Friends and Family in Chinese – Free Beginner’s Chinese Course – Lesson 4

In this lesson we’ll learn the Chinese words for Family and Friends.

Previous Lesson Review

Before we begin, please be sure to review the previous lessons:

How to Say Mum and Dad in Chinese

The characters for Mum and Dad in Chinese are (mā) and (bà) respectively.

The words for Mum and Dad just repeat this same character twice, that is

  • Mum / Mother ma (mā​ma)
  • Dad / Father ba (bà​ba)

While there are single character words in Chinese, two character words are most common. Because of this there are some very common words that just repeat the same character twice, “Mother” (mā) and “Father” ba (bà​ba) are great examples of this.

Why repeat the same character twice to make a word? There are two main reasons for this, one is for clarity, because many characters have the same pronunciation but very different meanings, so repeating it twice ensures the listener won’t misunderstand the meaning. The other reason for this that two character words sound more pleasant in Chinese. To demonstrate this check out the chart below, you’ll see that nearly half of all Chinese words are made up of two characters:

If you would like to know a bit more, check out our post: Are Chinese characters words?

How Chinese characters are constructed

The intention of this beginners course is not to focus on how characters are constructed, but to provide some insights into how characters are comprised consider the word for mother. The Chinese character for “mother” (mā) is made up of two simpler characters, that is the character meaning “female” (nǚ) combined with the character for “horse” (mǎ).

This is the normal way that characters are constructed where one part of the character indicates the meaning and the other indicates the sound, so in the case of mother:

  • “female” (nǚ) hints the character relates to a woman
  • “horse” (mǎ) hints at the sound being “ma”

The “sound” component that makes up a character doesn’t specify the exact sound, as in the case of “Mother” the sound (mā) is a high tone (tone 1), while ‘horse“ (mǎ) is an inflected tone (tone 3). For a quick refresher on tones check out Lesson 2.

You may be asking how someone would know the meaning or pronunciation of component characters, for example, how would you know that (nǚ) means “female” and (mǎ) means “horse”? Unfortunately this comes from experience with the language, but a native learner would know these simple component characters as, especially in the case of (nǚ) and (mǎ) are some of the first characters that young children learn. As you learn Chinese you’ll start to recognise these component characters being used again and again.

If you’d like to know more, check out our post on t What is Chinese Hanyu Pinyin?

Chinese words for friends, family and colleagues

Let’s learn the Chinese words for friends, family and colleagues, as these are the people you are most likely to use or hear in day to day life. As this is a beginners course, we won’t give you a complete list of words for friends and family, however the most common are provided in the table below. You don’t have to memorise these, just pick one or two you’d like to learn which you are likely to use.

English Chinese (Pinyin pronunciation)
Colleague tóngshì (tóng​shì)
Friend péngyou (péng​you)
Girlfriend péngyou (nǚ​péng​you)
Boyfriend nánpéngyou (nán​péng​you)
Wife lǎo (lǎo​pó)
Husband lǎogōng (lǎo​gōng)
Younger Brother di (dì​di)
Older Brother ge (gē​ge)
Younger Sister mèimei (mèi​mei)
Older Sister jiějie (jiě​jie)
Father ba (bà​ba)
Mother ma (mā​ma)
Son érzi (ér​zi)
Daughter 'ér (nǚ​'ér)

A few points to note here:

  • There are different words for older and younger brother and sister in Chinese, this is important to remember and not get wrong as you wouldn’t want to introduce your younger sibling and being an older sibling or vice versa.
  • The words for parents and siblings use a double character, that is the same character twice. There is another way to say these names, which we’ll cover next
  • The Chinese words for “boyfriend” nánpéngyou (nán​péng​you) and “girlfriend” péngyou (nǚ​péng​you) add a character in front of the word for friend:
    • The Chinese word for boyfriend nánpéngyou (nán​péng​you) is made up of the character that means “male” nán (nán) +”friend” péngyou (péng​you)
    • The Chinese word for girlfriend péngyou (nǚ​péng​you) is made up of the character that means “female” (nǚ) and the word for “friend” péngyou (péng​you)
  • “son” érzi (ér​zi) and ”daughter” 'ér (nǚ​'ér) are both made up of twosimple characters that don’t have component characters:
    • “son” érzi (ér​zi) is made up of two characters for “son“ zi (zi) + the character for child zi (zi)
    • ”daughter” 'ér (nǚ​'ér) is made up of two characters for “female” (nǚ) + the character for child zi (zi)
  • “colleague” tóngshì (tóng​shì) is made up of the characters for “same” tóng (tóng) and the character for “work“ shì (shì), if you think of it your colleague does the same job as youself, so this is logical and meaningful as Chinese often is.

How to use the “ah” 阿 character in Chinese

If you’ve spent any time listening to Chinese speakers talk about their family, you may hear them use the “ah” ā (ā). Common uses of ā (ā) are with names of family members, here are some examples:

English Chinese (Pinyin pronunciation)
Younger Brother ā (ā​dì)
Older Brother ā (ā​gē)
Younger Sister āmèi (ā​mèi)
Older Sister ājiě (ā jiě)
Father A (A​bà)
Mother ā (ā​mā)

You will also hear people append ā (ā) to peoples names, both Chinese and English, for example if someone’s family name is “Wang” wáng (wáng) you may hear them referred to as āwáng (ā wáng).

How to say English names in Chinese

In Lesson 2 we briefly discussed that English names are phonetically translated, that is a combination of Chinese characters are selected that sound like the English name. Here are some examples:

English Chinese (Pinyin Pronunciation)
Mary (Mǎ​lì)
Helen Hǎilún (Hǎi​lún)
Mike Mài (Mài​kè)
David wèi (Dà​wèi)

As you can see, these names are just made up of characters that sound like the name, but the combination of the characters have no meaning in Chinese. This is unlike Chinese names, which use meaningful characters, for example a parent will choose characters that might mean “success” or “intelligent” in the hopes of bestowing future success on their child.

As a learner I wouldn’t bother trying to memorise Chinese versions of English names, with exception of perhaps your own name. If you’re interested in looking up an English name in Chinese, check out our posts on how to say and write Male Names and Female Names in Chinese.

Let’s use a Chinese name in a sentence:

nǐ jiào shén​me
What are you called? (What is your name?)

wǒ jiào mǎlì
My name is Mary

Conclusion and Lesson Review

We’ve learned a lot of useful words in this lesson. The most important points to remember are:

  • “Mother” ma (mā​ma)
  • “Father” ba (bà​ba)
  • “Friend” péngyou (péng​you)
  • ā (ā) is a common prefix used in Chinese
  • Chinese translations of English names are typically phonetic, that is based purely on the sound of the English name
  • Chinese words are made up of component characters that hint at the meaning and pronunciation of the word
  • Words are typically made up of two or more characters, with two character words being the most common.

In the next lesson you’ll learn out to introduce people in Chinese.