How to Say "Excuse Me" and "I'm Sorry" in East Asian and Southeast Asian Languages

Updated on April 28, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has studied Spanish, German, and French. He is conversant now in Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese, and the Thai language.

Everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps you were impolite and did something that could be slightly embarrassing or rude. For example, you might push our way onto a train car, belch while riding the subway, or raise your voice to get a person's attention. Or perhaps you have stepped on a man's foot or caused a woman to drop her handbag. In these situations, it's important to acknowledge your impoliteness or wrongdoing by saying "excuse me" or "I'm sorry."

For the traveler touring East and Southeast Asia, it is necessary to know how to excuse yourself or apologize in the native language of the country being visited.

In this article, I suggest polite expressions to use for "excuse me" and "I'm sorry" in Japanese, Korean, Chinese Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Thai, Lao, Khmer/Cambodian, Malaysian/Indonesian, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.

Polite Expressions for East Asian Languages

1. Japanese

Excuse me:

  • Su-mi-ma-sen (formal)
  • A-no (casual)

I'm sorry:

  • Su-mi-ma-sen (formal)
  • Go-men na-sai (casual)

For most travelers, Japan is the gateway to East and Southeast Asia. While stationed with the Navy in Japan during the period 1969–1970, I often used su-mi-ma-sen with Japanese natives. I know that they enjoyed hearing it more than excuse me or I'm sorry.

2. Korean

Excuse me:

  • Shil-lae-hap-ni-da or Shil-lae-ji-man (formal)
  • Juh-gi-yo (casual)

I'm Sorry:

  • Jweh-song-hap-nee-da or Mi-ahn-hap-nee-da (formal)
  • Mi-ahn-hae (casual)

In my travels, I have never toured Korea or used the Korean language.

3. Chinese Mandarin

Excuse me:

  • Lao-jia (formal)
  • Qing-wen, da-rao-yi-xia, or jie-guo-yi-xia (informal)

I'm sorry:

  • Bao-qian (formal)
  • Dui-bu-qi or bu-hao-yi-si(informal)

Lao-jia literally means may I trouble your chariot. If you want to get one's attention, you would say qing-wen or da-rao-yi-xia. In making your way through a crowded subway station, it would be best to say, jie-guo-yi-xia. Bu-hao-yi-si is used more often in Taiwan. I have used all of the above expressions when I was in both Taiwan and China.

4. Cantonese

Excuse me:

  • M-ho-ji-si (formal)
  • M-goi (informal)

I'm sorry:

  • Deoi-m-zyu (formal)
  • M-ho-ji-si (informal)

Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province in China, and in many overseas Chinese communities around the world.

5. Taiwanese

Excuse me:

  • Phai-say (formal and informal)
  • Bai-toht (informal)

I'm sorry:

  • Shit-lay (formal)
  • Phai-say (formal and informal)

"Bai-toht" is used when getting someone's attention. For example, "Bai-toht ga lee joe meng lay," which means, excuse me, may I ask you a question.

I used the above expressions often when I lived in Taiwan in the 1970s.

Polite Expressions for Southeast Asian Languages

1. Thai and Laotian

Excuse me:

  • Kor-todt (formal and informal)

I'm sorry:

  • Kor-todt (formal and informal)
  • Kor-aa-pai (formal)

"Kor-todt" is the most common expression for excuse me and I'm sorry used in Thailand. Formal announcements and written notices will use "Kor-aa-pai." In making the requests very polite, you should add the particles na and/or ka and krap after kor-todtand kor-aa-pai. Hence, a male will say, kor-todt na krap, and a female kor-todt na ka. The expressions for excuse me and I'm sorry are the same in the Laotian language.

2. Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia)

Excuse me:

  • Som-tous

I'm sorry:

  • Som-tous

3. Vietnamese

Excuse me:

  • Xin-loi

I'm sorry:

  • Xin-loi

4. Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines)

Excuse me:

  • I-pag-pau-man-hin ako, Pou-man-hin (po)

I'm sorry:

  • Pa-ta-wad, Pa-sen-sya na

5. Malaysian

Excuse me:

  • Maaf, Permisi

I'm sorry:

  • Minta maaf

6. Indonesian

Excuse me:

  • Maaf

I'm sorry:

  • Maafkan saya

7. Burmese or Myanmar Language

I'm sorry:

  • Sor-ri-naw

At present, I have no Burmese expression for excuse me.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Paul Richard Kuehn


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      • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

        Paul Richard Kuehn 

        17 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

        Thank you very much for your comments, Mary. I really appreciate them!

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        17 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        Interesting to note many of these expressions. Even if I no longer live in Southeast Asia, I still find myself doing gestures of politeness I'm used to as a child. Yes, there are gestures not just words.


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