If you know any Chinese you may be perplexed as to when to use the word “ne” (neutral tone), especially in relation to asking questions.
I have already written about the use of “ma” (1st tone) in asking questions, but “ne” is also commonly used in certain situations.
My personal basic rule is that “ne” can be used optionally in any question that doesn’t require “ma”. In fact “ne” is always optional. Any question where we put “ne” at the end, the “ne” is not necessary. I regard “ne” as a little word that the chinese use to emphasize that what was just said was a question. They are so used to saying “ma” at the end of a question perhaps they need something else for a question that uses a question word (eg what, where, why, when etc).
Where are you going ?
Where are you going “ne” ?
Both have the exact same meaning. The “ne” is completely unnecessary but is quite commonly used in Chinese. Another way you could look at “ne” is perhaps how we might say :
Where are you going, huh ?
Where are you going, eh ?
The “huh” and “eh” aren’t necessary but we might use these words from time to time depending on the circumstances.
Now there is another very important and useful purpose for “ne” in Mandarin Chinese that is a little different for above. First of all it’s very useful for throwing a question back at someone. Like this short dialogue :
How are you ?
I’m fine, and you ?
Here the “and you” would be rendered “ni3 ne” in Chinese. Literally “you ne” (because the pronoun “you” is “ni3” in Chinese).
If anyone asks you a personal question like
How old are you ?
Where do you come from ?
Are you married ?
etc you can answer the question and then when you are finished answering you can say “ni ne” if you want the other person to answer the same question. No need to repeat the same question, so “ne” is very useful for this purpose.
Another usage of “ne” would be in making suggestions about things in certain circumstances. For example look at this dialogue
What do you want to eat ?
How about burgers ?
Hot dogs ?
After making the first suggestion of burgers, we wouldn’t normally say “how about” each time after that. We just make the suggestion and use intonation (ie raise our voice when saying “hot dogs”, “italian” etc). Because intonation in Mandarin is so important to the meaning of the word, we can’t really do that. So in the case above after saying “hot dogs” we would say “ne”. Further, we would say “ne” after every suggestion (except perhaps the first one where we would likely say “how about”)
Another similar usage would be in a dialogue like this :
I think China is a great country
and America ?
The speaker has expressed his opinion about something. Instead of asking the full sentence “and what do you think about America” we can simply say “and America” again raising the intonation of our voice. In Mandarin Chinese you can just say “America ne”
I hope that helps y0u understand a little bit about how and when to use “ne” in Mandarin Chinese