One of the first things you will want to learn when studying Mandarin Chinese is how to ask questions. Questions are the basis of most beginning conversation starters, and you will want to both know how to ask a question and understand when someone is asking you a question.
Yes & No Questions
The easiest way to ask a question in Mandarin Chinese is to make a statement and simply add “吗 ma” to the ending. This will work for most questions that will require a yes or no answer. Not that when you respond to a yes or no question, “yes” and “no” cannot be directly translated. It will usually depend on the context, but the easiest way will be to repeat the verb said to you.
Let’s take an example of this. If someone asks you “你要吃饭吗? Nǐ yào chīfàn ma?” (Literal translation: You want eat meal “ma”, but means Do you want to eat?), to say yes, you can simply answer “要吃 yào chī” (Literal translation: want eat) If you do not want to, you will need to add “不 bu” in front of the phrase. In this case, you would say “不要吃 buyào chī”(Literal translation: no want eat).
Common Question Words
Yes and no questions will only get you so far in a conversation. Similar to the top “wh-words” of English, these question words are common in Mandarin Chinese and you should familiarize yourself with them.
Question words are easy in Chinese because you can place the question word in place of the thing you are asking about.
Who? 谁? Shuí?
Two sentence patterns include “Subject + 是 (shì) + 谁 (shuí) ? ” or “ 谁 (shuí) + Verb?”
For example “他是谁? tā shì shuí?” (Who is he?) can be answered by “他是老师. tā shì lǎoshī.” (He is the teacher.) and “谁想出去? Shuí xiǎng chūqù?” (Who wants to go out?)
What? 什么? Shénme?
The sentence structure for this is “Subject + Verb + 什么 (shénme) + Noun?”
For example, “那是什么? nà shì shénme?” (Literal translation: That is what? but means What is that?), you can answer saying “那是小鸟! Nà shì xiǎo niǎo!” (That is a little bird!)
Where? 哪里? Nǎlǐ?
The sentence structure for this is “Subject + Verb + 哪里 (nǎlǐ) ?”
You could say “你在哪里? Nǐ zài nǎlǐ?” (Literal translation: You at where? but means Where are you?), and an answer would be “我在家. Wǒ zàijiā.” (I’m at home.)
When? 什么时候? Shénme shíhòu?
This literally translates to “What time?” The sentence structure for this is “Subject + 什么时候 (shénme shíhòu) + Predicate?”
For example, “你什么时候走? Nǐ shénme shíhòu zǒu?” (Literal translation is: You what time go?” but means When do you go?)
Why? 为什么? Wèishénme?
Literally translates to “For what?” but means “Why?” Similar to “When?”, the sentence pattern here is “Subject + 为什么(wèishénme) + Predicate?”
You could say “他为什么不高兴? Tā wèishéme bù gāoxìng?” (Why is he not happy?)
How? 怎么? Zěnme?
The structure to express “How?” questions is “Subject + 怎么 (zěnme?) + Verb + Object?”
For example, “你怎么去北京? Nǐ zěnme qù běijīng?” (Literal translation is You how go Beijing? but means How do you go to Beijing?)
These basic vocabulary and sentence structures can you get you started to ask all sorts of questions when you begin learning Chinese and can be a real life-saver in keeping your conversations going!