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Confusing Chinese “N” word: 那个(nà ge/ nèi ge)

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.

1. Interjection

“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”.
昨天我们学了“lunch”, 那个……,今天我们要学“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.

4. That

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”!

that person
(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.

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Vera Zhang

After graduating from East China Normal University in 2005, Vera Zhang (张晓丽) started her career in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her first teaching job was teaching high school Chinese in Philippines and realized how much she loved this job. In 2007, she came back Shanghai and spent 7 years in ChinesePod. During that, she also went to America to learn language learning knowledge and curriculum editing by teaching in a high school. Now she works in a start-up company and has developed a new Chinese learning app-HelloChinese. She hopes she can share her knowledge in Chinese and make Chinese learning easy and fun.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Great article! I have been here in China for 5 years and always wondered what Nei ge meant. I often would ask and, as you stated, the speaker never understood what word I was referring to and look at me quizzically and say that they did not say any such word. Now I know it is just a filler word. Thank you

  2. Thank you for this! I have chinese coworkers and I swear they were saying the n word over and over but i was sure it was just another word in Chinese dialogue. Thanks for clarifying!

  3. Great read. I used to travel to China and heard that word ALL THE TIME!!!! I also thought it sounded exactly like the N word. I would also ask what it meant but they never understood what I was asking. Now it makes sense.

  4. I met my wife in China over 20 years ago. I heard her and her friends saying this, often. A friend explained that it is like Americans saying “uhhh, ummmm….”.
    I’m from the South. I told her: Do NOT say this when you get to America! Nobody will believe me. They will say ‘Well, it’s obvious you are prejudiced and have taught her what to call black people’.
    I hope someday people will not act like they are going to die because they heard a word. If you’re that sensitive, I don’t know how you survive at all.
    ALL racism needs to end. I’m so sick of hearing black people call me “White Boy” or “That Old White Dude”. Sick of all the ‘sensitive’ hypocrites. But I don’t fall over and scream that I suddenly need psychiatric help because some idiot called me a name.
    The first to cry “racism” are far too often the most racist people in America. Move on already.

  5. Speak chinese wherever, whenever you dont say weather or not a chinese person says something because it makes you Feel sad 🙁 , what you do instead is jump off a cliff and join the rest of your SJW buddys in death as you all fail natural selection

  6. This is simply American hybris. There is a similar situation in some European languages, where the “classic” word for darker colored people almost all derive from the Latin word “niger” – which is simply the word for “dark (colored)”. In German “der Neger”, in France “le nègre”, in Spanish “el negro”, Italian “il negro”. During that time there was no judgement nor bias upon those words, it simply described dark(er) colored people. When black people from the states go to Europe and then read these words somewhere they often assume that it is the same word as the “N-word” but totally ignore that Europe didn’t have the US-slave-period nor many dark people at all. The first few “people of color” (from Africa) I saw in real life was at my university. Nowadays those words are also kind of bad connoted and I’d avoid using them. But they are still quite normal in literature till the 80s, even in children books. Some thing: “black facing”. In Europe just a way to simulate dark colored people in theater and carnival, in the US historically racism. And then US people start to yell at European children(!) in carnival to be racist. Just stupid, but well, USA.

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