When I first came to China, one of the first phrases I had to learn (much to my embarrassment) was 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) . Which, literally translated being ‘listen no understand’ or ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying’.
Since then, I’ve learned a few more ways to say that I do (or don’t) understand something.
If you’re interested in learning some more essential Chinese phrases, take a look at our 20 Essential Chinese Phrases for Newbies and Travellers.
Here are the most commonly used ways to make yourself ‘understood’ in Chinese with some example sentences to help you use them!
You can click all the red links below to see a breakdown of each character!
懂 (dǒng) means ‘to understand or to comprehend’. It’s often used in this sentence structure:
verb + 得 + 懂。
听得懂 (tīng de dǒng) means to understand what someone has said.
To negate the phrase, just replace 得 (de) with 不 (bù), meaning no or not, like this:
verb + 不 + 懂。
This sentence pattern has limited uses and is only really used with these examples.
懂 (dǒng) is also used with a verb:
明白 (míng bai)
Another commonly used bigram that means ‘to understand’ is 明白 (míng bai). Here’s a breakdown of both characters:
白 (bái) represents the first ‘ray of light’ and means clear, white or plain.
The meaning of these two characters is both clear and understandable, don’t you think?
明白 can simply be used to explain a general understanding or realization of something.
我明白你的意思。(wǒ míng bai nǐ de yì si.) I understand what you mean.
清楚 (qīng chu)
清楚 (qīng chu) refers to something that is ‘clear’ or that is ‘understood thoroughly.’ Unlike the other words, it doesn’t example mean ‘to understand’ but is an alternative way to imply that you may not understand because they spoke quickly, too quietly or there is too much background noise.
Similarly to 懂 (dǒng), 清楚 (qīng chu) is combined with a verb and can also be negated by using the character 不(bù).
我听不清楚。(wǒ tīng bù qīng chu.) I can’t hear you clearly. (because something is affecting my understanding)
了解 (liǎo jiě)
了解 (liǎo jiě) is most often used to describe a very thorough understanding or comprehension of something. The ‘了’ (liǎo) character means to understand clearly, whilst 解 (jiě) means to explain or understand.
Someone who comprehends astrophysics would probably be able to say they ‘了解’ this subject.
他对这个区域的业务很了解。 (tā duì zhè ge qū yù de yè wù hěn liǎo jiě.) He understands business in that area very well.
知道 (zhī dao)
知道 (zhī dao) can also sometimes be used in oral Chinese to imply an understanding of something.
我需要的并不是这个，你知道吗？ (wǒ xū yào de bìng bù shì zhè ge, nǐ zhī dao ma?) This is not at all what I need. Do you understand?
If you want to learn more about the bigram ‘知道’ you can take a look at this post ‘认识’ vs ‘知道’: Knowing When to Use Renshi and Zhidao.
理解 (lǐ jiě)
理解 (lǐ jiě) can be used when a person understands someone’s feelings.
我理解你的感受。(wǒ lǐ jiě nǐ de gǎn shòu) I understand how you feel.
And can also be used in a similar way to 明白 (míng bai):
我不理解这句话的意思。 (wǒ bù lǐ jiě zhè jù huà de yì si.) I don’t understand what this sentence means.
领会 (lǐng huì)
Finally, 领会 (lǐng huì) is most commonly used in written Chinese
他没有领会我说这话的意思。(tā méi yǒu lǐng huì wǒ shuō zhè huà de yì si.) He did not understand what I said.
I hope you ‘understood’ my article! Don’t forget, you can click on any of the links within the article to see a breakdown of each character.