“Yeah, uh, you know, like, well, I mean, okay.”
Although you can practically make an entire sentence out of them, they don’t make for very impressive oratory.
Filler words are hard to avoid, though, in everyday, casual conversation. They do serve a purpose, after all. True to their name, they fill in what would otherwise be gaps of silence as you search for the right words.
We all use them as a way to buy us a bit of time to think as we speak.
If you rely on filler words in your native language, then you need them even more when you speak a foreign language. But of course, filler words aren’t universal. You can’t just insert a “well” or “um” into Chinese, for example.
Not that people haven’t tried. One summer I was teaching Chinese at Middlebury College, which has a strict “Chinese only” language pledge for summer school students, so all conversations are supposed to be entirely in Chinese.
One time I overheard this conversation among a couple of second year students:
“wǒ, like, bù zhī dào, like, zěnme xǐe. nǐ zhī dào ma?”
“Um, yeah, bù zhī dào.”
At first I cringed and wondered how students were allowed to have such lazy habits in a rigorous program like Middlebury’s.
But as I thought about it, I realized that no one had ever taught those students any alternatives to their “likes” and “ums.” They hadn’t learned yet to let go of the filler words that they probably use all the time in English and exchange them for a new set of filler words in Chinese.
Filler words are definitely worth learning for several reasons. The first reason is because, well, you need them. You need them even more in Chinese than you do in your native language, because you need extra time to think before you speak.
Apart from what you want to say, you have to think of how to say it correctly, including pronunciation and tones and word order. So of course you’re going to need some extra time to work it all out as you speak.
Second, you need to learn Chinese filler words so that you can avoid sounding silly if you’re ever tempted to slip an “um” or “well” into a Chinese sentence. By being able to use a normal Chinese filler word instead, your Chinese will instantly sound more natural and fluent.
Lastly, you should learn them because they are probably words that you already know in Chinese anyway, so they’re really easy. It’s just a matter of learning to use those words in a different way.
Yoyo Tip: If you'd like to hear the pinyin syllables in the example sentences below enunciated, take a look at Yoyo Chinese's video-based pinyin chart. It has 400+ audio demonstrations for all pinyin sounds and 90+ video explanations for some of the more difficult ones: /chinese-learning-tools/Mandarin-Chinese-pronunciation-lesson/pinyin-chart-table
nèi ge (那个)
One of the most common filler words that Chinese people use all the time is “nèi ge” (那个), which as you know just means “that one.”
This is one of the most liberally used Chinese filler words. You can place it just about anywhere in a sentence, similar to an “um” or “uh” in English.
For instance, let’s say someone asked you what you had for lunch yesterday. You probably have to think about it, saying, “Um...I had a, uh, hamburger.” In Chinese, that would be, “nèi ge…wǒ chī le yí gè… nèi ge…hàn bǎo bāo.” (那个，我吃了一个那个… 汉堡包。)
Here's another example:
Q: Where in America have you been?
nǐ dōu qù guò měi guó de shén me dì fāng
A: I've been to San Fransisco, Washington, and uh... New York.
wǒ qù guò jiù jīn shān, huá shèng dùn, hái yǒu nèi ge... niǔ yuē
This filler word is so common that I’ve heard Chinese people use “nèi ge” when speaking English, in a reverse situation of what I heard the American students say at Middlebury.
One time someone introduced himself to me by saying, “nèi ge…my name is…nèi ge…Jack.”
You can even string together several “nèi ge” in a row. It might sound funny to you, but it wouldn’t be too unusual to hear someone say, “wǒ qù guò jiù jīn shān, huá shèng dùn, hái yǒu…nèi ge nèi ge nèi ge…. niǔ yuē” (我去过旧金山，华盛顿，还有…那个那个那个…纽约。)
jiù shì (就是)
Another filler word that Chinese people use all the time is “jiù shì” (就是). This one can also be used almost anywhere in a sentence.
Sometimes you might hear it used together with “nèi ge.” For example, another way to answer that lunch question would be, “wǒ…jiù shì…chī le yí gè…nèi ge…hàn bǎo bāo.” (我就是吃了一个那个汉堡包。)
Or if someone asks you, “What does he do for a living?” You might answer, “He is…uh…a lawyer.” “tā…jiù shì... yí gè lǜ shī.” (他…就是一个…律师。)
Here's another example:
Q: How long have you been learning English?
nǐ xué yīng yǔ duō shǎo nián le?
A: I've been learning ten or so years... uh... ever since junior high.
xué shí duō nián le... jiù shì... shàng chū zhōng jiù kāi shǐ xué le.
学十多年了... 就是... 上初中就开始学了.
rán hòu (然后)
I also hear people using the word “rán hòu” (然后) all the time. You probably know that it means “and then,” and is generally used to describe a sequence of events, as in “first this happened, and then that happened.”
But people often use it as a way to buy themselves some time to think about what to say next, similar to how we might say, “and, um…“ in English.
It also comes in handy when you're listing things, like in this example below:
Q: What did you buy?
nǐ mǎi shén me le?
A: I bought some things to eat and... uh... a pair of shoes.
wǒ mǎi le yì xiē chī de... rán hòu... hái yǒu yì shuāng xié.
我买了一些吃的... 然后... 还有一双鞋.
The filler words I mentioned above are easy enough to include in everyday conversations.
But if you're looking for something even easier and closer to home, here's a Chinese filler word you'll probably like: "ēn (嗯)".
It sounds vaguely similar to the English filler word "uh", but has a hint of an "n" in there. Take a listen at this example and see if you can get it down right:
Q: Do you like America?
ní xǐ huān měi guó ma?
A: Uh... that's hard to say... uh... it's alright.
ēn... shuō bú tài hǎo... ēn... hái xíng ba.
嗯... 说不太好... 嗯... 还行吧.
It’s also possible to use all of these together. For example, if someone were to ask you what you do for a living, hopefully you could answer without hesitation.
But if you’re not really sure, you might say something like:
Q: What kind of job do you do?
nǐ zuò shén me gōng zuò de?
A: Uh... I worked at that uh company doing sales, and you know... I didn't really like it, and so uh... I stopped doing that. So, right now I'm not working.
ēn... wǒ shì zài nèi ge gōng sī zuò xiāo shòu de... jiù shì bú tài xǐ huān ma... rán hòu.. nèi ge... jiù bú gàn le. ēn... xiàn zài méi gōng zuò
嗯，我是在那个公司做销售的... 就是不太喜欢嘛... 然后... 那个... 就... 不干了. 嗯... 现在没工作.
Rather than creating an awkward silence as you think, or worse, saying “um” or “like,” try pulling out a “nèi ge” or “rán hòu” next time.
Like I said before, these filler words are worth learning because they provide you with a strategy for giving yourself a moment to think of what to say next without, you know, compromising on, like, fluency.
Are there any filler words unique to your country? Tell us about it in the comments!
(Chinese-tools.com has also featured this article on their blog page. In addition to other articles about Chinese language and culture, they also have some fun learning tools you may find helpful, so feel free to swing over for a visit!)