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Creative Ways to Improve Your Chinese Conversation Skills

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Being able to speak and converse with native speakers is the ultimate goal of many Chinese learners. You may find numerous Chinese language learning materials to learn Chinese vocabulary and grammar and improve reading and writing skills, but not so much to improve your Chinese conversation skills. Bringing your Chinese to the next level takes a little more than diligence and time. 

You may have tried to immerse yourself in a Chinese language learning environment, you may have set up a goal of practicing 10 minutes of Chinese every day, and you may even be learning from a Chinese native speaker. These are great tactics to improve your Chinese speaking. What you may not have are a few tips and tricks to step up your game at a faster speed. In this article, you will find effective strategies, practical tips, and useful phrases to help you achieve the goal of speaking Chinese fluently and naturally. 

Woman and Man Talking on the Street

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Chinese Table of Contents
  1. Build Your Language Portfolio
  2. Get Familiar with Common Chinese Reaction Phrases
  3. Try Chinese Filler Words
  4. Be Brave to Start a Conversation in Chinese
  5. Have Your Answers Ready for Common Questions
  6. Last But Not Least

1. Build Your Language Portfolio

Do you love cheat sheets? They’re definitely a great tool to make fast progress in language learning. Think of building your language portfolio as creating a set of cheat sheets for yourself by collecting all the words and phrases that are most relevant to you. 

When choosing the phrases and expressions for your language portfolio, you should consider things you are likely to talk about (name, hometown, family, work, hobbies, etc.), topics and areas you’re interested in (foods, sports, arts, etc.) and more importantly, select the language style that fits you. Consider your age, gender, and the image you want to present as the main factors. You may choose to use simpler words to be clear and approachable or try out more advanced phrases to sound more sophisticated. You may choose to use modal particles to express your emotions and feelings or leave them alone altogether to be a straight talker. Don’t forget building your language portfolio is an ongoing project. You can adjust and update your profile as time goes by. After all, you are the one who decides what goes in your language portfolio! 

In the rest of this article, we’ll help you come up with ideas for your language portfolio with some everyday Chinese words and phrases that will come in handy in a variety of contexts and social situations. You’ll find notes on the phrases that only fit certain groups of people or in certain situations. 

2. Get Familiar with Common Chinese Reaction Phrases 

Sometimes, finding the right response phrases to someone’s story in a second language is even harder than telling the story. Many language learners have had the experience of coming up with awkward reaction phrases in conversations that are either too formal or directly translated from their native language. Memorizing some of the most common reaction phrases will be of great help for smoother conversations.

To express excitement or give a compliment, try to use: 

  • 太好了!Tài hǎo le! “Great!”
    • A: 我被录取了!”I got accepted!”
    • B: 太好了!”Great!”
  • 真棒!Zhēn bàng! “Excellent!”
    • A: 你看看,我写得怎么样?”Look, how’s my writing?”
    • B: 真棒!”Excellent!”
  • 赞!”Liked!” “Kudos (to you)!” 
    • Post: 第一次钢琴表演 (with a picture) dì yī cì gāngqín biǎoyǎn “Firsts piano recital” 
    • Comment: 赞!👍 Zàn!  “Kudos!” 
    Note: 赞 comes from an Internet slang expression, which is usually used by younger generations.
Woman Jumping in the Air

To express empathy, try to use: 

  • 太倒霉了。Tài dǎoméi le! “So unlucky!”
    • 真可怜。Zhēn kělián. “So pitiful.” 
      • 可惜了。Kěxī le. “What a shame.”

      Girl Comforting a Friend at School

      To show a neutral acknowledgment, try to use:

      • 好的。Hǎo de. “Okay./ Got it.”
      • 嗯,好。En, hǎo. “Okay./Got it.”
        Note: Younger females tend to reduplicate 嗯 to make it 嗯嗯 to sound more friendly. 
      • 行,我知道了。Xíng, wǒ zhīdàole. “Ok. Noted.”
        Note: Often said by people of supervising roles to subordinates.

      Woman Holding Up an Okay Gesture

      To react when you are surprised and skeptical at the same time, try to use: 

      • 啊?不会吧?Á? Búhuì ba? “What? That can’t be true.”
      • 怎么可能?Zěnme kěnéng? “How is that possible?” 
      • 你确定吗?Nǐ quèdìng ma? “Are you sure?”

      Man Pointing at His Phone

      To announce that you just had the “A-ha” moment, try to use:

      • 啊,我明白了!A, wǒ míngbái le! “Ah, I see!/Ah, I got it now!” 
      • 原来如此!Yuánlái rúcǐ! “That’s why!/ That makes sense now!” 
      • 哦!原来是这样!O, yuánlái shì zhèyàng! “Oh! That explains it!” 

      Man in Front of Blackboard with Light Bulbs

        ➜ Interested in more reaction phrases and other intermediate-level phrases? Find out more in this article

      3. Try Chinese Filler Words

      Filler words are a sound or words people make to indicate that they’re thinking and not finished speaking. Using filler words is another secret weapon to speak more like a Chinese native. They’re usually short and easy to say, but the hard part is how to intentionally incorporate them into your everyday conversations. Add these phrases to your portfolio and remind yourself to use them in place of the filler words in your native language. 

      • 那个…nèige…“Umm…/Well…”

      This one is probably the most infamous one due to its pronunciation similarity to the n-word in English, as well as the high frequency of usage. It’s often used before talking about difficult or awkward situations or when someone is thinking about what to say next. 

        ➢ 那个,我有一件事想告诉你。Nèigè, wǒ yǒu yī jiàn shì xiǎng gàosù nǐ. “Well, I want to tell you something.”
        ➢ 我要一个薯条,还有那个……鸡肉堡。Wǒ yào yīgè shǔtiáo, háiyǒu nèigè… jīròu bǎo. “I want an order of French fries, and ummm…chicken burger.” 

      • 然后 rànhòu “and then”

      Originally, it’s a conjunction used to describe what is happening next. In spoken Chinese, it has evolved into something that people say to connect thoughts that may not be sequential. Although it’s not grammatically correct, it’s still very commonly used and good to know. 

      Compare the following two sentences below and find out which one is used as a filler. 

        ➢ 我先吃了一个鸡蛋,然后喝了一口牛奶。Wǒ xiān chīle yīgè jīdàn, ránhòu hēle yīkǒu niúnǎi.
        “First I ate an egg, and then I took a drink of milk.” 
        ➢ 我不喜欢鸡蛋,然后我也不喜欢牛奶。Wǒ bù xǐhuān jīdàn, ránhòu wǒ yě bù xǐhuān niúnǎi.
        “I don’t like eggs, and I don’t like milk either.”
        Note: This one is used as a filler word. However, if you prefer to sound more “proper”, avoid using it this way.
      • 那什么 nèishénme “uh…” 

      This filler word is used to ease into a topic that may be awkward to speak about or when your brain suddenly goes blank.

        ➢ 他什么都好, 就是……那什么,头有点儿大。Tā shénme dōu hào, jiùshì … nèi shénme, tóu yǒudiǎnr dà. “He’s fine in every way, it’s just that his head is too big.” 
        ➢ 你帮我拿一下,那什么,垃圾袋。Nǐ bāng wǒ ná yīxià, nèi shénme, lājī dài. “Help me grab the uh…garbage bag.” 

        ➜ Find this interesting? Check out a comprehensive list of filler words here

      4. Be Brave to Start a Conversation in Chinese 

      There’s a Chinese saying that goes 万事开头难 wànshì kāitóu nán, translated as “everything is hard at the beginning”. When it comes to conversing in Chinese, you may have to take the initiative because most Chinese people are shy and like to keep their distance, although they may be dying to talk with you. Here are some polite and tried-and-true questions for starting up conversations with strangers. You’ll also find possible responses under the questions.

      • 请问怎么称呼您?Qǐngwèn zěnme chēnghu nín? “How should I address you?”
        Note: Very polite and somewhat formal. 
      • 我姓吴。你可以叫我小吴。Wǒ xìng Wú. Nǐ kěyǐ jiào wǒ xiǎo Wú. “My surname is Wu. You can call me Xiao Wu.”
        Note: It’s common to call younger colleagues 小 xiǎo + family name, “little + family name”.
      • 叫我安娜就好。Jiào wǒ Ānnà jiù hǎo. “Just call me Anna.” 
        Note: Many Chinese names are hard to pronounce for foreigners, therefore younger Chinese people are likely to introduce themselves with the English name they picked for themselves.  
      • 我可以坐这儿吗?Wǒ kěyǐ zuò zhèr ma? “May I sit here?”
        • 当然可以。Dāngràn kěyǐ. “Of course.” 
        • 不好意思,这儿有人了。Bù hǎoyìsi, zhèr yǒu rén le. “I’m sorry, it’s taken.” 
      • 你的手机壳好酷。在哪儿买的?Nǐ de shǒujī ké hǎo kù. Zài nǎr mǎi de? “Your phone case is so cool. Where did you get it?”
        • 是吗?谢谢。网上买的。Shì ma? Xièxiè. Wǎngshàng mǎi de. “Oh really? Thanks. I got it online.” 
      • 你吃的是什么?看上去很好吃。Nǐ chī de shì shénme? Kàn shàngqù hěn hào chī. “What are you eating? It looks delicious.”
        • 我吃的是墨西哥卷饼。Wǒ chī de shì Mòxīgē juǎn bǐng. “I’m eating a (Mexican) taco. “
        • 这个是玛格丽特披萨。Zhège shì mǎgélìtè pīsa. “This is Margarita pizza. “
      • 你是做什么工作的?Nǐ shì zuò shénme gōngzuò de? “What do you do?”
        • 我在外企工作。Wǒ zài wàiqǐ gōngzuò. “I work for a foreign company.”
        • 我是教英语的。Wǒ shì jiāo Yīngyǔ de. “I teach English.”
        ➜ To learn more ways to start conversations, check out this article

      5. Have Your Answers Ready for Common Questions

      When meeting for the first time, there are certain questions people like to ask that are predictable. To give yourself more confidence, have those answers ready. It wouldn’t hurt to rehearse them before important occasions like a job interview or meeting future in-laws! 

      Heads-up: Be prepared for very personal questions, especially from 大爷大妈 dàyé dàmā (“uncles and aunties” – elderly women and men). When you feel uncomfortable, just show them your most charming smile and try to change the subject with the conversation starter phrases listed above!  

      • 你会说中文吗?Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? “Do you speak Chinese?  
        • 会说一点儿。Huì shuō yìdiǎnr. “I can speak a little.”
          Note: Even when you can speak fluently, use this to sound humble and leave a good impression. 
        • 能听懂一些,但是说得不好。Néng tīng dǒng yīxiē, dànshì shuō de bù hǎo. “I understand some, but can’t speak very well.” 
      • 你来中国多久了?Nǐ lái Zhōngguó duōjiǔ le? “How long have you been in China?” 
        • 两年了。Liǎng nián le. “Two years already.” 
        • 不久,半年多。Bùjiǔ, bànnián duō. “Not long, over half a year.” 
      • 你是做什么工作的?Nǐ shì zuò shénme gōngzuò de? “What do you do for a living?” 
        • 我是教英语的。Wǒ shì jiào Yīngyǔ de. “I teach English.”
        • 我还在找工作。Wǒ hái zài zhǎo gōngzuò. “I’m still job hunting.” 
      • 你爸爸妈妈身体还好吗?Nǐ bàba māma shēntǐ hái hǎo ma? “How are your parents doing (health-wise)?” 
        • 很好。谢谢关心。Hěn hǎo. Xièxiè guānxīn. “Good. Thank you for asking about them.” 
        • 不如以前了。Bùrú yǐqián le. “Not as good as before.” 
        ➜ Want to learn more? check out the 10 most commonly asked questions and how to answer them in Chinese here

      6. Last But Not Least

      The list for language portfolio phrases goes on. But I believe you will have a great headstart with the phrases we showed you. Now it’s time for you to try creating a language portfolio for yourself. 

      Below is a sample of a language portfolio for a full-time student in her 20s. Note all the phrases are picked from those that would fit her age, gender, occupation, and speech style. 

      TopicPhrasesTranslationNote
      Introducing Your Name我叫刘小莉。
      Wǒ jiào Liú Xiǎolì. 
      你可以叫我小莉。
      Nǐ kěyǐ jiào wǒ Xiǎo Lì.
      My name is Liu Xiaoli.
      You can call me Xiaoli.
      Introducing Occupation我是大学生。
      Wǒ shì dàxuéshēng.
      我学会计专业。
      Wǒ xué kuàijì zhuānyè.
      I’m a college student.
      I major in accounting.
      Talking about Hobbies我喜欢唱歌。
      Wǒ xǐhuān chànggē.
      我的爱好是旅游。
      Wǒ de àihào shì lǚyóu.
      I like to sing.
      My hobby is travelling. 
      PurposeQuestionsTranslationNote
      Asking for the Name你叫什么名字?
      Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?
      怎么称呼您?
      Zěnme chēnghu nín?
      What’s your name?
      How should I address you?
      怎么称呼您?
      Zěnme chēnghu nín? is more formal and polite, often used with people of higher social status
      Asking about Work你是做什么工作的?
      Nǐ shì zuò shénme gōngzuò de?
      工作忙吗?
      Gōngzuò máng ma? 
      What work do you do?
      Have you been busy with work?
      Asking about Family你爸爸妈妈身体还好吗?
      Nǐ bàba māmā shēntǐ hái hǎo ma?
      你孩子多大了?
      Nǐ háizi duōdà le?
      How are your parents?
      How old is your child?
      ContextReaction PhrasesTranslationNote
      Feeling Surprised真的吗?
      Zhēnde ma?
      Really? Versatile, can be used to respond to good or bad news.
      啊?
      Á?
      What? Often used to react to bad news. Rising tone. 
      Feeling Excited太棒了!
      Tài bàng le!
      Great! 
      耶!
      Yè! 
      Yay!Can sound a bit childish. Often accompanied by a “victory” hand gesture. 
      Feeling Skeptical不会吧?
      Bú huì ba?
      That can’t be true.
      你确定吗?
      Nǐ quèdìng ma? 
      Are you sure?
      Feeling Empathetic太倒霉了。
      Tài dǎoméi le. 
      So unlucky!
      好可怜。
      Hǎo kělián.
      Poor thing. 

      When having conversations with Chinese native speakers, don’t forget to utilize the conversation skills you are already using when speaking in your own language, such as show interest in the person you are speaking with, learning their name and using it repeatedly, paying attention to body language, etc. 

      Need more ideas for your language portfolio but don’t know where to look? Head on over to the vocabulary lists on ChineseClass101.com. Adjust or add to the lists with phrases that are relevant to you. 

      Need someone to check your portfolio?  Get the Premium PLUS subscription on ChineseClass101 and enjoy the 1-on-1 coaching from your own private teacher, who can add or adjust your Chinese conversation portfolio and practice with you!

      While you’re there, ask your teacher about personalized exercises, assignments, and audio samples. They would be more than happy to find the right materials for you. On top of that, feedback and necessary corrections will always be ready for you within two business days. Find your private teacher and learn to speak Chinese now on ChineseClass101.com!

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