你的中文很棒！ If you’ve spent any decent amount of time in China, you’ve definitely had someone praise your Mandarin skill level. It’s probably the single most common bit of praise someone studying Mandarin will get. I remember talking with a former classmate on how to deal with people complimenting your Chinese. I was somewhat shocked to hear that he got any compliments at all. It deflated my ego some. Did I deserve the compliments I was getting? On other occasions I’ve said something really basic like, “你好” or “去三里屯” to which I’d get the compliment: 你的中文很好。Really? You picked that up from two words? What’s going on here? They’re being polite. It’s polite to compliment a guest (i.e. a foreigner speaking Chinese) on their language skills regardless of how bad (or good) they might be.
Since they’re being polite, it wouldn’t hurt to be polite back. Throughout my years of speaking Mandarin, I’ve used the following four phrases extensively.
哪里哪里: This is perhaps the most common response to a compliment. If you are learning Mandarin and haven’t learned this phrase, then learn it. Phrases like 哪里哪里 are extremely well recieved, show humility and illustrate an understanding of China’s culture. Whenever I use 哪里哪里, the person who compliments me smiles. (Sidenote: Did you ever hear the joke about the Mandarin student who didn’t know what 哪里哪里 meant?
力不从心: I was flipping through my red-bound oxford dictionary when I ran into this gem of a 成语. It means you don’t have the strength to do what your hear desires to do. I always found this response to be rather tongue-in-cheek. Someone’s complimenting your Chinese abilities and you’re using advanced language to say, “My Chinese isn’t as good as I want it to be.” At the time, I felt this phrase straddled the line between humble and cocky; I don’t use it much anymore because it doesn’t feel right.
还不如您的中文: I use this one about 40-50% of the time. It means: “My Chinese isn’t as good as yours!” It’s a playful response. Mostly they laugh and say, “Of course not! I’m Chinese!”, but every once in a while, they’ll say, “No, your Chinese is better than mine.” That usually means my pronunciation is closer to “Standard Mandarin” (a.k.a. 标准普通话). Sometimes it is. I usually follow up with 哪里哪里。
谢谢：It’s not the most humble approach, but sometimes it’s the most honest. While it’s important to do your best to understand another culture’s norms, it’s never good to pretend to be someone you aren’t. A lot of times responses like the ones I mentioned above are conversation starters. The person who complimented might remark that you seem to understand humility (which is believed to be a foreign concept to foreigners in China), or they’ll ask about how, where, or when you started studying Chinese. It’s a conversation I’d sometimes prefer not to have. Saying 谢谢 is polite and usually lets me move the topic of conversation along.
These days, I’m happily encumbered with a girlfriend from Qingdao. Now, if we go shopping, the shopkeeper will look to my girlfriend and say: “His Chinese is good!” Oftentimes it feels like the person is saying to my girlfriend, “You’ve done a good job of teaching this foreigner Mandarin.” And that’s frustrating. I spent thousands of hours studying Mandarin in classes, in the library, with language partners, and I did all of this before meeting my girlfriend, but she seemingly gets all the credit! 真没办法！
How do you respond to compliments about your Chinese?