It’s a big, bad world when you don’t speak the language of the country you are living in, and knowing a few key phrases can help a lot. You won’t hear either of us profess to be Chinese speakers, and if you saw us in action, you would probably get a good laugh (just like every Taiwanese person we speak to), but we’ve made it this far… right?
First of all, Chinese is a tonal language, which at first is really mind-blowing. There were so many instances when I first arrived where I was sure I had a word down, then I went to use it, and the person I was talking to wouldn’t have any idea what I was saying.
“Huh, you don’t want soup in your coffee? Okay crazy white lady. No problem. Do you want any sugar, though?”
Yes, the word “tang” is used to say soup, sugar, lie down, and hot. The only way to differentiate is the inflection you use when you say it.
Tone 1: 湯 tāng – soup. This is a high, level tone.
Tone 2: 糖táng – sugar. This is a rising tone, starting out at a low pitch and moving to high.
Tone 3: 躺tǎng – lie down. This tone falls initially and then rises
Tone 4: 燙tàng – hot. This is a falling tone, starting out at a higher pitch and moving to low.
This was so infuriating to me at first. I would say something to someone, they wouldn’t understand me, I would spend five minutes trying to explain what I meant through repetition and hand gestures, and then finally the person I was talking to would say exactly what I had just said – or so I thought. I just didn’t have the ear for the tones, and I couldn’t get my head around the idea that saying one word with a slightly different intonation could change its meaning so drastically.
But then I started thinking about how we use tone and stress in English to change the meaning of what we say. The difference is that in English meaning expressed through tone usually manifests itself over a full sentence rather than just one word. Once I finally made this connection, I was able to grasp the concept of the tonal language a little bit more easily.
Even now, if you asked me to make the sound for any specific tone, I’m not really sure if I would be able to do it. I still have a really hard time differentiating between the tones.
Regardless, allow me to share some phrases that I use on the regular:
Nǐ hǎo – hello
Xiè xiè ni – thank you
Duìbùqǐ – I’m sorry
Yī ge – one (of something). This works for any number, just replace “yi” with the number of your heart’s desire. Don’t forget to use “liang” instead of “er” for two in this instance.
Wǒ yào/bù yào – I want/don’t want (something). I use it often to explain that I don’t want meat (ròu) or sugar (táng) or a plastic bag (dàizi), but I’m sure you can figure out what it is that you want or don’t want.
Méiguānxì – nevermind, it’s cool, no problem
Wǒ bù huì Zhōngwén – I don’t speak Chinese. Keep in mind that if you say this, people will automatically assume that you do, in fact speak perfect Chinese, and will continue to ask you questions that you may have no idea how to answer. I have found that the best way to handle this situation is to smile, say “Duìbùqǐ,” and walk away. I need to learn more Chinese.
I’ll tell you right now, thank you and I’m sorry are my top two most commonly used phrases. I am constantly apologizing for my stupidity, and thanking people for putting up with me.
And that is your Chinese lesson from a girl who does not speak Chinese. I hope it comes in handy.