Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. As China continues to grow in economic and political power, more and more people are looking to learn this fascinating language. One of the most common phrases you’ll need to know is “What are you doing?” Here’s a helpful guide on how to say it correctly in Mandarin.
Why Learn to Say What Are You Doing in Mandarin?
Knowing how to say “What are you doing?” opens up conversations and keeps them flowing smoothly. It’s a simple yet versatile phrase that can be used in many different contexts and settings. Here are some examples of when you might need to ask this question in Mandarin:
- Greeting a friend or colleague and catching up
- Asking what someone is working on or what their plans are
- Getting clarity on what task or activity someone is engaged in
- Making small talk and showing interest during interactions
- Checking in with family members about their day or schedule
No matter your reason for studying Mandarin, being able to ask this question will serve you well for building connections and having meaningful discussions.
The Many Ways to Say What Are You Doing in Mandarin Chinese
One thing that makes Mandarin tricky for English speakers is that there are often several different ways to express the same idea. Asking “What are you doing?” is no exception. Here are some of the most common phrases and question words you can use:
Ni zai zuo shenme? (你在做什么?)
This straightforward phrase translates to “You are doing what?” It’s by far the most common and versatile way to ask “What are you doing?” in Mandarin. You can use it in any casual situation with friends, family, colleagues, etc.
Ni zhengzai gan shenme? (你正在干什么?)
This question has the same meaning but uses the word “gan” (to do/engage in) instead of “zuo” (to do). It will be understood everywhere but has a slightly more colloquial vibe.
Ni zai na li? (你在哪里?)
Literally meaning “Where are you?” this can be used contextually to ask what someone is up to or where they are going. It’s the equivalent of saying “Where are you off to?” in English.
Ni gangcai zai zuo shenme? (你刚才在做什么?)
To ask what someone was just doing, use this phrase meaning “What were you just doing?” You can also replace “zuo” with “gan” here.
Ni jintian you shenme huodong? (你今天有什么活动?)
This means “What activities do you have today?” and is a polite way to ask about someone’s schedule and plans for the day.
Ni xianzai hen mang ma? (你现在很忙吗?)
“Are you busy now?” is a useful phrase for figuring out if someone has time to chat or meet up.
As you can see, Mandarin offers many options for asking “What are you doing?” Choose based on the context of the situation and who you are speaking with.
Asking Follow-Up Questions
The benefit of asking “What are you doing?” in Mandarin is that it opens up the conversation for more details. Here are some good follow-up questions to get even more clarity:
- Ni zai na li zuo zhege? (你在哪里做这个?) – “Where are you doing this?”
- Zhe shi shenme yang de gongzuo? (这是什么样的工作?) – “What kind of work is this?”
- Ni zuo le duo chang shijian le? (你做了多长时间了?) – “How long have you been doing it?”
- Ni shi zenme kai shi zuo zhege de? (你是怎么开始做这个的?) – “How did you get started doing this?”
- Ni xihuan zhege gongzuo ma? (你喜欢这个工作吗?) – “Do you like this work?”
- Ni zuo wan zhege yao duo jiu? (你做完这个要多久?) – “How long until you finish this?”
- Ni xuyao wo bangzhu ni ma? (你需要我帮助你吗?) – “Do you need my help?”
Following up with questions shows your interest in their response and keeps the conversation flowing naturally. Use these examples or come up with your own context-specific questions.
Helpful Tips for Proper Pronunciation
Pronouncing “What are you doing?” correctly in Mandarin will make you easier to understand and show respect for the language. Here are some key tips:
- Say “ni” by drawing out the “eee” sound slightly at the end. The tone should be flat.
- For “zhengzai” and “gan”, pronounce the “g” softly without emphasis.
- “Shenme” has a falling then rising tone. Let your voice dip and lift.
- “Zuo” is said with a flat, high-pitched tone.
- Pay attention to “zai” as well – it has a dipping tone that falls and then levels out.
- When saying “gangcai”, let your voice fall sharply on the first syllable then rise up on the second.
- For “huodong”, pronounce both syllables quickly with a flat tone.
- Draw out the “an” sound in “mang” and keep the tone flat.
Recording yourself and getting feedback from native speakers can help polish your pronunciation. With practice, your intonation will become second nature.
Putting It All Together – Asking “What Are You Doing?”
Now that you understand the phrase in characters, pinyin, and tones, let’s look at some examples of using it conversationally:
Scenario 1: Bumping into an old friend on the street
You: Ni hao Ma! Jin nian, wo hen jiu mei jian dao ni le. Ni zhengzai gan shenme a?
Friend: Wo zai qu dangao dian chi wu fan. Ni yao qu ma?
You: What are you up to Ma! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. What are you doing?
Friend: I’m going to the cake shop to eat lunch. Do you want to come?
Scenario 2: Greeting your language exchange partner
You: Ni hao! Wo jintian tebie kai xin jian dao ni. Ni jintian you shenme huo dong?
Partner: Wo you yidian gongzuo yao wan cheng, dan wu fan hou wo you shijian liao. Ni ne?
You: Hello! I’m especially happy to see you today. What’s on your schedule today?
Partner: I have a bit of work I need to finish, but I’ll have time after lunch. How about you?
Scenario 3: Calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile
You: Wei, Li You na li? Wo shi Wang Lei. Ni gangcai zai zuo shenme?
Friend: Wang Lei, ni hao! Wo zhengzai kan dianshi. Ni ne?
You: Hey Li You, where are you? It’s Wang Lei. What were you just doing?
Friend: Wang Lei, hello! I was just watching TV. What about you?
As you can see, this simple yet versatile phrase allows you to start conversations in many real-life situations. With the right context and follow-up, a little small talk goes a long way in Chinese!
Conclusion – Next Steps for Fluency
You’re now equipped to confidently ask “What are you doing?” in Mandarin Chinese. Here are some next steps for building on your skills:
- Practice the phrase out loud with different tones and inflections
- Write example conversations using the question and sample responses
- Search Chinese learning apps and YouTube for native speaker audio examples
- Use the phrase with your language partner and get feedback on pronunciation
- Note down vocabulary for related activities and hobbies to understand responses
- Study how the question changes based on who you are speaking with (age, status, relationship)
- Learn other high-frequency conversational phrases like “How are you?”, “What’s new?”, and “How was your weekend?”
Being able to comfortably interact in Mandarin is a huge accomplishment. Consistent practice and an openness to learn from mistakes will serve you well. Keep extending your vocabulary and conversational skills. Embrace the journey of Chinese fluency.
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