Surviving Mandarin

Surviving Mandarin

Mystery Shop Sign. No clue what it means!

Surviving mandarin in places like Taiwan and China can be a real challenge for a foreigner so learning the basics is key. There are plenty of resources that teach basic Chinese words and phrases for visiting a place like China or Taiwan.

Shinlin Night Market, TaipeiHowever, living abroad can necessitate different priorities in learning much more of the language. Here is my part one of a two part series for tips, words and phrases I couldn’t do without while living abroad!

1. Pinyin

In most instances, Chinese characters are used on everything from packaging to signs. But knowing the way things sound when written in pinyin can be very useful too! Especially in terms of searching for words when they are spoken to you or vice-versa.

2. Numbers

While numbers listed on menus, buses, and roads are English numerals, when spoken they are in Chinese. Basic 1-10 isn’t difficult to learn, and once you learn the basic 1-10, each continuation of tens, hundreds, is a basic reiteration. So–

Take the number two– “er”. The number ten– “shi”.

The number twelve, then would be “shi” “er”. Ten and two.

The number twenty– “er” “shi”. Two tens.

The number two-hundred– “er” “bai”. Two hundreds, (bai is hundred).

Commonly, things may cost something around 35NT– san shi wu. Numbers are stated from left to right– how many units of the largest number to the smallest. Hundreds, tens, ones. Easy, right? Try to test yourself! How would you say 50? 100? 150? 175?

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3. Ordering Food/Drinks

Now that you know numbers, it’s easy to order food and drinks for you and your friends! When listening to others ordering food, they put it very simply– I want (insert how many) (insert food or drink). Stating the number is simple– just add ‘ge’ (sounds like geh)! The interaction may sound something like this:

Vendor: “Ni yao shen ma?”

You: “Wo yao (I want) yi ge (one) (insert food or drink– like the delicious ‘fan tuan’)!

Note that two is different! For reasons I cannot explain, and I said it incorrectly for about a year, two is ‘lian ge’, not ‘er ga’. Tricky, just like English!

And, if you would like to take your food to go, as I usually do, you can say “wai dai”!

4. How much is this?

A very good question to know when shopping at the many fantastic night markets, old streets, or traditional shops in Taiwan, as prices are rarely marked.

So, you found something you can’t live without. Find a nearby vendor and ask–

“Zhe ge (this) duo shao qian (how much money)?”

It’ll come in very handy if you know your numbers– they will haggle with you if you can keep up!

5. Days of the week

If you know your numbers, again, days of the week are very easy! This is very useful in knowing when things are open or when you have appointments to keep.

Week in Chinese is ‘xing qi’ (shing chee). If you know your numbers, you will recognize qi right away– seven. Xing has to do with time– so seven days essentially is one week.

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To say a day, just use the number of the day in the week, starting with Monday– ‘xing qi yi’. Tuesday– ‘xing qi er’. Can you guess the other days?

6. Asking for something in particular

This is very useful in many cases– shops, restaurants, or even hospitals. When you start off asking for something in English, it can potentially shock someone so much they won’t know how to begin to answer you. Easing into asking for something, even if you don’t know the final word in Chinese, can be very helpful for both parties.

This phrase will ask, “Can you please tell me if you have… (insert item here)?”

“Qing wen ni men yo mei yo (insert item here)” it sounds like ‘ching when knee mun yo may yo…(item)?”

If you want to know if a restaurant has coffee, wifi, a shop has umbrellas, or a hospital has a foot doctor, this phrase is compatible with so many situations– a real life-saver!

This is just part one of my survival tips for Mandarin, be sure to check in next week for part 2 to learn more about basic mandarin to get you by


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