美国人吗?Are you an American?
  • 李: Shì. 是。Yes.
  • 王: Nǐ xǐhuān bīngqílín ma? 你喜欢冰淇淋吗?Do you like ice cream?
  • 李: Xǐhuān. 喜欢。Yes.

5. "No" in Chinese

If someone asks you something and you want to answer by saying "no" in Chinese, you can say 不是 (bú shì). However, bear in mind that you can only use this if the question is phrased “Are you …?”. Whereas, if the question is “Do you …”, you cannot answer with 不是 (bú shì). Instead, you need to use 不 followed by the verb itself. For example,

  • 王: Nǐ shì měiguó rén ma? 你是美国人吗?Are you an American?
  • 李: Bú shì. 不是。No.
  • 王: Nǐ xǐhuan bīngqílín ma? 你喜欢冰淇淋吗? Do you like ice cream?
  • 李: Bù xǐhuān. 不喜欢。No.

6. "Sorry" in Chinese

For a lower degree of error, you can also say不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi), which means “excuse me”. For example, if you come into a room and realize that you are interrupting someone, you can say 不好意思 (bù hǎoyìsi).

7. "Good" in Chinese

好 (hǎo) is a very versatile character. Besides its literal meaning, ‘good’, it can also be an affirmative word the equivalent of ‘okay’ in English. Moreover, this word can also be combined with other words (verbs) to give them a positive meaning. For example,

好吃 hǎo chī = delicious (吃 chī = to eat)
好看 hǎo kàn = beautiful (看 kàn = to look)

8. "Aunt" in Chinese

Compared with other languages, Mandarin has complex terminology for family members. There’s not just one translation for the word aunt. For example, your mother's sister is 姨妈 (yímā), your father’s sister is 姑妈 (gūmā), your mother’s brother’s wife is 舅妈 – jiùmā, and so on. To make matters more complicated, there are variations of these terminologies in different regions in China.

But don’t worry! As a foreigner you don’t need to know everything. You can just use 阿姨 (āyí) for most situation. 阿姨 (āyí) is a general term that you can use for any older Chinese lady, whether in the family, a neighbor, an acquaintance, or a shopkeeper.

9. "Grandma" in Chinese

Similar to what has just been said about the translation for aunt, there are also many ways you can say for grandma. Your father’s mother is 奶奶 (nǎinai), or 祖母 (zǔmǔ), which is more formal. On the other hand, your mother’s mother is 外婆 (wàipó) if you are in south China and 姥姥 (lǎolao) if you are in north China. However, if you meet an elderly lady who you’re not related to, you can just call them 奶奶 (nǎinai).

how to say grandma in chinese

10. "Welcome" in Chinese

This would probably be one of the first Chinese characters you will come across when you arrive in China’s airport. “Welcome to China” is translated as 欢迎你来中国 (huānyíng nǐ lái zhōngguó).

11. "Cat" in Chinese

The Chinese word for 'cat' is 猫 (māo). You should find this one easy to remember as the sound of the word resembles the sound of a cat. In China people often also use the word 小猫 (xiǎo māo), literally “little cat” to refer to cats, just like “kitten” in English.

As is the case with most nouns in Chinese, when using the word 猫 (māo), you'll need to pay attention to using the right Chinese measure word. In this case, the measure word you should use is 只 (zhī ). Thus, if you want to say "a cat," you should say 一只猫 (yī zhī māo).

12. "Water" in Chinese

水 (shuǐ) means water. If you want to ask for drinking water, you can say 白开水 (báikāishuǐ) for boiled water, or 矿泉水 (kuàngquán shuǐ) for mineral water.

13. "What" in Chinese

什么 (shénme) is commonly used to ask what questions. It is placed after the verb. For example, What are you looking at? = 你在看什么 (nǐ zài kàn shénme)?

When combined with other words, it can make other question words. For example:

  • 为什么 wèishéme = why
  • 什么时候 shénme shíhòu = when

You can also use 什么 to express surprise just like how you would use “what” in English:

  • 什么 shénme = what

14. "Family" in Chinese

家庭 (jiātíng) means family, but sometimes people also use 家 (jiā) to refer to family. 家 (jiā) by itself can also take on the meaning of home or house.

Here are some common combinations for 家 (jiā):

  • 回家 huí jiā = 回 huí (return) + 家 jiā (home) = Go home
  • 家人 jiārén = 家 jiā (family) + 人 rén (people) = family members
  • 大家 dàjiā = 大 dà (big) + 家 jiā (family) = everyone

As you advance in Chinese, be sure to check out our article on Chinese proverbs about family.

15. "Friend" in Chinese

朋 (péng) means “friend” or to have a good relation with someone. 友 (yǒu) also means “friend” or “partner”. 好友 (hǎoyǒu) means “good friend”.

16. "Happy" in Chinese

There are three ways of saying happy in Chinese: 开心 kāixīn,快乐 kuàilè,高兴 gāoxìng.

  • 开心 kāixīn = 开 kāi open + 心 xīn heart
  • 快乐 kuàilè = 快 kuài fast + 乐 lè pleasure
  • 高兴 gāoxìng = 高 gāo high + 兴 xìng mood

While they are similar and can be interchangeable, there are differences between them which means that some situation and more suited to one than the other. Both 开心 kāixīn and 高兴 gāoxìng can mean temporary feeling of happiness, while 快乐 kuàilè is a long term state of happiness. 快乐 kuàilè is also often used for greetings such as “新年快乐 xīn nián kuàilè!”, which means Happy New Year in Chinese.

17. "Moon" in Chinese

Moon in Chinese is made up of two characters, 月 yuè, which means month, and 亮 liàng, which means light or bright. 月亮 yuèliàng is moon in Chinese. Check out our article on the Chinese lunar calendar.

mid-autumn festival moon phases

18. "Here," "there," and "where" in Chinese

'Here' is 这儿 zhè'er. 'There' is 那儿 nà'er. Where is 哪儿 nǎ'er. You need to be careful with 那儿 nà'er and 哪儿 nǎ'er because the only spoken differentiation between them is the tone. If you get the tone wrong, your listener will be confused.

For example:

  • 我的朋友在哪儿? Wǒ de péngyǒu zài nǎ'er?  Where is my friend?
  • 我的朋友在那儿。 Wǒ de péngyǒu zài nà'er.  My friend is there.

Note: You can also replace 儿 er with 里 (lǐ) or 边 biān. You will find 儿 er more commonly used by northern Chinese, while 里 lǐ by southern Chinese.

No doubt, Mandarin is not something you can learn overnight or through a few blog posts. If you would like to study the language further, read up on our Chinese language immersion program in Guilin.

May this be the start of your happy learning journey!

Learn Basic Chinese Vocabulary

谢谢xièxièThank you
我爱你wǒ ài nǐI love you
开心, 快乐, 高兴kāixīn, kuàilè,gāoxìngHappy
这儿, 那儿, 哪儿zhè’er, nà’er, nǎ’erHere, There, Where
普通话PǔtōnghuàMandarin Chinese; common language
中文ZhōngwénChinese (language)
汉子hànzìChinese characters
拼音pīnyīnofficial romanization system for Mandarin
学习xuéxíto study
努力学习nŭlì xuéxístudy hard
口语kǒuyǔspeaking; spoken language
看书kànshūread (a book); study
小学xiǎoxuéprimary school; elementary school
初中chūzhōngjunior high school; middle school
高中gāozhōnghigh school
练习liànxíexercise (in a book); practice
上课shàngkèattend class; go to class
下课xiàkèfinish class

Additional Chinese Learning Resources

How well do you know the 40 most common Chinese radicals? How about the Anatomy of Chinese Characters? Or the 100 most common Chinese characters? We invite you to learn more with CLI!

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