When I came to China I had a limited Chinese vocabulary under my belt; I knew the basics such as 你好 (Nǐ hǎo, hello) and 再见（Zàijiàn, goodbye). During my time here I’ve learned many Chinese phrases that I wouldn’t find in my textbook.
The phrases below can be used in everyday conversation and are short enough for foreigners to remember. Take a look and impress all your Chinese friends with your new knowledge!
是这样子 (Shì zhèyàng zi) (Here’s the situation)
Chinese people will often use this phrase before they are about to tell a story or explain something. Chinese people love to talk and share things about themselves, so get ready for an anecdote when you hear this phrase. Sometimes, they will just simply say “这样”.
太贵了(Taì guì le) (Too expensive)
You’ll hear this phrase quite often when you are buying things at the market. Bargaining is part of the Chinese cultural and you can bargain most places, except malls and certain retail stores.
So when that vendor tries to sell you an umbrella for 100RMB, you can respond with 太贵了!
Keep in mind that at places where a lot of Chinese people shop (like a fruit or vegetable stand in a Chinese neighborhood) the prices are also pretty much fixed. It would be impolite to bargain at places like these.
不好意思 (Bùhǎo yìsi) (I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m sorry for bumping into you)
You’ll often hear this phrase when you’re on a crowded bus or subway. As people are trying to exit they’ll often have to push or shove their way out. As they’re making their way out you can sometimes hear people say this phrase.
老外 (Lǎo wài) (foreigner)
If you are not of Chinese descent and you hear someone say this word, you can be 99.99% sure that they are talking about you.
In China, people assume that most foreigners cannot speak Chinese and therefore talk about them openly. However, now when you hear 老外 you’ll know that someone is talking about you (and let’s hope it’s about your Chinese skills!).
Some people may dislike the word, but the 老外 I know have reclaimed the word and when they use it they are really saying, “check me out, I’m an awesome foreigner who can understand Chinese.”
明白了吗？ (míngbái le ma?) (Do you understand?)
You’ll hear this phrase after someone speaks to you in Chinese. For example, a lot of taxi drivers will ask me this after they tell me the route they will take to my destination. It’s nice to hear this phrase because that means people actually care if you understand.
我听不懂 (Wǒ tīng bù dǒng) ( I don’t understand)
No matter how many times you ask someone to repeat themselves or are looking up the translations of certain words, sometimes you just can’t understand. Instead of shying away from the conversation, use this phrase instead!
When Chinese people hear this they will try to come up with a different way to phrase what they’re trying to say to you.
说慢一点。(Shuō màn yīdiǎn) (Speak slower)
我听不懂 and this phrase are often used together since they are both about repeating/misunderstanding what is being said to you. If you’re new to China you’ll find this phrase to be quite useful since Chinese people tend to speak quite fast.
请再说一遍？(Qǐng zàishuō yībiàn?) (Say that again please?)
I learned this phrase the hard way after I took my first cab ride home in Shanghai. I thought I had told the driver my address and that he understood, but instead he drove me to my local university.
If I had said 请再说一遍? I could of heard the words 大学 (Dàxué, university) and known that I was headed to the wrong place. Lesson learned: always ask people to repeat what they said if you didn’t understand them the first time.
哈哈 (Hāhā) (laughter, literally means haha)
If you think about this in English, haha is not normally said out loud; well the same goes for Chinese. People do not often say this phrase; it’s more used in text messages and emails.
So when you’re texting your new Chinese friends and are plugging their messages into Google Translate, do not be alarmed when this phrase doesn’t have a direct translation.
一般般 (Yībān bān) (just alright, mediocre)
This phrase can be used as a response to someone giving you compliment.
In Chinese culture, when people receive compliments the common response is not to say thank you. In fact, the polite way to respond when someone compliments a particular skill of yours is to downplay that skill and that’s what 一般般 does.
So next time a Chinese person says your Chinese is good, you can respond with 一般般.