Using Caveman Chinese

Last Updated on June 23, 2015

Have you ever had a conversation in your own native language with a non-native speaker whose ability in your language was atrocious, but you could still understand the basic meaning of what the person was trying to say it? The point of language is to communicate, and you can get by with limited Chinese in China assuming you know ways to get around your language barriers. Many psychologists have said that the majority of communication is actually non-verbal. Are you are thinking of going to China with limited to no Chinese? Well, you probably won’t starve to death in China even with no Chinese ;). And, are you paranoid of getting your tones wrong? Although tones are important, Chinese people will probably assume what you are talking about, and give you a pass most of the time. What I call using “Caveman Chinese” is simply using many different ways of communication, including body language, that communicates what you want even if your Chinese speaking ability is not very good. This article will teach you how to get around China even with poor Chinese.

What is “Caveman Chinese”?

I define “Caveman Chinese” as using Chinese at a very low level, but still being to convey a message. Imagine a caveman, pounding on his chest, with not much language ability, but still able to convey a message.
caveman family

Having A Dictionary Can Be Very Useful

If you have a dictionary, I think this will be the easiest way to communicate without being able to speak Chinese. Just use your dictionary, look up the word in your own language, and show the translated word in the dictionary to the person you want to communicate with. But, if you don’t have a physical dictionary or a dictionary app on your smartphone, you will have to improvise using “Caveman Chinese”

Use Body Language and Hand Signals

Getting Food At Restaurants: Find A Menu With Pictures

Unless you go to a place frequented by foreigners, you are unlikely to find a menu in English at a restaurant in China. Often, menus are in the front of a restaurant in China, so you can try to search through ones that have pictures. In nearly every Muslim restaurant in China I have been in, they put pictures of most of their dishes on their walls, so, you could go right up to a picture on the wall of the dish that you want to eat, and indicate that you want it by pointing at at it.

Getting a menu with pictures can be EXTREMELY helpful. While you might not be able to understand how to read Chinese, you could still understand a picture. Although the picture might not be very high quality, at least you can be fairly sure of what you will get. “Menu” in Chinese is 菜單 (cai4 dan1) (pronounced like tsai dan in English). In a restaurant context, they will almost certainly understand what you mean.

menu image

I have had foreign friends in China, with atrocious Chinese, but they could usually get food fairly easily. One of my friends would just say zhe ge 這個 (meaning “this”) pointing to a picture on the menu, and the waiter or waitress will almost certainly understand.

Indicating If You Are A Vegetarian

One of my foreign friends in China, who is a vegetarian, would always say “wo bu yao rou” without the tones 我不要肉 meaning I don’t want meat. He did that to indicate that he is a vegetarian, and that he doesn’t want to eat meat

Play Pictionary or Charades

Getting food in China with no Chinese abilities is not so difficult. Probably an easy way to get around language barriers could be to draw what you want. Think of playing Pictionary, If you want beef, try to draw a cow or a picture of beef. For added emphasis try to say “moo” and so on. Use your own imagination. If you are willing to make a fool of yourself for a short time, try to act out what the food is. Pretend you are playing the game Charades If you want soup, act out slurping out of a bowl of soup, and use your arm indicating that you are using a spoon. If you want something to drink, indicate with your hands that you are drinking something.

Also, you could look at what other customers are eating, and while trying not to look creepy, use your hands to indicate that you want something similar to that person.

Indicating Numbers In Chinese

If you use your fingers for counting, most Chinese people will understand what you are trying to indicate. For example, if you show them one finger, they will understand that as 1. If you show them two fingers, they will understand that as 2 and so on.
fingers counting

Numbers in Chinese

The first 10 numbers in Mandarin Chinese are as follows:
1 一 (yi1) (Pronounced like the letter “e” in the Roman alphabet)
2 二 (er4) (Pronounced similar to the first part of “earl” without the “rl” part)
3 三 (san1) (Pronounced like “sand” without the “d” and having the a pronounced like “ah”)
4 四 (si4) (Pronounced like “sin” with the “n”)
5 五 (wu3) (Pronounced like a word rhyming with “boo” as “woo”)
6 六 (liu4) (Pronounced like the name “Leo”)
7 七 (qi1) (Pronounced like “cheese” but without the “se” part)
8 八 (ba1) (Pronounced like “b” + “ah”)
9 九 (jiu3) (To pronounce, you can think of combining the sounds “gee” and “oh” together very quickly)
10 十 (shi2) (Pronounced like “shin” without the “n”)
If you ignore the tones of these numbers most Chinese people will probably understand in situations where numbers would make sense.

Pricing At Large Grocery Stores And Marts In China

Most mini-marts like 7-Eleven and large grocery stores will label an item’s price in Chinese Yuan very clearly for all to see and understand. Like for example, a 1 liter bottle of water might be 3 Yuan. But, even if don’t see a price for an item usually when you check out at a cashier’s spot, you can see exactly how much money the item is.

supermarket with prices

Going to a Market

Even if you hardly understand Chinese, you can still go to a market and haggle for products that you want. Look for a calculator. Indicate to the seller to use the calculator to indicate down his or her asking price. If you agree with his or her price, shake your head up and down, but if you want to do a counteroffer, use their calculator, and write down your own price. Continue this until you either can agree on a price, or you end up leaving with no deal. For example, if you want a pair of blue jeans, the seller might indicate on a calculator “120”, meaning 120 Yuan for that pair. If you think that is too expensive, you might try press in “60” to indicate 60 yuan, and go from there to continue negotiating.



While I couldn’t possibly give you every possible scenario where getting a tone wrong in any given situation could create a major problem, you can assume that most Chinese people could at least guess your meaning given your body language and the situation. For example, if you are in a stationary shop, looking for pens 筆 (bi3) and you try to ask for one and possibly mispronounce the word, the workers will probably assume you mean pen, and not, for example, a vulgar word for female genitalia (bi1). My advice is to try your best, and use body language as much as possible. If you are looking for a pen, maybe try to use your hands and mimic writing something down with a pen. Even Chinese people sometimes get the tones wrong, and because their language is tonal and there are many homophones in Chinese, they often need a lot of contextual information before they can fully understand the meaning of what is said.

In Conclusion

Foreigners have been coming to China for centuries, often with little to no knowledge of Chinese. Sometimes, people would invent a pidgin language in order to communicate, such as Portuguese traders in the 1600’s But when pidgin isn’t possible, often foreigners use body language, and hand signals etc to indicate meaning. While language barriers are frustrating, it is often possible to communicate non-verbally and get most of your meaning across. Imagine having a conversation in your own native language with a non-native speaker whose ability in your language was not very good, but a clear message is communicated. And about tones: they aren’t actually so vital to pronounce perfectly in Chinese unless you want to become fluent. Most Chinese people can guess  your meaning even if your pronunciation is wrong, based on the context of the situation. So, the moral of this article is to try your best, and experience China and experience a new culture and language. As Augustine of Hippo once said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”. What did you think of this article? Have you every used “Caveman Chinese” before? Let’s have a discussion in the comments below.

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