In my first year as a high school Chinese teacher in India, I noticed that sometimes my students giggled when I spoke.
At first I thought it was my Chinglish and tones. But then one day they asked me: “What did you say just now?” I repeated but they laughed even harder and pointed out that I kept saying the “N” word again and again. At that time I didn’t even know what the “N” word was and I was speaking in Chinese not English.
Come on guys, be fair!
Fortunately, we finally figured out the issue. I didn’t get fired (woop, woop!) and my students learned some uses of “那个” pronounced as “nà ge” or “nèi ge”. I, know, it sounds similar to the “N” word, right? Therefore, I think it’s necessary to sit down and have a little chat about how Chinese people use this word, just in case you feel uncomfortable when you talk to a Chinese person.
“那个(nèi ge)” is often used as interjection to express thoughtful absorption, hesitation, doubt, or perplexity. It’s basically a filler word, pretty similar to “ummm” or “weeellllll”. For example,
Yesterday I went to that…that…
(Wǒ zuótiān qù le nàge… nàge…)
Note: I just can’t remember the name of the place, so I use那个to express I am thinking.
Yesterday we learned “lunch”, ummm… Today we will learn “brunch”.
(Zuótiān wǒ men xué le “lunch”, nèi ge… jīntiān wǒmen yào xué “brunch”.)
Note: Here 那个 is used to fill in the gap of two sentences. I need a second but I don’t want silence.
Using this too much will make your speech a bit stilted, but it’s better than complete silence if you plan on saying something else!
Most Chinese people like me don’t even realize the amount that we use this, which is why when my students asked me what I had said, it took me a really long time to work out what they meant. It’s so automatic that filtered it out when thinking over what I said. However, learners are more sensitive to it.
2. Demonstrative pronoun
Another interesting usage of “那个” is to express something you can’t say directly (for example you are too shy to say or you don’t want others know…)
Honey, tonight let’s XXXX.
(Qīn’ài de, jīntiān wǎnshang wǒ men nèi ge ba.)
Be careful, you definitely need a context to understand what “那个” means in this case.
3. Excuse me
“那个” can be used as “excuse me” to get someone’s attention.
Excuse me, where is the subway station?
(Nèi ge, dìtiězhàn zài nǎli?)
Note: It’s not as polite as “请问(qǐngwèn)”, but it’s still perfectly acceptable in an informal setting, such as in a corner shop.
This is the meaning you will probably know anyway from textbooks. It’s always used before a noun, since “个” is a measure word, therefore make sure the noun fits the measure word “个”!
(nà ge rén)
So, hopefully now you understand a little bit more about 那个 and won’t just think Chinese people are being really rude! We even don’t even know what the “N” word is! Hopefully now you can pick out how it is used in it’s many applications.