Being able to communicate during your journey to China can make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your travel. While I’ve already talked about how it is certainly possible to travel to China without speaking Mandarin, the truth is that some level of language – even if it’s extremely basic – is vital.
That’s where a good Mandarin Chinese phrase guide can come in very handy. Even for somebody who has studied the language for a year or two, having these guides easily accessible can eliminate so much headache while overseas. Below is a quick introduction to my favorite Mandarin Phrase Guides covering everything from print editions, ebooks and even smartphone apps.
BONUS: Check out our comprehensive list of the best tools for learning Chinese!
After looking at the comparison table, scroll further down for a more detailed description and review of each Mandarin phrase guide book and app.
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#1 Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrase Guide
As with many things having to do with travel in China, Lonely Planet leads the pack with its Mandarin Phrase Guide. With a whopping 256 pages worth of language help, it’s certainly not a simple guide but it covers pretty much every scenario that you could imagine while traveling in China including:
- Phrases having to do with transportation, direction, border crossings, etc.
- Phrases having to do with shopping, banking or going out to eat
- Phrases having to do with emergencies, police and health
The list goes on. The book even includes an abridged English-Mandarin and Mandarin-English dictionary at the end. It’s a hefty book to carry around but if you’re looking for something comprehensive, the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrase might be the right choice for you. While you can buy the phrase guide by itself, they do offer a very helpful audio CD that allows you to hear a native speaker pronounce all of the phrases.
#2 Rough Guide Mandarin Phrase Book
The Rough Guide is an excellent alternative to Lonely Planet and offers just as much information presented with their own unique twist. While most of the guide is made up of a 2-way dictionary, they also have a few features that I throughly enjoyed:
- Audio guide included (Lonely Planet does as well, but it costs more)
- Food Menu & Drink Guide that covers all you need to know for restaurants
- Regional Pronunciation Guide to help depending on where you’ll be located in China
Unfortunately the book doesn’t offer Chinese characters to go along with the phrases – something that is important to me but may not be important to you. I also wish they spent more time on different scenarios. It feels like a good portion of the book is just dictionary. Despite these criticisms, however, it’s an excellent guide to have along with you.
#3 Learn Chinese App (Codegent)
For those who are traveling with either a smartphone or a tablet device, it’s worth considering taking along a digital phrase guide instead of a physical book. Not only does it save room in your pack, it’s also a lot cheaper.
There are numerous options out there but the best has been developed by Codegent, a company that does these apps for quite a few different languages. The app is simple to use, very well-organized and offers pinyin, characters, audio and even the option to hear the audio spoken slowly. Super helpful!
Best of all, the app has been released on every major device including iOS, Android, Windows and even Amazon.
#4 The Most Basic Chinese
If you’re looking for something simple, a basic guide that just lets you communicate without bogging you down with hundreds of phrases you’ll likely never have to use, The Most Basic Chinese might be a good option for you. While it’s available in print form, it’s best consumed in ebook format (which, incidentally, is also cheaper).
Even though the book comes in at only 34 pages, here’s what you should expect to get:
- A jump start on the most useful Chinese phrases
- Directed specifically to first-time China travelers
If you only plan to be here for a couple weeks and want to know the most important things to say, this book offers a good start. The only thing I wish it had was audio to accompany the phrases.
#5 Phrase Guide for Business Travelers
If you’re planning to visit China on business, the fact is that the vocabulary you need to be familiar with is a little different than that of the average traveler. That’s where the Chinese for Business Travelers comes in handy. If you can just ignore the cover, which in my opinion is a big un-professional, the content is actually very good.
While it will cover a lot of situations that you’ll get in the other phrase guides (taxis, hotels, etc.) it also goes into details about:
- Networking and Making Friends – including cultural tips for China
- Business Dining – again, cultural tips on etiquette in China
- Negotiating – how to properly negotiate in Chinese
Best of all, the guide comes in a cheap ebook format which I have enjoyed. More than likely your business will provide a translator but you will earn a higher level of respect if you at least attempt to speak during your business travels. This book will help you do that.
Obviously you don’t need to purchase all of these but having some sort of Mandarin phrase guide is an essential part of packing for your trip to China (click here for a comprehensive packing guide for China). It’s also worth noting that while Mandarin is the official language of China, there are many parts of the country that speak either different dialects or a different language altogether – be prepared.
Finally, I wanted to add that there are plenty of online Mandarin phrase guides that can help you study, it’s just hard to take them on the go with you.