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How To Shop in (Mandarin) Chinese

Okay, so, I originally wrote this for my doll group, but others may find this useful:

Want a too long; didn't read version? Skip to Conjugation/Tenses and read from there.

Okay, so I think it's fair to assume that everyone in this group likes dolls, and even if you don't have a doll, chances are you will want to speak to someone about a doll or doll-related item you want... but then comes the massive language barrier.

Suddenly, you feel guilty. You don't want to talk to someone from across the world like they're stupid. You want to sound professional yet friendly. You want to know what you're talking about and be very specific.

Well, you can stop feeling guilty right now! You speak English; they speak Chinese. There is a massive language gap, and sometimes, the only thing that can bridge the gap is an online translator, but there are still problems that come with so I've decided to shed some light on how to communicate with someone who speaks Chinese. While I am by no means fluent, I can at the very least try to illustrate some core differences between the languages that will help you to better understand how to translate.


China's only had its borders open to tourism for about forty years. The majority of the country's population still DOES NOT speak English, nor do they have any interest in learning the language. The business centres in China are (generally) Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. English speakers in China are few and far in between everywhere else. While English IS being implemented into their school curriculum, you may need to trudge along just a little bit longer before you can expect perfect communication and understanding.

Now listen up:

I'm not going to lie to you. The majority of the English language DOES NOT TRANSLATE.

"Well, what do you mean? The translator is right there. Of course it translates!"

No, it doesn't. Get everything you know about English out of your head right now!

The majority of the English language is FLUFF that will not be understood by any Chinese person who reads it.

"But why?"

Chinese DOES NOT HAVE conjugation or tenses, and spoken Chinese does not differentiate between male and female. (Early apologies to anyone who may have a background in any Latin-based language. Your knowledge of said language will be no good to you here.)

"But what do you mean?"

I'll show you.


Words in Chinese DO NOT CHANGE. Run does not become "running" or "ran" and sit does not become "sitting" or "sat". It is simply, "You sit before", "You sit later", "You sit now". There is NO special treatment for when something occurs. That alone makes communicating difficult when you want to talk about anything that involves a time stamp (did, drank, sat, ran, ate, forgot, bought, shot, played, stomped, etc) or just about anything with "ing" on the end. So if your responses to (insert Chinese person here) include "ed" and "ing" at the end of any of your words, you're probably doing it wrong. Revise.

Also, beware if there is an "s" on the end of any of your words. Chinese DOES NOT HAVE a plural system. To emphasize this point, go to Google Translate right now. Type in "dolls", copy, and paste what Google gives you in the box to translate it back to English. The word is "doll", NOT "dolls". While the "s" may not pose a problem to people who say they want "five dolls", I just want you to be aware that when Chinese people are reading what you want, they will only read the words "five" and "doll". They will NOT see "dolls" in the plural on its own. If you accidentally forget a number, they will assume that you only want (or are referring to) ONE.


While the English sentence structure feels normal to us, there are so many words that just fluff out our sentences to make them long and unnecessary. Chinese is direct and to the point.

For example:

1. "You are beautiful." In Chinese, it is " 你 漂 亮 " ("Ni piao liang.") It literally translates to, "You beautiful." "Are" is just fluff.

2. "Are you okay?" In Chinese, it is " 你 好 吗 " ("Ni hao ma?") It literally translates to, "You good?" ("Ma" is essentially a question mark. Similar to "ka" or " か " in Japanese.)

3. "Have you eaten?" In Chinese, it is " 你 吃 了 吗 " ("Ni chi le ma?") It literally translates to "You eat before?" (" 了 " or "le" is being used as both a verbal and written past tense marker since the language does not conjugate.)

Note: Just for the record, many foreigners are taught "Are you okay?" as a common follow-up to a greeting in China since it's similar to "How are you?" However, it is common courtesy to greet someone then ask if they've eaten since it's considered polite to feed your guests. You don't HAVE to feed your guests even if you ask the question. No one will hate you if you're not within walking distance of your kitchen or if you don't have money to dish out on a restaurant. Still, it's good to know that if you visit someone's house/apartment, they may ask you if you've eaten then proceed to feed you. It is part of their custom and greeting, and if you're home, you're allowed to feed your guests as well.

4. "I want a doll." In Chinese, it is " 我 要 娃 娃 " ("Wo yao wawa.") It literally translates to, "I want doll."

Note: You can use " 我 要 (insert doll name and very simple description here)" any time you'd like if it would help make your communications easier.

5. "Do you have a doll?" In Chinese, it is " 你 有 娃 娃 吗? " ("Ni you wawa ma?") It literally translates to, "You have doll?"

Note: You can use "你 有 (insert doll name here) 吗 ?" any time you'd like also. Just remember that in any question, more often than not, it will go as follows: "(Noun/Pronoun) (Verb/Adjective) ma?" If there are any formal Chinese speakers lurking around, please feel free to correct me on this one but this has generally been my experience with the language.

People can give more examples as they think of them.

Still, my point remains. Chinese doesn't have a lot of what English does because it doesn't mince words. Period. You want something, say "I want blah." You're not insulting their intelligence; you're catering to their language set-up, and making yourself easier to understand. If they express interest in wanting to learn English then by all means, type properly and let them practice but otherwise, keep it as simple as humanly possible.

Being straight forward:

If you're sending an e-mail with multiple questions and would like each answered, open your e-mail with " 我 有 (insert number of questions here) 问 题 " then number your questions as you ask them. You'll get a far better response.

Numbers in Chinese (for those who want them):

One: 一 (yi, pronounced like "yee")

Two: 二 (er, pronounced like the English word "are")

Three: 三 (san)

Four: 四 (si, pronounced like "suh")

Five: 五 (wu, pronounced like "woo")

Six: 六 (liu, pronounced like the zodiac sign "leo")

Seven: 七 (qi, pronounced like the "chee" in "cheese")

Eight: 八 (ba, pronounced like "bah")

Nine: 九 (jiu, pronounced similarly to "leo", except with a j.)

Ten: 十 (shi, pronounced like if you tried to say "she" and "shoe" at the same time)

For anyone who wants to go beyond ten, just add or multiply respectively:

Eleven: 10 + 1 = 十一
Twelve: 10 + 2 = 十二
(Add any number between 1 and 9 to 10 to make a new number all the way to 19.)

Twenty: 2 x 10 = 二十
Twenty-one: 2 x 10 + 1 = 二十一

Thirty: 3 x 10 = 三十
Thirty-one: 3 x 10 + 1 = 三十一
(For any number beyond 20, you pick a number between 2 and 9 then multiply it by 10 and add any number between 1 and 9 if you need it. This applies all the way to 99 or 九十九.)

Congratulations. You have just learned how to count in Chinese.

Still in doubt?

Don't forget that a picture is worth a thousand words!

I hope you've all found this guide useful. If anyone has questions, you may feel free to ask. I will answer what I can.

Happy shopping!

EXTRAS (Not necessary for online communication but fun to share nonetheless):


For those of you who speak a Latin-based language (Spanish, French, Italian, etc), you'll know that there are times when objects are given genders. You may rest easy knowing that spoken Chinese does NOT distinguish gender. If you ever find yourself speaking to a Chinese person, they use very simple, easy-to-remember pronouns.

"I" or "me": " 我 " ("Wo", pronounced like the exclamation "whoa")

"We": " 我 们 " ("Women", combine the sounds "whoa" and "mun". "Mun" sounds like the first three letters of "money".)

"You": " 你 " ("Ni", pronounced like where your leg bends at the "knee")

"You (plural)": " 你 们 " ("Nimen"... "Knee" and "mun".)

"He" or "him": " 他 " ("Ta", pronounced like "tah")

"She" or "her": " 她 " (It may look different but it's also pronounced "tah")

"It": " 它 " (Again, it may look different on the computer screen but it's also pronounced "tah")

"They" or "them": " 他 们 " ("Tamen"...)