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10 Cantonese Essential Phrases You Must Know

Updated on June 25, 2016

Cantonese-speaking region of China

What is Cantonese?

So, you're planning a trip to Hong Kong, Macau, or even to the province of Guangdong in Mainland China? But afraid not to be understood? Although modern day China and its regions now have opened up and embraced Western influences, still many are able to communicate poorly in English, or worst, not even at all. The above mentioned regions are Cantonese-speaking regions of China. Cantonese is one of the many dialects belonging to the Yue family of dialects that originated in southern part of China, particularly in Guangdong province and its neighboring Guangxi province. It has widespread through Hong Kong and Macau, where most migrant workers came from the region. Cantonese is also the form of Chinese spoken by most overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, USA, and even in Europe.

Hong Kong now has the largest population of Cantonese speakers in the world, but is now rapidly declining due to the appreciation of Mandarin as the language of the future.
Hong Kong now has the largest population of Cantonese speakers in the world, but is now rapidly declining due to the appreciation of Mandarin as the language of the future.
A poster stating "The people of Guangzhou speaks Cantonese. If you don't understand, you might as well go home."
A poster stating "The people of Guangzhou speaks Cantonese. If you don't understand, you might as well go home."
Another campaign slogan showing love to Cantonese.
Another campaign slogan showing love to Cantonese.

Battle against Mandarin

The government of China which is situated in Beijing, has that the entire country should recognize the Mandarin dialect from Northern China to be the official language of the nation in order to unify the country. This campaign led to the abolishment of other dialects that are mostly from the southern part like Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew and others to not be used.

Since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, the number of Cantonese-speakers descended. Some even pointed out, that if it weren't for Hong Kong, Macau, and those who has Chinese heritage living overseas, Cantonese might survive in the next 50 years.

Below are some survivial phrases you might want to try when travelling to Cantonese-speaking regions. The romanization used is called Jyutping, a romanization invented by the Linguistics Society of Hong Kong in 1995. Just like Mandarin, Cantonese is also a tonal language consisting of six tones. For more lessons on how to properly read Jyutping and tones, please refer to the links below.

1. Saying Hi/Hello

Phrase: 你好

Jyutping: nei5 hou2

The very first and most important greeting when one learns a language is saying Hi or Hello. It's the initial way to start up a conversation.

2. Stating your Identity

Phrase: 我係_______

Jyutping: ngo5 hai6 _________

This sentence pattern is similar to the "I am _________." structure in English. This maybe used when stating your name, nationality and age.

Examples:

1. 我係陳佳明。

ngo5 hai6 can4 gaai1 ming4.

I am Chen Jia Ming.

*Note : Hong Kongers mostly introduce one's English name (i.e Anthony Lau, Fiona Ng) rather than their Chinese names.

2. 我係中國人

ngo5 hai6 zung1 gwok3 jan4

I am a Chinese.

3. Greeting someone a to have a good day

Phrase: 早晨

Jyutping: zou2 san4

Make someone's day by greeting him/her with this phrase. This phrase along with a heart-warming smile truly will be a great way to start someone's day. Likely,Good afternoon and Good evening, translates to 午安(ng5 ngon1) and 早唞 (zou2 tau2) respectively.

4. Saying Gratitude

Phrase: 唔該/多謝

Jyutping: m4 goi1 / do1 ze6

Showing your gratitude is always. There are two types of saying thanks in Cantonese. The first one is 唔該 (m4 goi1) : this way of saying thanks for a favour or service done to of for you. But when a gift is given to you, you reply using 多謝(do1 ze6) as a "Thank you".

Example:

1. 呢度我落車,唔該

ni1 dou6 ngo5 lok6 ce1 , m4 goi1

I will get off here, please. Thank you.

2. 多謝你禮物送俾我

do1 ze6 nei5 lai5 mat6 sung3 bei2 ngo5

Thank you for the gift you gave me.

5. Asking where something is located

Phrase: ________係邊度呀?

Jyutping: ________hai6 bin1 dou6 aa1?

Asking where to find something is very important to know especially when you're in a foreign country. You might be looking for the boarding gates, tourist information center, where to ride a bus or taxi etc. This phrase will come very handy. Unlike in English, do note that the name of the place you're looking for comes first before the "Where" tag.

Examples:

1. 廁所係邊度呀?

ci3 so2 hai6 bin1 dou6 aa1?

Where is the toilet?

2. 我乘搭的士係邊度呀?

ngo5 sing4 daap3 dik1 si6 hai6 bin1 dou6 aa1 ?

Where can I get a taxi?

6. Ask if somebody had eaten his/her meal.

Phrase: 食咗飯未呀?

Jyutping: sik6 zo2 faan6 mei6 aa1 ?

Chinese people tend to be hospitable with someone who are close to their hearts, even visitors. Asking "Have you eaten your meal" is just one way of showing how much they care for someone. Don't be surprised if every time you meet with somebody you'll keep hearing this questions again and again.

7. Say your apologies

Phrases: 唔好意思/對唔住

Jyutping: m4 hou2 ji3 si1 / deoi3 m4 zyu6

These two can be said when you want to apologize to someone. Now what exactly is the difference? 唔好意思 (m4 hou2 ji3 si1) can be used to apologize for minor matters such as stepping on to someone's foot, bumping on to someone, or bothering someone. The second one 對唔住(deoi3 m4 zyu6) implies a stronger and more intense apology. Say this phrase when you really are sorry, like when you broke someone's belongings or hurt someone's feelings and emotions.

Examples:

1. 唔好意思,我想問路。

m4 hou2 ji3 si1 ngo5 soeng2 man6 lou6 。

Excuse me, I want to ask for directions.

2. 對唔住,我要離開香港。

deoi3 m4 zyu6 ngo5 jiu1 lei4 hoi1 hoeng1 gong2 。

I'm sorry, I will be leaving Hong Kong. (implying that it breaks someone's heart to leave Hong Kong)

8. Asking the cost or amount of something

Phrase: 幾(多)錢呀?

Jyutping: gei1 (do1) cin2 aa1 ?

Hong Kong is really a shopper's paradise. And with that, you truly can't leave southern China without shopping for souvenirs. From high-class Western goods to traditional Chinese products and memento, you're money is worth spending here. Asking for the price of a product is 幾(多*)錢呀?(gei1 (do1*) cin2 aa1?). If the price offered to you is far too expensive , you may haggle or bargain by saying 平少少啦 (peng4 siu2 siu2 laa1). Ask for a discount as well, using the phrase 有冇折?(jau5 mou5 zit3). For more lessons on numbers in Cantonese, please check out the references below.

*The do1 may be left out and not be added to the phrase.

9. How to get to places

Phrase: __________去點呀?

__________ 行點呀?

Jyutping: ___________heoi2 dim2 aa1?

___________ hang4 dim2 aa1?

You're journey to southern China will be full of amazing tourist attractions you must visit. Although riding a taxi will be the most convenient form, it can be very expensive and traffic jams might be encountered especially during rush hours. Mainland China's trains and Hong Kong's MTR operates one of the best metro systems in the world. Taking the metro not only is cheap, but also is faster and very convenient.

But first ask someone how to get to your desired destination by _______去點呀?(_______ heoi2 dim2 aa1?) /__________ 行點呀?(___________ hang4 dim2 aa1?). Now what is the difference between the two? I know you'd be asking that. The character 去 means "to go", meaning this mostly implies to riding vehicles while the character 行 means "to walk". So,if you'll be asking what mode of transportation to take, use _______去點呀? while if you plan to go by foot alone, ask using the __________ 行點呀? pattern. Again, since you're asking a question , the name of the destination should be stated first followed by the question tag "How".

Example:

1. 越秀公園行點呀?

jyut6 sau3 gung1 jyun4 heoi2 dim2 aa1?

How do I get to Yuexiu Park*? (asking how to go there by foot)

2. 迪士尼樂園去點呀?

dik6 si6 nei4 lok6 jyun4 heoi2 dim2 aa1?

How do I get to Disneyland? (asking what mode of transportation to take)

* a local park in the district of Yuexiu, Guangzhou,China

10. Paying for the bill

Phrase: 埋單,唔該

Jyutping: maai4 daan1, m4 goi1

Try out authentic Cantonese food in Hong Kong. They are the best type of Chinese cooking for those not yet introduced to Chinese cuisine. Ranging from fresh seafood to various dim sums, plus a nice cup of hot Chinese tea, this one-of-a-kind dining experience is a must-try. Menus usually come with English translations, so you may point out what you want to order to the waiter. When settling your bills after eating just grab the waiter's attention and say 埋單,唔該 (maai4 daan1, m4 goi1). Some establishments may not accept credit cards as payment, so always have cash money when paying

Which Chinese dialect really is worth learning for?

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    • Chino Lavares profile imageAUTHOR

      Chino Lavares 

      3 years ago from Hong Kong

      Although most Hong Kongers speaks fair English, it still is more reliable to communicate with them in Cantonese. Yes, please do refer to this hub as your guide when you need survival Cantonese phrases for your travels.

      Thank you!

    • Suhaimizs profile image

      Suhaimi Zainal Shah 

      3 years ago from Singapore

      I went to Hong Kong earlier this year for a conferemce but had little knowledge of Cantonese. Luckily, most of the people I met spoke English. Perhaps I can pick up some basic Cantonese phrases from your hub for my future visits to HK or Macau.

    • Chino Lavares profile imageAUTHOR

      Chino Lavares 

      3 years ago from Hong Kong

      Li Ho! Good to know that.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 

      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I am hokkien, i know little cantonese

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