At my first year as a high school Chinese teacher in Indian, I noticed sometimes my students giggled. First I thought it was my Chinglish and tone. Then one day they asked me: what did you say just now? I repeated but they were unsatisfied at all. They pointed out that I said the “N” word again and again. Back to that time: 1. I didn’t know what the “N” word is. 2. I was speaking in Chinese not English. Come on!
Fortunately, we finally figured out the issue. I didn’t get fired and my students learned a new word-“那个” pronounced as “nà ge” or “nèi ge”. Sounds similar as the “N” word, right? So I think it’s necessary to discuss how Chinese use this word in case you will feel uncomfortable when you talk to a Chinese.
1. Interjection. “那个(nèi ge)” is often used as interjection to express thoughtful absorption, hesitation, doubt, or perplexity. It’s pretty similar as a filler word “ummm”. For example,
wǒ zuótiān qù le nàge… nàge…
Yesterday I went to that…that… (I just can’t remember the name of the place, so I use那个to express I am thinking.)
zuótiān wǒ men xué le “lunch”, nèi ge… jīntiān wǒ men yào xué “brunch”.
Yesterday we learned “lunch”, ummm… Today we will learn “brunch”. (Here 那个 is used to fill in the gap of two sentences. I need a second but I don’t want silence.)
Using space filler too much will make your expression not that fluent. But it’s still better than horrible silence. Most Chinese like me even can’t realize we use this so much. That’s why when my students asked me what I said, I filtered this word at all. But they were sensitive to it.
2. Demonstrative pronoun. Another interesting usage of “那个” is to express something you can’t say directly due to different reasons (too shy to say, don’t want others know…)
qīn’ài de, jīntiān wǎnshang wǒ men nèi ge ba.
Honey, tonight let’s XXXX.
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 address others’ attention.
nèi ge, dìtiězhàn zài nǎli?
Excuse me, where is the subway station?
It’s not as polite as “请问(qǐngwèn)”, but it’s still acceptable.
4. That. This is the one you will probably learn from text books. It’s always used before a noun, since “个” is a measure word. Make sure the noun fits the measure word “个”.
nà ge rén
So don’t think Chinese like the “N” word any more. We even don’t know what it is! Check out Russell Peters show here. It seems he was annoyed by this too.