Model Mandarin: Say What?

Model Mandarin

Top Tip:

When speaking Chinese, locals are quick to correct you if the pronunciation is unclear or the tone is wrong. This can get frustrating if it interrupts what you are trying to do, or embarrassing if others are listening. Whether you get annoyed or go red in the face, the fact remains that acceptance is part of learning, and your Chinese will progress faster with it. Next time you are corrected, forget your pride, listen carefully and repeat it back. And remember to thank them. After all, they are helping you to improve.

Say what?:

‘Ting bu dong’ is commonly used when interacting with Chinese locals. It means ‘I don’t understand,’ and can be used anytime someone has said a word you haven’t heard before. It can, however, give the impression that you don’t speak any Chinese at all, and this is something that a Chinese learner should try to avoid.

A better approach is to ask the meaning of the particular word that you didn’t understand. This can be done with the following phrase:

shén me // yìsi? What // meaning?

So, if someone says: wǒ men kāi shǐba!

You might have understood that wo men means ‘us’, but the kaishi (to start) may be new. Simply put the unknown word at the start of the sentence and say:

kāi-shǐ // shén me // yìsi? kaishi // what // meaning?

Introducing the fact that you are a Chinese learner can help people to understand that they should try to explain their meaning with language rather than reverting to pointing, miming out actions or simply giving up.

The following phrase can be used:

wǒ // zài // xué // zhōngwén I // am currently // learning // Chinese

zai is a fairly flexible word, and can be used for a number of meanings. In the sentence: wo zai zhongguo it means ‘I am in China,’ the zai taking the meaning of ‘located at.’ But in this above sentence it is used before a verb to say that you are currently doing something, not just at that time but also in the past few hours, days or weeks. Another good sentence to use is to ask how to say something in Chinese. Point to whatever you want to learn and say: zhège // zhōngwén // zěn-me shuō? This one // Chinese // how to say?

Character Focus

When at an airport, train or bus station, signs for the taxi stand are not always displayed in English. Learn how to find it by looking out for one of the two following words:

dishidí shì – Taxi: Originally from Hong Kong, this word came from the Cantonese diksi which is sounds like the English ‘taxi.’ It has now been adopted into general Mandarin, pronounced díshì, and is used throughout China.


chū zū chē – Taxi: This is a combination of the word chūzū (to rent) and chē (car/vehicle) to make the official word for taxi, Chūzū chē. Not to be confused with rental cars which you can hire for the day and drive yourself, now growing in popularity in China but unheard of when taxis where first given their name.