No matter what your starting point is, a university student 大学生 (DàXuéShēng), self-learner 自学 (ZìXué), or a devoted spouse of a Chinese native, get ready for some awkwardness 尴尬 (GānGà). Your first Chinese syllables uttered for the audience of at least “you + 1” (the mirror doesn’t count), will most probably turn out to be a stuttering, mumbling odyssey. I still remember my journey: the practiced ‘Ni Hao Ma-s’, the confident ‘Xiexie-s’, the almost eloquent ‘Wo Hen Hao, Ni Ne’?
To my ears I sounded professional and confident, with a slight hint of Chinese spoken in old Hong Kong Kung Fu movies detected in my accent – a mistake, I later learned – and it was good enough to impress my family members (themselves, of course, clueless in Chinese). Then came the first challenge. Leaving the safe surroundings of my university campus 校园 (XiàoYuán), I found myself in China for the first time after a year of studying.
And then? Shock. Not only did I find myself unable to perform daily tasks such as ordering food, bargaining, or instructing the taxi Shifu to take me from point A to point B (without the panoramic, let’s go around the city trip), even my versed phrases left my audience unimpressed. Instead of the 非常好 (FēiCháng Hǎo) that I usually got from my teachers at school, I was offered a smiling and sympathetic look of utter confusion.
The good news here is, no one gets it right the first time. No matter how shy 害羞 (HàiXiū) or confident 自信 (ZìXìn) you are, your first tryouts will be painful – if nothing else, for your arms, at the end of the day so tired from gesturing. The key here is not to give up and to take any bit and ounce of motivation 动力 (DòngLì) that gets your way. You managed to ask for directions? Give yourself a pat on the back. You even got to the point of understanding them? Hip hip hooray! You managed to order your first take out in Chinese? Pop open that bottle of champagne.
And don’t get discouraged when you fail. I remember practicing my ‘going to the bank’ vocabulary before eventually going there myself, only to realize that my vocabulary was outdated, not necessary, or simply wrongly used. Don’t let them put you down. Learn from you mistakes and come back for a second chance to impress them.
Nowadays I get more Feichang hao-s than I deserve, but there are still days when my confidence gets tested, when I cannot go through a telephone conversation without asking for a repetition (several times). In such cases, the number one go-to phrases for you should be:
请您再说一遍。(Qǐng Nín Zài Shuō Yī Biàn.) Please say it again.
我听不懂。(Wǒ TīngBuDǒng) I don’t understand (what you are saying).
我没听清楚。(Wǒ Méi Tīng QīngChu) I didn’t hear you clearly.
X是什么意思? (X Shì ShénMe YìSi?) What does X mean?
请说大声点。(Qǐng Shuō Dà Shēng Diǎn) Please speak a little bit louder.
您能帮我解释一下吗? (Nín Néng Bāng Wǒ JiěShì YīXià Ma?) Can you explain it to me?