Learning the Essential Chinese Phrases for your Trip to China

If, like me, you love to travel, then this article is for you.

My best experiences traveling have been interacting with people in their language, wherever I am. Whenever I travel to a new location I also try to learn enough to be able to strike up a conversation and make people smile.

There’s simply no quicker way to make friends, whatever the culture, than trying to speak their language.

This is the case everywhere but particularly in China where it is thought to be impossible for foreigners to learn Chinese.

The idea persists in China, and indeed is a source of pride, that Chinese is the hardest language in the world. Therefore even the most bungled nǐhǎo is met with delight and cries of 你中文说得真棒!(“your Chinese is wonderful!”).

Imagine the surprise when, after the first nǐhǎo you keep speaking Chinese. Believe me, this continues to shock people in China. There’s basically only one foreigner (the Canadian Mark Roswell, 大山) known to be fluent in Chinese.

Getting past the initial nǐhǎo therefore causes amazement. You’ll quickly have a number of new Chinese friends and tour guides!

Fixing Zips in the Himalayas

A couple years ago I traveled overland from Beijing, China to Mumbai, India. The route took me through Tibet into Nepal and down into India.

In Tibet I picked up some very basic Tibetan to supplement my Chinese, which most Tibetans speak fluently as well as Tibetan.

One of my fondest memories of the whole trip was in a mountain pass at 5000 meters above sea level. We’d stopped before a checkpoint to stretch our legs and have some yak milk tea.

At the yak milk tea shop there was a lady trying to sell beads. Rather than enter into the usual traveler “conversation” of trying to say that I didn’t want to buy any beads I jumped into Tibetan to say hello and introduce myself.

The interaction changed immediately – no longer was a potential customer and she a bead-seller. Now we were just two human beings.

I had to switch in Chinese when my very limited Tibetan ran out. I found out her name was Jampa (I’ve no idea how to spell that) and that her first husband owned the yak milk tea stand. Her second husband (yup, second husband) worked back on the farm.

By the end of the exchange Jampa had told me about her family and her life at 5000 meters above sea level. She’d also helped fix my broken jacket zipper which she noticed had hanging open. Upon leaving she refused any payment for fixing the jacket or the yak milk tea as she waved us on our way.

The majesty of the Himalayan landscape is hard to beat but I think this short 10-minute interaction remains the highlight of the whole trip.

Language takes your trip to the next level

And how did it occur? Because of language.

On the (long!) train journey from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet I used a book and some audio to pick up the basics of Tibetan – the formalities and basic niceties. Additionally, I already knew enough Chinese to be able to hold a conversation so I had this to fall back on.

Having these skills tucked away in my pocket helped change a great trip into an exceptional trip. Through small, human interactions with people in their language I was able to make the trip unforgettable.

Too often we go on holiday without the language. This means it is too easy to get shunted down the usual tourist routes.

Defaults happen and defaults are always the worst way to experience something new.

You’ll end up at English speaking hotels and restaurants and the only interactions away from these locations will tend to be negative and frustrating due to language barriers.

Therefore learning some rudiments of the language before you head off is absolutely essential if you want to have a memorable and enjoyable trip.

Your options for pre-flight language learning

At the moment you only really have two options for picking up the rudiments of a language for traveling. You can either take a phrasebook and muddle along upon arrival or prepare by taking a course beforehand. Both these approaches have difficulties unfortunately.


Phrasebooks are wonderful things. They can help you communicate pretty much anything in the target language the moment you land. I personally use the phrasebooks in the back of Lonely Planet guides.

The problem with phrase books is that they put barriers between you and the person you are trying to communicate. In fact there are a couple of barriers.

The first is a physical barrier – you are physically sticking a book (or, worse, phone with a phrasebook app) between you and the person. It’s hard to communicate fully with your nose stuck in a book or phone.

The second barrier is time. If you are having to look up phrases as you go along the natural flow of communication is quickly lost. The interaction becomes transactional and there isn’t much real communication happening.

Monty Python via http://www.vagabondjourney.com/
The other big issue with phrasebooks is that they contain too much information!

This is their strength as reference material – they exhaustively cover everything you could possible need (though probably not for discussions of polyandry – multiple husbands!).

It is the weakness of phrasebooks as a means of facilitating natural communication. The sheer volume of information means that you can’t actually learn a phrase book’s contents – indeed you are not meant to, it’s meant to serve as a reference only.

What you will find happening though with a phrasebook is that you’ll start to use the same phrases again and again and again and ignore the vast majority of the material.

You’ll likely end up using 5% of the content 95% of the time for your most basic foreign language conversations. At this point you’ll stop using the phrase book as you actually learn to use these phrases naturally without constantly referring to your book.

This is language learning, which is the goal we are aiming at, but it takes a little too long with a phrase book because the gems are hidden amongst the rest of the material that you will never use.

Courses – Classes/Books/Software

If you want to learn the language before traveling to a foreign country you’ll likely choose to take a course before hopping on the plane. This is the option most people take if they don’t want to spend the holiday with their noses buried in a phrasebook. Courses could be in the form of classes, self-teaching book courses or software.

The problem with courses is actually very similar to that with phrasebooks. There’s simply too much material to learn and most of it will not be necessary.

This happens with all language courses but especially with Chinese language courses. For some reason the textbooks are all set in Chinese universities where a group of foreigner characters are learning Chinese. Great if you are a foreign student in China who needs to know words like “dormitory” and “canteen” but if you are heading to China to travel for a couple of weeks then you don’t need this sort of material!

Even courses that are focused at “tourist language” make similar mistakes. They insist on including modules on topics like Booking a Hotel.

You might be thinking that Booking a Hotel sounds like a reasonable topic to include. First though, think about the last time you actually telephoned a hotel to make a booking.

Been a while right? More likely you’ve been booking hotels online for the last decade or so.

Guess what? You’ll be doing exactly the same in China or indeed pretty much anywhere you travel in the world! So all those hours spend learning how to call a hotel and make a reservation are wasted. It’s not material that is needed nowadays but still persists in the alternative universe of textbooks.

So courses also suffer from information overload. You want the basics to be able to communicate and get by in the country but courses instead start throwing grammar and vocabulary lists at you before you’ve mastered the basics that you actually need.

Information Overload

Both phrasebooks and courses thus suffer from a very similar problem. They both give you too much information.

The main difference is that the phrasebook assumes you won’t memorize it whilst the course assumes you will memorize it.

The problem is that a lot of this information just isn’t that useful for everyday communication and it is really the same 5% of the material that you’ll be using again and again.

You probably know that I’m a big fan of frequency based learning. Frequency based learning  is just a focus on more general and frequently used words like “car” before more specific and rare like “dragster” or “hatchback”.

We learn the 20% that gets us 80% of the way to fluent communication and worry about the remaining 80% later.

Phrasebooks and courses don’t jive with this approach. They throw too much irrelevant and uncommon information at you and thus hinder your language learning and ability to communicate whilst in a foreign country.

The End…Or is It?

Now right now I could just end this article. That wouldn’t be very useful though! Just rubbishish a couple of approaches and not offering a constructive alternative helps no-one.

Instead I want to show you a new third way that is the answer to your pre-trip language learning problems.

You may or may not know Olly Richards of iwillteachyoualanguage.com. Here he is looking handsome and exotic at the pyramids:


I Will Teach You a Language is a language learning website that has great tips and tactics for learning any language. Olly has a crazy good mailing list full of useful language learning information which you can sign up for here as well as a great weekly podcast on iTunes.

I saw that Olly had worked out the third way with his Survive in Spanish guide. The basic gist of the guides is a hybrid between a phrasebook and a course but only focusing on the super essential stuff and throwing everything else out.

Remember my example about booking hotels and how useless it is to have this section in a course? Olly realized that we all book hotels and wisely chucked out this section!

Instead, the guide focuses on the kind of phrases and sentences that can lead to memorable experiences in a foreign country. Phrases like “can you recommend a good restaurant around here” allow you to find an authentic local restaurant rather than have to rely on English speaking tourist traps or (shudder) McDonalds.

This kind of focus means that you are much less likely to miss out on unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime human experiences.

Seeing Olly’s guide I was kicking myself – “He’s cracked it,” I fumed, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

After getting over myself I contacted Olly and suggested we do a Chinese version together. After a lot of back and forth and hard work we got it done. In fact, it looks like this:


Fancy huh? And better yet this solves the problem of how to prepare to travel to China.

If you are planning a trip to China then this is the ideal next step. This guide focuses on just the stuff you need to know to start having genuine interactions.

Here’s what you get in this awesome package:

  • Complete Survive in Chinese Guide, so you can quickly learn the Chinese you need to survive in any situation
  • Bilingual Audio Trainers (mp3), so you can practice what you have learned, with confidence and accurate pronunciation
  • The Menu Decoder, so you can read the menu in any restaurant and enjoy the best food China has to offer (super important!)
  • Photo guide to the most common words, so you can instantly recognise the most important places on the street
  • The Number Cruncher, so you can always read any number accurately and avoid any huge mistakes!
  • The Pronunciation Trainer, so you can learn to say any Chinese word accurately

With so much packed into one guide, you have absolutely everything you need to not only survive your trip to China, but have the trip of a lifetime.

I don’t want you to be reading this page again in a few months, after you’ve come back from your trip, wondering how different it may have been if you’d taken a few hours of your time to learn the Chinese you needed.

Instead, you can find out a lot more about the guide over at this page: Survive in Chinese.

If you are preparing for a trip to China then this is the best step you can take to ensure you have an unforgettable experience.

Compared to the cost of your trip the cost of the guide and the handful of hours to master the material is a tiny cost. Despite the miniscule cost the potential effect on your trip is incalculable – so don’t miss this chance to make your traveling experience the best ever.

Click here to check out Survive in Chinese.