Phil Roeland

Travel phrasebooks - blessing or curse?

Sometimes a phrase book can be the one thing you wish you had left at home.

I've been doing some travelling in China lately so I dusted off my travel phrasebook to make sure I'd be able to practise some useful language and not feel too alien in this country with more than one billion locals.

The phrasebook I use belongs to the Gem series (I won't mention the publisher in order to save them the embarrassment), and it truly contains a generous number of gems. I wonder who writes these guides and if they have ever travelled to the country they're writing about - or even travelled at all. By the way, the book claims to cater to the (first-time) tourist and business traveller alike.

However, many of the words and phrases in it are completely useless and should be replaced by more interesting and vital language. I won't deny that the guide can still be of valuable help, but would be even more so if it had been devised with some forethought. What follows are some of the phrases I particularly liked but would never use in a million years.

Top ten tips

Tip 3 - Do not give pears to people in hospital; the word for pear is similar to the word for leave and so insinuates that you want them to die.

This is all very well, but should this really be a top tip? What are the odds of you visiting a local in hospital when travelling? Slim, I'd say. And what are the odds of you taking pears of all fruits as a gift? Infinitesimal is the word we're looking for.

Talking to people

See you on Monday
Tough luck if you want to meet on another day. You could always refer to the unit on ‘Time' of course, but that'll take you forever because you'll also have to find out which Chinese word to replace in the original phrase.

Key phrases

Do you have milk?
Okay, it might be nice to get some milk with your coffee, but listing this as a key phrase seems somewhat over the top, doesn't it. By the way, maybe you should try some tea while you're in China.

We'd like to go home.
Not really giving a lot of confidence to someone preparing a trip to China, especially since it's considered a key phrase.

How does this work?
I'm puzzled as to what ‘this' refers to. The TV in your room? The air-conditioning unit? The electric kettle? If the answer is one of these - or all of the above - one should wonder if you are really fit to be travelling on your own.

Making friends

Please allow me to introduce these distinguished guests.
Just don't try to say this stuff in Chinese unless your Mandarin is already pretty advanced. Anyway, I suppose the Chinese should be saying this about you if you're a businessman visiting China.


Do you think it is going to rain?
Do you think there will be a storm?
Will it be foggy?

Did you really think the Chinese are all weather oracles? If you'd like to have these questions answered, just Google ‘weather China' and Bob's your uncle.

You may hear

Almost every chapter in the phrasebook has some examples of phrases you may hear. This is all very well, but the author seems to have forgotten that even though you hear it, you won't understand it, and no phrasebook in the world is gong to change that. Add the difference between written Chinese pinyin and its pronunciation (e.g. ‘si' is pronounced ‘suh') and you have mission impossible. After having lived almost a year in the country and having taken the occasional Mandarin lesson, I still have problems understanding the most basic of sentences. Do you really think a first-time traveller to China will understand the following phrases? I highly doubt it. (Tone marks omitted)

qing cheng-zuo di-tie, zuo di-tie yao kuai-xie (take the metro, it's quicker). The metro is definitely quicker, but as it'll take you forever figuring out what this phrase means, hopping on the first bus or even walking could be faster.
zhe-zhong yan-se wo-men zhi-you zhe-yi chi-cun (in this colour we have only this size). When shopping, remember that what you see is what you get. The lovely blouse you like will probably not be available in extra large and fuchsia.

Getting around

Is there a tram to...?
A tram? Give me a break. They should really add words like hovercraft and Flying Boxcar if they want to be consistent.

How does the ticket machine work?
Just point to your destination on the touch screen and insert your money, how else would it work? Asking an employee this kind of question won't get you a lot of joy, believe me.

Can you go a little faster?
Unless you're talking to an anaemic pedicab driver or a Sherpa who's about to collapse, I don't see any need to ever use this phrase while in China. I wish they had included its opposite number ‘Could you go a little more slowly?' At least that would have been useful when you're in a taxi or a bus with a crazed driver at the wheel.

Where is the luggage for the flight from...?
Ever heard of monitors showing which carousel your luggage is supposed to be on? If this is your first trip abroad, you might have chosen an easier country than China.

Do I have to pay duty on this?
According to the phrasebook, you're supposed to ask this question when seeing a customs officer. I think you'd be better off putting a sticker on your forehead saying ‘Idiot approaching'. If you really use this question, do so in the shop before buying toilet water, booze and fags.


I want to hire a car for ... days.
Oh really? Hire a car? In China? Strangely enough the phrasebook keeps going on about cars. I wonder if the author has ever been to China, let alone try to hire a car when there. Although it is possible to hire a car plus driver, this is not what the phrasebook has in mind (see next question).

Do we need snow chains?
Well, well, well. Not only are you going to hire a car, but you're going to drive it into some snowy mountains as well. Are you sure that's a bright idea?

My car has broken down.
Yeah right, I told you so. I hope this didn't happen while scaling the slippery slopes of some mountain in the middle of nowhere.

I've run out of petrol.
It's probably better to use the phrase ‘I'm an absolute moron, get me out of here' than the one proffered.

Staying somewhere

Where can I park the car?
At least the author is consistent. He's hell-bent on renting a car and will bug you with it whenever possible.

Are there any messages for me?
Unless you're James Bond playing in a 70s or 80s movie, the answer is no, there aren't any. Who in his right mind would expect messages having been left at reception when the year is 2010? And no, the phrasebook is not ancient; it's very recent in fact.

Please prepare the bill.
Why not just say ‘I'd like to check out'? Phrases like this probably just confuse the hell out of hotel staff since foreigners are always required to pay in advance anyway. If you live in China and need a tax receipt, you should ask for a fapiao, but of course that's something which the phrasebook doesn't mention.

Is there a restaurant on the campsite?
Christ on a bicycle. Going camping in China? Although there are some famous holy mountains that attract a lot of pilgrims staying overnight, I'd say that the average tourist doesn't really go to China in order to go camping. And if they do, they should play it safe and take some food of their own.

How much is it per caravan?
A what? A caravan? I doubt there's a single caravan in the whole of China. I wouldn't have a clue where to get one even if my life depended on it. By the way, you'd have to rent a car to pull it as well. No wonder the Chinese think a fair number of foreigners are retarded or slightly odd when they're bombarded with these sorts of questions.


Do you have collected poems of the Tang poetry? (sic)
Is that in English or Chinese? If in Chinese, you won't need this phrasebook. If it's in English, you'd be better off browsing E-bay or Amazon and buy them online. If you really insist on buying them in China, try finding and ordering them on the local E-bay called (Chinese interface only) and have them delivered to your hotel. Good luck with that.

Is this Ming porcelain?
If you're really into buying expensive antiques, I'd suggest using a reliable local guide instead of a crummy phrasebook. If you're an expert on this stuff, you shouldn't be asking this question at all. If you're an ignorant tourist, get ready to be ripped off.

Do you have the original terracotta?
Is that the clay pot or the life-size warrior we're talking about? Anyway, if it's a souvenir, just buy something that looks good. Who cares if it's original or fake terracotta?

A film for this camcorder, please.
Excuse me? Film? Oh yes, the stuff that was used before DVD and hard drive cameras hit the market. And would Madam like some rolls of black and white film for her vintage SLR camera?

Supermarket words given in the phrasebook include bowl, flour and rolling pin.
Unless you intend to bake some scones or pumpkin bread in the oven you brought along, I doubt there will ever be a need for these items.


Are there any good concerts on?
Warning: What may sound good to the Chinese won't be necessarily to your taste. Opinion questions are always tricky (remember Aunt Mabel asking you if you liked her new hairstyle).

What's on at the cinema?
Where on Earth would you ask this question? At the box office where the walls are plastered with 3-storey high billboards advertising all the movies? At your hotel? At the nearest public toilet? Buggered if I know.

What's on at the theatre?
As if you're going to understand Chinese theatre. You don't go to the theatre in your own country, so would you do it in China? You might want to try opera, which is impossible to understand wherever you are anyway.

Where is the television?
I hope you only use this question in case you're blind, or as a rhetoric question when it becomes apparent that a thief has stolen the TV from your hotel room.

How do you switch it on?
Why not try the button at the bottom of the TV or the one on top of the remote? You could always order the Idiot's Guide to Switching on a TV of course.

What is on television?
Ever heard of channel surfing? That's usually the best way to find out what's on TV in a foreign country.

I want to hire skis.
I hope you have good medical coverage and are an experienced skier if you decide to utter this phrase.

Can you adjust my bindings?
Uh-oh. Experienced skiers shouldn't be asking these kinds of questions.


Could you ask him to call me when he gets back?
Yeah right. Did you really think the receptionist will understand this phrase when spoken in your dodgy Chinese?

We were cut off.
Should read: Did you just hang up on me because you didn't understand a word of my broken Mandarin?

This is a very bad line.
Should read: I don't actually understand a word you're saying.

I'll call back later.
Should read: I've given up; making calls in Chinese is not my forte. Let's just end this conversation without losing face.

Do you have an email?
The phrasebook means email account as the question is immediately followed by ‘What's your email address?' and of course the answer is yes. Who doesn't have an email account?

Do you have a fax?
I wouldn't be surprised if the other party asks if you have a typewriter.

I want to send a fax.
Why not inquire to see if the hotel has a supply of carrier pigeons?


Can I pay with euros/Swiss francs?
And by the way, you wouldn't happen to accept Zimbabwean dollars or Gambian dalasis, would you?

I want to change these traveller's cheques.
I didn't even know the bloody things still existed. People using these probably don't qualify for a credit card - or even a debit card.

Can I use my credit card at the cash dispenser?
How would the Chinese know - even if they understood your pidgin Mandarin? Just look at the bloody machine and see if it's got ‘your' sticker on it (I'm referring to the Cirrus, Maestro, Visa, Union Pay and other logos).

This is broken. Is it worth repairing?
Are we talking about glasses, a camera, a sex toy? China's a country where you buy stuff, not have it repaired.

I'm lost.
Good on you. I hope you don't expect a Chinese Samaritan to take you by the hand and lead you back to your hotel. Let's just hope this didn't happen on a snowy mountain where you were the only tourist on the campsite.

I have lost my money.
Well I hope you didn't lose your bank cards or your return ticket. Just don't expect your local embassy to cough up any money to help you out.

You'll end up being the attraction yourself if you start shouting ‘Fire' in broken Chinese. People won't even bother dousing the flames or calling the fire brigade as long as they can see a foreign monkey screaming his head off.

I have crashed my car on the motorway.
I told you so. Don't go renting a car in a country where you can't even read the road signs, let alone the dashboard information.

My car has been stolen.
Uh-oh. Better hope you paid extra for comprehensive insurance. The phrase ‘What's the quickest way to get out of the country?' might be more appropriate in this situation.

I didn't know there was a speed limit.
Yeah right. Just pay your dues and get on with it. The phrase ‘Would you accept a small gift, officer?' might be too risky in this highly regulated country, especially if you're big-nosed.


I'm having breathing difficulties at the moment.
And I'm sure you'll have more when trying to utter this phrase in Chinese. I think just breathing heavily and pointing to your chest should do the trick.

My heart is beating very fast at the moment.
Just hold two hands to your heart to mimic a fast-beating heart. Unless the doctor you're seeing is blind, he'll understand.

Will I have to pay?
Another screamer. Did you really think the cost of your treatment would be covered by the local NHS?

Can you repair my dentures?
Just try saying this phrase in Chinese without your dentures. Mission impossible if there ever was one.

Do you have wheelchairs?
If you're really in need of one of these, I'd bring my own. If you had an accident while travelling, just buy one as the basic models are dirt cheap.

Do you have an induction loop?
WTF? I won't even bother trying to comment on this.

Is there somewhere I can sit down?
I suggest looking around for a bench or a chair. If you don't see any, try sitting on the ground or floor. Asking anyone Chinese this question is tantamount to saying ‘I'm blind' or ‘I'm an idiot'.


What is today's date?
Unless you have Alzheimer's, it's better not to ask these kinds of questions. There are so many ways to find out what the day or date is (digital watch, mobile phone, Internet etc.) that it's simple preposterous bothering locals with this nonsense.

What time is it, please?
Again, unless your watch just stopped or your mobile phone's battery is dead, don't ask silly questions. Just look at the wall clock if there is one.

Eating out

What is the dish of the day?
Reality check: We're in China, not France or Italy. Most restaurants have set menus and an extensive a la carte menu. I've never seen a dish of the day advertised, at least not in English.

Do you have a tourist menu?
Why not just ask ‘Rip me off, please'?

What is the speciality of the house?
Did you really think the restaurant had a waiter standby with enough English skills to explain all this?

Can you tell me what this is?
Well, if you can't make out from a picture or English translation what something on the menu is - or were you looking at it directly maybe while it's still alive - it's probably a good idea to steer clear from ordering it, unless you want to end up with sea cucumber salad, turtle soup, pig's intestines or bull's penis on your plate.

Are there any vegetarian restaurants here?
As the guidebook rightly points out, there are hardly any vegetarian restaurants in China, so I wonder why they insist on adding this question. Usually Taiwanese restaurants have a wide variety of veggie dishes, or you could just ask for some tofu dishes. This is my advice of course, not the phrasebook's.

Which dishes have no meat?
For crying out loud, try a dish listed under ‘Vegetables' or order a veggie or tofu dish listed in your phrasebook.

Which dishes have no fish?
Why don't you try the meat or veggie dishes? And stop whining like a spoilt brat that doesn't want to eat what mummy puts on the table.

I don't like meat.
Well, don't order or eat it then. Saying this to anyone Chinese won't get you anywhere apart from making locals think that you belong in a loonie bin.

Can you recommend a good local wine?
Why not just ask ‘Please bring me the most expensive Chinese wine on the menu'? The result will be the same anyway.

Menu reader

The guidebook also has an extensive list of Chinese dishes. That's all very well if you'd like to order stir-fried scallops with asparagus or stewed carp with soy sauce, ginger and spring onions. However, basic dishes that are tasty, quite cheap and easy to find such as chicken, red pork or roast duck on rice are all missing. There is a translation for roast duck (kao ya), but if you order that in a restaurant you'll get the whole bird, unless your waiter has half a brain and asks you if you want half or a quarter. The phrasebook is excellent for those willing to order noodle soup with mixed seafood, but fans of more widespread dishes such as beef, pork or chicken noodle soup are left in the cold.

Backseat driver

I know that I've been criticising this phrasebook excessively, as it's still a useful item when travelling. I was just for a laugh anyway, but go on and call me a back-seat driver. However, it's a fact that with some more reflexion, travel experience and teaching techniques in mind, one could it make it so much better.

Instead of giving all these fixed phrases, why not provide more skeleton phrases or chunks of language which travellers can use to insert their own vocabulary. Instead of ‘Do you have milk', why not give the phrase ‘Do you have...?' and let people complete it with what they need, be it milk, a map, a bar of soap or a dildo (note: these kinds of toys are for sale in China).

Other useful phrases could be ‘Where is the...?', ‘When does the ... leave?', ‘How much is/are the...?' etc. I admit some fixed phrases could still be useful, but instead of ‘Where can I have my tie dry-cleaned?' or ‘How much does a pair of suspenders cost?' I'd like to see stuff like ‘We've run out of toilet paper', ‘Where is the nearest supermarket?', ‘What's the Wi-Fi password?' or ‘Do the rooms have broadband Internet access?'

By the way, I think I know what happened. A long time ago, someone must have made a phrasebook for probably a European country and that booklet became a template to make many more. What the authors forgot, however, is that you just cannot transplant every single phrase into another language. Different countries have different cultures and do many things differently - or not at all. Anyway, I hope I didn't scare you off coming to China. I might put together an Idiot's Guide to Travelling in China when I have the time. Have fun.


I'd like to send a telegram ... is still alive in some phrasebooks.

By Wilbur, Australia (21st June 2010)

Phrase books often speak of a different time and are unintentionally hilarious as a result. My 1953 edition of a book of supposedly essential Spanish was clearly written for the more genteel traveller and includes 'Please get me a bath ready', 'These collars are not to be starched' and, marvellously in the 'Travelling by Air' section, 'How do I get to the aerodrome?' and 'I feel sick. Can you open the window a bit more'.

By jellyroll, uk (11th June 2010)

My favorite ever phrasebook entry was under the heading 'At The Dentist' and it was "I am experiencing some mild pain because I think the nerve may be exposed"
I probably wouldn't even say that in English!

By philip, (9th June 2010)

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