Top 17 Mandarin Interjections & Filler Words to Sound Like a Native Speaker
What are the component parts of a Mandarin conversation? There are verbs, there’s grammar, there’s vocabulary.
Then, just like the screws left over after you put together that bookshelf from IKEA, there are also some seemingly spare parts.
They look like words. They sound like words. (Although some of them sound more like grunts.) You can even remove them without changing the meaning of your sentences too much. Yet without them, conversations would be, well, a little flat.
These “spare parts” in Mandarin conversation are called interjections and filler words.
While they can stand on their own (and even form complete sentences), interjections are used to, well, interject in the middle of a conversation, to express an emotion or share a feeling over the topic of the conversation. (Yes, you basically use them in the middle of someone speaking. No, it’s not rude. It’s actually polite!)
Because they help maintain the flow of conversations, I like to call filler words “conversation movers.” They work together with interjections to add richness and flow to real-world Mandarin conversations.
Here’s how learning Mandarin interjections and filler words will improve your Mandarin:
· Your spoken Mandarin will sound more natural and flow better.
· You can improve your listening comprehension by giving you a feel for the flow of natural conversations in Mandarin. Bonus: you won’t mistake interjections or filler words for vocabulary words you haven’t learned yet.
· You can start having conversations in Mandarin even if your vocabulary is limited. (You can always say néi ge when you can’t find the right word in Mandarin, as you’ll learn here.)
· You can take a more active role in a conversation even when you’re mostly listening, letting the other person know you’re following along and value their time.
· You can start using Mandarin interjections and filler words in your otherwise English conversations (aka Chinglish) to start getting the hang of where to use them naturally.
· You’ll sound like a native speaker! (And impress native speakers while you’re at it!)
To all these benefits you may say: 真的嗎?/zhēn de ma? And I’ll say: 是啊!/shì de! See, you’re already getting the hang of these!
So let’s go on to the 17 most common conversation interjections and filler words in Mandarin conversation:
1. 嗯 / en
It’s pronounced less like the “n” in Nutella and more like the “n” in English.
Native Mandarin speakers use this half-word, half-utterance to indicate approval, agreement, or recognition. Or just to signal that they’re listening to what the other person is saying.
The closest English equivalent is the interjection “mm-hm,” which signals to your friend who is in the middle of saying something that you either a) totally agree or b) are really paying attention. It’s also a signal for the other person to continue talking, sort of like “go on,” or “I understand you,” or “yup.”
Here’s an example of how to use 嗯 (en):
Your friend is in the middle of sharing a story about how they’re addicted to Nutella, so they say to you—
Yīnwèi Nutella zhēn de hěn hào chī…
Because you totally agree (Nutella is addictive!) you say this when they pause briefly to go on with the rest of their story:
You can even triple that 嗯 for extra emphasis with:
嗯 嗯 嗯 (en en en)
In some cases, you can also use en as an affirmative response to something, sort of like a quick “got it!” or “um-hum.”
Nǐ yào hē chá ma?
2. 真的？/ zhēn de?
真 (zhēn) means true, real, genuine. 的 (de) is a structural particle that modifies nouns like 真 (it works a little like the apostrophe that indicates belonging in English), so 真的 (zhēn de) means literally “of true” or “being true.”
When you put it together, the English equivalent of the expression 真的? (zhēn de?) is a lot like when you ask (perhaps incredulously) “really?”
It’s used to indicate a) real disbelief or skepticism (with the right intonation), b) not actual disbelief but more like awe, and c) when you just learn something you didn’t know before.
Let’s take a closer look:
a) You can use 真的？to express actual doubt about the factualness of something:
Zuótiān wǒ kàn dào kǒnglóng
Yesterday I saw a dinosaur
b) Or, more commonly, you can use 真的 to express amazement at something you actually know to be true (or at least feasible, not like running into random dinosaurs outside of being on the set of the next Jurassic Park), but that you find particularly remarkable.
Wǒ děngle sān ge xiǎoshí zài nà jiā cāntīng chīfàn
I waited three hours to (sit down to) eat at that restaurant
c) But you can also use 真的？ to acknowledge you now know something you didn’t know before. Like if your friend teaches you how to do something in Photoshop that you previously didn’t know was possible (like a lot of things on Photoshop, amirite?), you can say:
“真的？I didn’t know you could do that!”
Or when you learn you can take your first Mandarin lesson for free at Mandarin Monkey! (Zhēn de?)
By the way, you can also say 真的嗎？(zhēn de ma?) as a variation with the exact same meaning.
3. 真的假的？/ zhēn de jiǎ de?
You can use this expression the same way you would use 真的？The only difference is that this more slangy phrase may add a little more emphasis, but just a teeny bit.
4. 哇! / wā
This one should sound familiar. It almost sounds like its near English equivalent “wow,” which is used to express genuine amazement, awe and admiration.
But it can also indicate annoyance when used with a sarcastic tone,
like when someone says, “She had the nerve to let her dog poop on my lawn. Wow!”
In everyday Mandarin, however, 哇! isn’t as nuanced as in English, so you really only hear it being used in the positive sense, not the sarcastic sense.
5. 是啊/ shì a? or 對嗎/duì ma?
是啊 (shì a?) and 對嗎 (duì ma?) are a lot like the English interjection “right?”
They indicate you’re seeking agreement or confirmation for what you just said. You’re basically saying, “the thing that I just said, is that so?” It’s just like when you say “correct?” to check your own understanding or knowledge.
But you can also use it to indicate that you’re seeking validation of an opinion, like when you say to your friend:
Māo hěn kě’ài, duì ma?
Cats are really cute, right?
If your friend agrees, they may say:
是的 (Shì de) or 對阿 (duì ā)
6. 嗯哼/ en hēng
Just like 嗯 (en), 嗯哼 (en hēng) is used to signal affirmation, agreement or confirmation that you’re actually listening during a conversation. Consider it an invitation to encourage someone to continue speaking, letting them know that you’re following along.
The English equivalent is a lot like the interjection “uh-huh.”
And just like with 嗯 (en), you could use 嗯哼 (en hēng) as a response to a question, although you probably wouldn’t want to do that with anyone other than a very close friend, lest you want to sound rude or short.
So for the most part, use it as an interjection when someone is going on about something—that is, if you’re really actually listening.
Although you could also use it to make them think you’re listening when you’re actually not. But if your friend is speaking Mandarin, you should be listening. Not just because, you know, you want to be nice to your friend, but because listening to Mandarin is actually one of the best ways to learn Mandarin.
對 (duì) essentially means “right.” And you can use it pretty much just like you would use “right” in English.
It can be used as an affirmative to indicate agreement or to acknowledge someone’s point, just like 嗯 (en) and 嗯哼 (en hēng), with the only difference being that 對 (duì) is perhaps a little more emphatic. You’re not only following along with what your friend is saying but you also completely understand or agree with the experience being described.
If you want to be even more emphatic, you can say 對對對 (duì duì duì), which has the same effect as saying “right, right, right.”
8. 當然 /dāng rán
Similar to 對 (duì), 當然 (dāng rán) is also used to show that you’re following during a conversation, as well as to empathize with the speaker.
The English equivalent is “of course,” as in when your friend says:
我没有 Nutella 所以我哭了
Wǒ méiyǒu Nutella suǒyǐ wǒ kū
I don’t have any Nutella so I am sad
To which you could say 當然, 當然 (dāng rán, dāng rán). (Because who wouldn’t be sad when they run out of Nutella?)
You can also use 當然 (dāng rán) to express that you have some knowledge of whatever someone is talking about, from personal or learned experience.
When someone says:
Yīn wéi xuéxí zhōngwén kěnéng hěn nán…
Because studying Chinese can be very hard…
Because you not only agree, but also know how firsthand that studying Chinese can be very hard, you would interject here in the middle of the sentence with 當然 (dāng rán), or even double it up for more emphasis.
Then they would continue saying:
…suǒyǐ nǐ xūyào liànxí hěnduō
…so you need to practice a lot
Another 當然 (dāng rán) would be totally called for here, too.
Add Your Heading Text Here
9. 然後/rán hòu
Not a true interjection but more of a transitional phrase, you’ll hear 然後 (rán hòu) a whole lot in almost every conversation. It doesn’t have an exact English equivalent but it’s sort of like an “and then,” and “afterwards” or “after that.”
It’s used to connect different ideas within a story in a somewhat linear order, as in:
first A, rán hòu B
So when you hear it, you’ll know that something happens immediately after something else, at the very least. It can be used to tell a very long-winded story where things happen sequentially, as in:
First we went to the bank, rán hòu we went to the store, rán hòu we ran into my cousin, rán hòu she told us that story about so and so…
But rán hòu can also be used to indicate cause and effect over a longer period of time, as in:
Tā de zǔmǔ jiào tā zuò fàn. Rán hòu, tā jiào nǚ’érmen zuò fàn.
Her grandmother taught her how to cook. Then, she taught her daughters how to cook.
rán hòu is also used to talk about instructions, like first you boil the water, rán hòu, you add the noodles.
10. 而且/ér qiě
而且 (ér qiě), like 然後(rán hòu), isn’t an interjection but another really common phrase you’ll hear in natural Mandarin conversation. It pretty much means the same as “in addition to,” or “furthermore.” To sum it up, it works a lot like:
Not only A, ér qiě B
而且 (ér qiě) is used a lot to add additional information to an argument or story, as in:
Wǒ bù dàn xǐhuān, érqiě tā yě xǐhuān
Not only do I like (it), but she likes (it) too
Actually, the sentence above illustrates a very common sentence pattern that 而且(ér qiě) is always part of along with 不但 (bù dàn), which is:
不但 A, 而且 B
Bù dàn A, ér qiě B
Not only A, but also B
她 不但 高，而且 很 聪明 。
Tā bùdàn gāo, érqiě hěn cōngmíng.
Not only is she tall, but she is also very smart.
(lit: She is not only tall, but also very smart.)
11. 喔 /ō
喔 (ō) is another one that should sound very familiar. Essentially, it’s just like the English utterance “oh.” And you can (and should) use ō in all the same ways you would “oh” in English…
a) to express an emotion or add emphasis in a sentence, like in:
Ō, tài hǎole. Xièxiè!
Oh, great! Thank you!
b) to directly address someone while being polite, as in:
c) to express acknowledgment or understanding, or to emphasize an affirmation, as in when you say:
Ó, shì de, nà shì wǒ zuì xǐhuān de chá.
Oh yes, that’s my favorite tea.
12. 那个/ nà ge
那个 (nà ge) essentially means “that one.” But it also has another use as a catch-all filler word.
Essentially, you can use nà ge whenever you’re at a loss for other words, when you’ve lost your train of thought, or when you need time to catch that word that was just on the tip of our tongue.
It’s a lot like “umm,” or “uhhh,” “you know,” or even “like,” as when people say “and then, like, we went to the park, and like, there weren’t even any, like, tennis courts there.”
One thing to note about this word is that when it’s used to mean “that one,” it’s pronounced nà ge, but when it’s being used as a filler word, it’s more often pronounced nèi ge.
Let’s look at some examples of how you would use nèi ge in a natural Mandarin conversation:
那个 ⋯⋯ 不好意思 ， 我 要 学习。
Nèi ge… bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ yào qù xuéxí.
Ummm…sorry but I have to go study.
我 想 读 那个 ⋯⋯ 那个 ⋯⋯ 语法书。
Wǒ xiǎng dú nèi ge… nèi ge… yǔfǎ shū.
I want to read that ummm…you know…grammar book.
Actually, nèi ge is perhaps one of the most versatile Mandarin words ever. It can take the place of almost any word, and with enough context, someone may be able to guess the word you’re trying to say!
No, I’m not suggesting you stop learning Mandarin vocabulary altogether and just rely on nèi ge as a replacement for every possible word…lest you want to turn every Mandarin conversation into some sort of outrageous guessing game!
By the way, guessing games are actually one of the best ways to learn Mandarin vocabulary because they train your brain to work hard to find the answers. It’s the reason games are a big part of the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts, so if you’re looking for fun ways to learn Mandarin, come join us on Google hangouts this weekend! Now that you know nèi ge, you can hop in any conversation!
But back to…nèi ge (umm)…nèi ge (you know)…nèi ge! Learn to incorporate it into your sentences to sound more like a native speaker and learn to listen for it so you don’t confuse it for another word altogether.
This is one Mandarin filler word you’ll hear a lot!
13. 這個/ zhè ge
這個 (zhè ge) literally means “this one,” but you’ll also hear it used as a filler word, just like 那个 (nèi ge). Its use is virtually the same.
14. 我覺得.../ wo juéde…
我覺得 (wo juéde) is an expression you definitely want to know really well, especially if you want to express your opinions or feelings about something.
Although it literally translates as “I think that…” it really is much closer to the English conversational phrase “I feel like.”
When you hear wo jué de…, you know someone is about to share their take or perspective on a certain topic, so keep this common phrase handy whenever you want to share your thoughts or your point of view.
啊 (ā) is used to express certainty, emphasis, urgency or excitement at the end of a sentence.
It doesn’t really have an English equivalent, other than maybe the noticeable rise in intonation at the end of certain sentences, like for example, when you discover something surprising and say:
In the English phrase, there’s a natural rise in intonation at “right.”
Here’s another example:
Xué Zhōngwén zhēn nán a!
Learning Chinese is so hard!
Again, in the English here, there would be a noticeable rising shift in intonation at the “so hard.”
16. 不行 /bù xíng
不行 (bù xíng) literally means “cannot,” or “not acceptable,” or “not doable,” or “not allowed.”
More colloquially, it’s a lot like the English equivalent “no way!” or “nope!”
You use it anytime you want to say “absolutely not” to something, as a flat-out refusal.
bù xíng，bù xíng，Wǒ bú yào chī xīlánhuā.
No way, no way. I will not eat broccoli.
You can also say bù xíng to express absolute disbelief in something someone just said, just like you would with the English “no way!” meaning
“there’s no way that’s true,” or “I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.”
Like, can you become fluent in Mandarin without ever taking any Mandarin lessons? Bù xíng!
17.哎呀 /āi yā
哎呀 (āi yā) is one interjection that has a plethora of uses in Mandarin.
The list of English equivalents is pretty long, from “oops” to “ouch” to “oh, man!” to “oh, dang!” and “oh, geez!”
If you know āi yā, you’ll be able to express a range of emotions and sound more like a native speaker, so here are some ways you would use it naturally:
a) To express disappointment
Āiyā！Zhè jiā cāntīng zhǐyǒu xīlánhuā
Oh, man! This restaurant only has broccoli.
b) To express annoyance or frustration
Āiyā, wǒ wàngle mǎi niúnǎi!
Dang, I forgot to get the milk!
c) To express some form of pain or ache
Ouch, it’s really hot!
So now that you’ve learned the 17 most common Mandarin conversation interjections and filler words, it’s time to put them to practice ā!
The best way to practice, dāng rán, is with real-world Mandarin conversation, whether it’s with a community of your peers in the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts or with our world-class teachers in a private or group lesson!
By the way, our Mandarin lessons are structured around real conversations, and not just drilling, nèi ge, vocabulary and phrases. That means you’ll really get to use a lot of what you learned in this article in your personalized lessons.
Our teachers aren’t only pros at Mandarin, érqiě they love to get into real conversations about whichever topics you’re interested in. (And talking about what you’re into in Mandarin, instead of drilling textbook dialogue, is the best way to learn Mandarin!)
Oh, and if you want to brush up on the characters for these common expressions, don’t forget you can try Skritter for free, an app that puts learning Chinese characters in the palm of your hands!
Of course, interjections and filler words aren’t the only components to Mandarin conversation, but they’ll really give you a lot more bang for your buck when it comes to helping you sound more like a native speaker, so give them a try today!