A Guide to Common Chinese Phrases in the ESL Classroom

A Guide to Common Chinese Phrases in the ESL Classroom

Source: wikimedia.org

The first rule of English class is that students are forbidden from speaking Chinese. This is fair enough, but until they have the ability to confidently switch between both languages, 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 what 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 phrases, students might put ‘hen’ before the adjective to give it extra emphasis (e.g. ‘hen chou’ – very ugly). For other phrases, they might add the negative ‘bu’ (no), as in ‘wo bu mang’ (I’m not busy).

In this article, I'll share the most common words and phrases I hear in class. I also want to apologise in advance for any mistakes and welcome corrections.  

Laoshi – teacher
Kan laoshi – look at teacher
Ting laoshi – listen to teacher  
Wo (bu) zhidao – I (don't) know
Wo (bu) xihuan - I (don’t) like.

(Hen) Hao ting  good listen (lit.)/sounds good.
Students might say this if they like the song you’ve just played.

(Hen) hao kan - (very) good watch.
They like the movie that you're showing/have just played

Hao wan(er)/Bu hao wan(er) bad play/game

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

Ting bu dong – I don’t understand.
Shenme yisi – 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/wo bu hui - I can/can't.
The student is confident that he can do the work on his own. However, those who stare at their blank papers while saying this require extra assistance.

Wode tian (na)! - my god!
A student has just seen or heard something very surprising or shocking.

Hen chou – very ugly
My students usually say this when I draw something on the board.  

Wuliao – 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. That, or they really don't like bookwork or grammar.

Kan bu dao le!/Kan bu qingchu – I can’t see!
The writing is too small to read or perhaps you’re blocking the movie. 

Kan guo le!  – 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.

(Ni) Ganma?/Gan shenme?
This is a colloquisim meaning ‘hey, what’s up/what’s going on?’ best said quickly with a strong emphasis on the last syllable. Locals tend to be very surprised and impressed if foreigners use this word.

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.  

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Keywords: ESL Phrases Chinese students


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i think english class is a two ways of learning, the teacher should understand what the student said in chinese and vice versa, especially when there're harder new words. explaining in chinese will help for the first time just so the student will understand what it means, (teachers also has to learn the shengdiao, only learning pinyin can lead to confusion sometimes)

Apr 11, 2017 02:05 Report Abuse



is good to begin early with english

Mar 18, 2017 10:09 Report Abuse



Native speakers should also learn to empathize by thinking this way: "If I am learning Chinese for the first time and have few vocabulary to carry me through ordinary conversation, what will I do?" Vocabulary is the key so vocabulary building is a must so that the students will be able to use the necessary words to express themselves. If you know what they are saying in Chinese, say the English translation and let them repeat it and once they know the new words, that is the time to be strict about using English. You cannot forbid someone from using their native language if they do not know what to say in the target language. However, once you have taught what they should say, then they should apply those words for retention. Just remember to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself is you really can function in the language you are learning if you don't even know how to say what you mean in the target language.

Mar 16, 2017 16:40 Report Abuse