Tim Longhurst's Blog

How to speak Beijing Mandarin Chinese like a local

August 8th, 2008 · 6 Comments

A local waitress helps me with my Chinese

A local waitress helps me with my Chinese

Taxi drivers in Beijing were offered free English classes in the lead up to the Olympics, but from my one week of ‘on the ground’ experience I can only conclude that most of the drivers skipped class.

In fact, as someone not sticking to the tourist haunts or well-worn paths to the ubiquitous KFC’s, the people that I’m communicating with to order food, get around and socialise, generally speak a maximum of “hello” and “bye bye!”. I’m the visitor, so it’s up to me to learn at least the basics of the host language for simple daily communication over the next few weeks…

I’ve made a go of it, but boy is it hard!

About Mandarin

In Beijing, China’s capital, the language spoken is Mandarin. There are actually a number of languages in China, but most of the media broadcasts in Mandarin, so it’s widely understood. Well, that’s what I’ve been told, anway.


Mandarin has five tones, described as “hīgh”, “risíng”, “fallǐng-rising”, “fallìng” and “neutral” (note that I’ve added ‘tone marks’ on the appropriate words to give you an idea of what pinyin looks like). Tones are arguably the biggest barrier to basic Mandarin pronunciation, and even when you pronounce a word in a way that sounds a LOT like you should be saying it – at least to an untrained ear – if you get the tone wrong, you will be met by a confused, blank, or sometimes hostile face.

I guess getting the tone wrong must be like pronouncing English words without the vowels
or with the right consonants – just not in the right order. So, “Hello, I’m Tim Longhurst” ends up sounding like, “Hll, m Tm Lnghrt” or worse, “Ellho, M’i Tmi Lhustrong”.

The most traveller-friendly locals spend a few seconds trying to work out what you might have said by going through the variations in tone to decypher what you might have meant, but not everyone is so accommodating.

Coping with tones

Here’s a tip that seems to help me – If you can’t remember the correct tone, repeat the same word over and over in all the tones, almost like you’re singing a song… The context will help the listener work out what you’re after. (Example: “bao” can mean, “wrap”, “thin”, “guarantee” or, “hug”, depending on tone.). This is a tip from Scott Browning, a friend of mine who spends a lot of time in China.

So without a minute of formal language training, my innovative Chinese language course – which is yet to prove successful, is based on three pillars: phrase books, enlisting the help of complete strangers (this is key), the internet.

Phrase books

The two phrase books I’m using are “Survival Chinese” and “Immersion Guides’ Mandarin Phrasebook”. Both present phrases in Chinese characters, English and Pinyin – a roman-letter based format designed to help visitors pronounce Chinese words. I chose the former because it includes the “phonetic” pronunciation of each word, however a MASSIVE drawback of the book is that the pinyin is presented without tones! So the useful feature (how to pronounce pinyin) is almost completely cancelled out by this ridiculous ommission.

The “Immersion Guide” is full colour and quite comprehensive. It includes sections on hiring staff for your home and paragraphs on how to fire workers, ok, maybe not that, but it seems to be written for monied ex-pats who have come to run companies in China or at least plan on bossing locals around…

Complete Strangers

Holding a phrasebook, looking hopefully at the listener and announcing out your best attempt at a Chinese word is a great way to win over many locals. There are some who don’t want to deal with your frustrating inadequacy, but I’ve found in cafes, taxis, trains, on street corners and in restaurants many Beijingers who relish in the opportunity to help their new “Ow-da-li-ah-ren” (Australian) friend with the language.

So many people have helped me with my pronunciation that I’m starting to feel like the tones are worth the effort – that I’d like to stick at this and at least be able to have a very basic conversation in the local’s native tongue. Looking further ahead, Sydney has a strong Chinese population, so it’s not like I’m not going to have anyone to practice with!

So here’s what I do – I practice little sayings, and when I find a particularly friendly local, I record the sayings using my phone. For your entertainment, I have uploaded a few examples of my bastardisation of the Mandarin language:

Directing a taxi driver in Mandarin – Locals tell me how to give directions in a taxi

How are you? Fine Thanks! (in Mandarin) – A basic conversation – now possible thanks to a taxi driver

I understand a little – “A little” – a woman on the train helps me pretend I understand “a little” Chinese

I need an interpreter – Another taxi driver counsels me on “I need an interpreter”

Take me to Jiantai Xi Lu – Same taxi driver, this time on how to get me to Jiantai West Road – where I’m staying.

The Internet

There are a few great resources I’ve found so far: a table that ‘pronounces’ all the sounds/tones for you at a click; a website that collects all the Mandarin training videos on YouTube in one place, and Ask Benny, a YouTube channel full of fun videos for learning Mandarin. The first of the three is particularly useful: as I come across a word I’d like to practice, I can generally hear how it sounds using that table. Highly recommended.

The future

I’m setting myself a goal of recording a short video entirely in Mandarin, before I leave China in a few weeks. I’ll be sure to link to the video in this post should I prove successful!

Your help

If you’ve got any tips or tricks for learning languages – or Mandarin specifically – please be sure to let me know… I really need all the help I can get!


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