How to say “I understand” in Chinese

The highest reward for an instructor is to have helped a student thoroughly understand the material conveyed. There are a number of ways to acknowledge that you have understood a statement or a subject matter. Study the following sentences to get a feel of the different shades of meaning in the various expressions.

(dǒng) means to understand, to have knowledge about a subject, or to know how to do something.

你懂中文吗?
Nǐ dǒng zhōngwén ma?
Do you know the Chinese language?

我懂中文.
Wǒ dǒng zhōngwén.
I know Chinese.

你懂吗?
Nǐ dǒng ma?
Do you understand?

我懂.
Wǒ dǒng.
I understand.

你听得懂吗?
Nǐ tīng de dǒng ma?
Are you able to understand what is being said?

我听得懂.
Wǒ tīng de dǒng.
I am able to understand what is being said.

你懂了吗?
Nǐ dǒng le ma?
Did you get it?

我懂了.
Wǒ dǒng le.
I got it.

The last sentence above indicates a state of completion. Please review the verb tenses in Chapter 15 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes“.

了解 (liǎojiě) means to understand or to comprehend completely.

他最了解我.
Tā zuì liǎojiě wǒ.
He understands me the best.

理解 (lǐjiě) means to understand the sense or logic of something. 不能理解 (bùnéng lǐjiě) means unable to make sense of.

我不能理解他的作为.
Wǒ bùnéng lǐjiě tā de zuòwéi.
I cannot understand his conduct.

明白 (míngbai) as an adjective means clear, plain or obvious. As a verb, it means to understand, to know or to realize.

现在我完全明白了.
Xiànzài wǒ wánquán míngbai le.
Now I totally understand.

清楚 (qīngchǔ) means distinct, clear or obvious. As a verb, it means to understand clearly. 弄清楚 (nòng qīngchǔ) or 搞清楚 (gǎo qīngchǔ) is to find out more about something to figure it out.

我搞不清楚他的意思.
Wǒ gǎo bù qīngchǔ tā de yìsī.
I can’t figure out what he means.

知道 (zhīdào) and 晓得 (xiǎodé) both mean to know, to understand, to realize, or to be aware of something.

你知道我的意思吧?
Nǐ zhīdào wǒ de yìsī ba?
You know what I mean, don’t you?

你知道吗? (Nǐ zhīdào ma?) could also be used to start an informal conversation – “You know? Blah, blah, blah.”

Elementary school teachers habitually follow their instructions with 知道吗? (Zhīdào ma? Understand?) and 晓得吧? (Xiǎodé ba? Understand?) We had a family friend who used to be a teacher. He would punctuate every remark with his pet phrase 晓得吧? (Xiǎodé ba?). This made him sound quite presumptuous.

领会 (lǐnghuì) is to understand or grasp the meaning of something.

会意 (huìyì) means to perceive someone’s unspoken thoughts or meaning. 会心 (huìxīn knowing, knowingly) is normally used as an adjective or an adverb.

她给了我一个会心的微笑.
Tā gěi le wǒ yī gè huìxīn de wēixiào.
She gave me a knowing smile.

Pinyin or Bo Po Mo Fo?

I grew up learning how to read Chinese using the Zhuyin phonetic system.  This system consists of thirtysix consonant sounds and vowel sounds, each represented by a special symbol. The first 4 symbols are pronounced Bo, Po, Mo, and Fo. Therefore, the Zhuyin system is often referred to as the Bo Po Mo Fo system. It is still used by the schools in Taiwan.

No, we did not have a tune like the “ABCDEFG” song to help us learn the “alphabet”. The Bo Po Mo Fo sounds and symbols were simply crammed into us. The phonetic symbols and tone marks were placed alongside the Chinese characters in our textbooks so we would be able to sound out those even more complicated word symbols. It has been standard in Taiwan to print children’s story books and magazines with the Bo Po Mo Fo notation accompanying the Chinese characters.

I believe some Chinese instructors in the USA, who came from Taiwan, are using the Zhuyin phonetic system in their classes for the simple fact that the textbooks they have on hand employ the Bo Po Mo Fo notations.

Whereas the Zhuyin system involves special symbols, pinyin is made up entirely of letters from the English alphabet plus the tone marks. It’s a no-brainer that it will be a more intuitive phonetic system for the English-speaking students. It is also a natural for entering Chinese text using  the QWERTY keyboard – There is no need to remember which keys represent which special symbol, or to paste the Bo Po Mo Fo symbols on the keys as some of my friends do.

My vote goes to pinyin.

What’s the best way to learn Chinese?

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. For one thing, the Chinese characters bear no resemblance to written English. Secondly, whereas you might be able to correctly guess a few Spanish or German words even if you don’t speak the language, it is nearly impossible to do that with Chinese. (Benny Lewis disagrees with this point.) And yet, many Westerners have climbed the steep slope and successfully mastered Chinese as a second language.

To the beginner, this is often the first question that comes to mind: What’s the best way to learn Chinese? Of course. the answer is different for different people in different situations. Ideally, you are in an environment in which you interact with Chinese-speaking folks during all of your waking hours. In addition, you have a couple dedicated teachers to guide you in speaking, reading and writing Chinese. That would be unrealistic for most people. So, let’s look for the next best solution. In financial terms, what’s the least expensive way to learn the language in a short time?

Following are a few suggestions. Please feel free to add a comment based on your own experience in learning Chinese.

1. Learn the “pinyin” phonetic aid. This is equivalent to learning your “ABC” for English. Please see the article on the page titled “Pinyin Guide”.

2. Add a few words at a time to your Chinese vocabulary. There are now apps for mobile devices that help you learn a few Chinese words any time wherever you are.

3. Use a step-by-step Chinese language instruction book or electronic learning program as your main “textbook”. Also get a couple helpful supplemental books and DVDs. With “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”, I made it a point to include the Chinese characters, the pinyin as well as the English translation.

4. Get free instructions on the Internet. However, watch out for malicious sites.

5. If possible, attend a Chinese instruction class, such as those offered at community colleges.

6. Take every opportunity you have to talk or communicate with a Chinese-speaking person. Also, you will likely pick up new words and expressions by watching Chinese videos and movies.

7. Read about other people’s journey on the road to mastering Chinese as a foreign language. Here is an example.

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