Chinese Phrases

Chinese Phrases That Every English Teacher Should Know

The first rule of teaching English class is that students are forbidden from speaking Chinese to create an English environment. This is fair enough, but until they have the ability to confidently switch between English and Chinese, they’ll rely on their mother tongue to get their point across in class. Teachers need to keep enforcing the ‘English only’ rule and remind them of the correct English phrase to use when they speak to the teacher in Chinese. However, knowing some of the Chinese phrases that the students are saying can be very useful when deciding which activities to retain, modify or discard for future lessons.


It’s worth noting that for many Chinese phrases, students might put ‘hen’ at the beginning of a phrase to give it extra emphasis (e.g. ‘hen chou’ – very ugly). For other phrases, they might add the negative ‘bu’ (no) in the middle, as in ‘wo bu meng’ (I’m not busy).


So without further ado, here are the most common words and phrases I hear in class:


Laoshi 老师 – teacher

Hao 好– good

Bu hao 不好 – no good/bad

Kan laoshi  看老师(khan low shir) – look at teacher

Ting laoshi 听老师– listen to teacher   

Wo zhidao 我知道 (wo je dow) – I know

Wo bu zhidao 我不知道 – I don’t know

Wo (bu 不) xihuan 喜欢 (woah (boo) she huan) – I (don’t) like.


Hao ting 好听good listen/sounds good.

Students might say this if they like the song you’ve just played.


Bu hao wan不好玩 (boo how whan) – bad play/game

They don’t like the game you’ve just played or suggested.


Ting bu dong 听不懂 – I don’t understand.


Shenma yi si 什么意思– what’s the meaning/what do you mean?

Both have the same basic meaning, in that they have no idea what you’re going on about. If they say these phrases together after being introduced to a new activity, then you have some serious re-explaining to do.   


Wo hui (woah hway) 我会- I can.

The student is confident that they can do the work on their own.


Wo bu hui (woah bu hway) 我不会 – I can’t

Students who stare at their blank paper while saying this phrase require extra assistance.


Tian a! 天啊! ( Tee – en – ah) – my god!

A student has just seen or heard something very surprising or shocking from a classmate


Hen chou 很丑 (hen cho.) – very ugly

My students usually say this when I draw something on the board.  


Wu liao 无聊 (wu lee ow) – boring .
When students say this and seem disengaged during an activity, that’s a strong sign that you should either do it very differently next time or retire it completely.


Bu kan dao le! 不看到了 (bu khan dow la) – I can’t see!

Either the writing is too small to read or you’re blocking the movie.


Wo kan dao le 我看到了 (woah khan dow la) – I’ve seen this.

They’ll probably say this whenever you show Mr Bean in class.


Nani? – What?

This is actually a Japanese word that seems to be the flavour of the month among young Chinese students.


Gan ma? 干嘛?

This is Chinese colloquialism, meaning ‘hey, what’s up/what’s going on?’ Locals tend to be very surprised and impressed if foreigners use this phrase when their name is called.


Bala bala 巴拉巴拉

This is the name of a fairy in a popular Chinese cartoon. Some of my very young students like to suggest this for team names during games.


Don’t worry. You don’t have to be able to speak Chinese to teach English in China, but knowing a few Chinese phrases can help. Of course, this only covers a fraction of everything students say during class but will hopefully come in useful when trying out new activities and gauging what students think of your class. 






Post by Adam Benson, EF English First Guangzhou


Adam is an Australian Senior Teacher based in Guangzhou, China. He’s addicted to writing and has been feeding that addiction by writing freelance articles for magazines, newspapers and online sites in Australia and China. When he’s not working, he loves helping his sons practice their English.

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