When we make a suggestion 建議 (jian4 yi4) in English we often begin the phrase with words such as “would you like to…” or “why don’t we…” and it is phrased as a question. In Chinese, you can ask a question such as:
(ni3) (yao4 bu2 yao4) (kan4) (dian4 ying3)
(you) (want or not want) (to see) (movie)
Do you want to see a movie?
But that’s more of an inquiry than a suggestion. There are a few common, friendly ways to make gentle suggestion in Chinese.
1. One uses the sound “ba” 吧 (in a neutral tone), usually at the end of a short sentence stating the activity. It is along the lines of “let’s…” There is most likely a context where such a short sentence has clear meaning. “Ba” 吧 is not a word in and of itself, although it has a character so that the idea of suggestions of this nature can also be written, though this would only be for less formal writing of dialog. The use of a non-word sound is similar to how the Chinese language uses one of the tones of “ma” 嗎 to form a question, as in the following example.
(ni3) (yao4) (kan4) (dian4 ying3) (ma.)
(You) (want) (to see) (movie) (question sound for end of sentence when question not made apparent by previous grammatical structure, as it was in the first Chinese sentence above)
Do you want to see a movie?
In using “ba” 吧, what might otherwise seem to be a plain descriptive statement, like –
(ni3) (zai4) (kan4) (dian4 ying3)
(you) (“ing” for following verb) (to see/watch) (movie)
You are watching a movie.
Or command –
(ni3) (xian4 zai4) (qu4) (kan4) (dian4 ying3)
(you) (now) (to go) (to watch) (movie)
You go watch a movie now.
is turned into a suggestion of care or camaraderie:
(ni3) (gen1) (ta1 men.) (qu4)(kan4) (dian4 ying3) (ba.)
(you) (with) (them) (to go) (to see) (movie) (particle indicating suggestion)
Why don’t you go with them to a movie?
(wo3 men.) (kan4) (zhe4 bu4) (dian4 ying3) (ba.)
(we) (to see) (this) (movie) (suggestion sound)
Let’s go see this movie.
Or humor –
(wo3 de.) (bing1 qi2 lin2) (chi1 wan2) (le.), (ni3) (gei3) (wo3) (ni3 de.) (bing1 qi2 lin2) (ba.)
(my) (ice cream) (eat complete) (ly), (you) (give) (me) (your) (ice cream) (suggestion sound)
My ice cream is all gone, why don’t you give me your ice cream?
2. Other times the sound “ne” 呢 is used to lend a tone of suggestion or light inquiry. For instance,
(ni3) (yao4) (kan4) (dian4 ying3) (ne.) ? (hai2 shi4) (ni3) (yao4) (shui4 jiao4)?
(you) (to want) (to see/to watch) (movie) (interrogative particle)? (or) (you) (to want) (to sleep)?
Do you want to watch a move? Or do you want to sleep?
One way I have heard it used a lot is as a follow up to another statement, in the manner of “and you?”
(wo3) (xi3 huan1) (bing1 qi2 lin2), (ni3) (ne.)?
(I) (like) (ice cream), (you) (interrogative particle)?
I like ice cream, what about you?
3. If one is feeling a bit playful about the suggestion or implied question, then the sound “o” 喔 might be employed at the end of the sentence.
(ni3) (gei3) (wo3) (ni3 de.) (bing1 qi2 lin2) (o1)
(you) (to give) (me) (your) (ice cream) (exclamation particle)
You give me your ice cream! (What a good idea, don’t you think?)
4. If other words are used, like “should” in
(ni3) (ying1 gai1) (gei3) (wo3) (ni3 de.) (bing1 qi lin2)
(you) (should) (to give) (me) (your) (ice cream)
You should give me your ice cream.
An ending sound is probably not used, since the (much stronger) suggestion has already been made.
5. If the suggested activities are separate and/or the statement longer, the common word for “can,” in the sense of “I can, if it is okay” could be used. For instance,
(ni3) (yi1 bian1) (kan4) (zhe4 bu4) (dian4 ying3), (wo3) (ke3 yi3) (yi1 bian1) (chi1) (ni3 de.) (bing1 qi2 lin2)
(you) (one side) (to watch) (this) (movie), (I) (can) (one side) (to eat) (your) (ice cream)
While you watch the movie, I can eat your ice cream.
Or, one of my favorite suggestions:
(ni3) (yi1 bian1) (kai1 che1), (wo3) (ke3 yi3) (yi1 bian1) (shui4 jiao4)
(you) (one side) (drive car), (I) (can) (one side) (to sleep)
While you drive the car, I can sleep.
You can see that one frequently needs to hear the whole sentence in Chinese before getting a good idea of what is going on in the communication. Sometimes, with my limited understanding of Chinese, I find it funny that I understand the tone of overheard conversations without knowing exactly what it being said, from hearing all the little sounds they make at the end of things. But it’s a start. And if I am involved, I can always say,
(ni3 men.) (shuo1) (man4) (yi1 dian3) (ba.)
(you all) (to speak) (slow) (a little) (suggestion sound)
Would you speak a little slower?
And, the audio version to help with practicing listening comprehension and learning correct pronunciation:
Notes on helpful things I learned or was reminded of while writing these sentences:
In the title, 如何建議 (ru2 he2 jian4 yi4), the more formal phrase for “how to” 如何 (ru2 he2) has been used instead of the commonly spoken 怎麼 (zen3 me.) just because my tutor is trying to get me used to variations in the language.