From being able to tell someone that you know what they are talking about, to asking someone when the next train is coming, it’s important to be able to express the idea of understanding. In this post we take a look at 6 Chinese words that all have some relation to the notion of understanding, how each word might differ from the last, and how you can use it.
Some of these words only have a very subtle difference, and the understanding of them will come in time with practice and exposure. So keep your ear to the ground for uses of these words in books and TV.
This is the easiest and most likely the first word relating to ‘understanding’ that you will come across. You will no doubt be all too familiar with the phrase 你聽得懂嗎？（你听得懂吗？ nǐ tīng de dǒng mā?）”do you understand (from listening)?”.
If you need to express to your teacher that you don’t understand you can simply say 我不懂 （wǒ bù dǒng）”I don’t understand”, and if you want to ask someone if they understand English you can ask 你聽得懂英文嗎？（你听得懂英文吗？ nǐ tīng de dǒng yīngwén mā?）.
tā juéde xǐjù yīnggāi bù fēn dìyù, quán shìjiè dōu néng kàn dǒng.
He feels that comedy shouldn’t be divided by region, the whole world can understand.
知道 is more along the lines of knowing of something, rather than coming to an understanding about something, though it can be used in that way sometimes. You might ask someone 你知道他是誰？（你知道他是谁？ nǐ zhī dào tā shì shéi? ）”Do you know who that is?”, or if someone asks you what time the next train is and you don’t know, you can simply say 我不知道（wǒ bú zhī dào）”I don’t know”.
Whether or not you agree with the sentence, this is a still a good usage example:
rénmín yǒu quánlì zhīdào zǒngtǒng cānxuǎnrén de xìng qīngxiàng
People have a right to know the sexual orientation of presidential candidates
This is very similar to 懂 though differs slightly in usage – While it would be a bit strange to say 我了解中文, if someone was explaining a process or situation then you could certainly say 我了解了（wǒ liǎo jiě le）”I (now) understand”.
wèile ràng wàiguó yóukè gèng liǎojiě táiwān fēngtŭ mínqíng, wàiyŭ dǎoyóu kǒushì jīnnián qǐ jiāng yàoqiú kǎoshēng yǐ wàiwén huídá guóqíng, jǐngdiǎn děng wèntí
To help foreign tourists understand more about the people and places of Taiwan, from today the foreign language tour guide oral examination will require all examinees to answer questions about national conditions and places of interest etc.
(note: I omitted the part ‘以外文’ from the English translation as it’s a given since it’s a foreign language exam and the inclusion detracts from the main point – which is answering questions about Taiwan)
Essentially the same as 了解 and used in the same way; to express understanding of something. The feeling of the word is that you understand – you are clear about something, hence the 明（míng）”clear” and 白（bái）”clear/plain/white”, literally “plain and clear”.
tā shènzhì yě bú míngbái zìjǐ dàodǐ shìbúshì xiànzài bà mā qīnshēng de
He’s not even clear now if his mum and dad are his biological parents
This is almost a step up from 了解. You not only understand about something, but you can comprehend it. You can understand something, and also interpret the meaning.
zhōngguó gāojíchē shìchǎng huǒbào de yuányīn bù nán lǐ lǐjiě
It’s not hard to comprehend the reasons behind the explosion of China’s luxury car market
Here you not only understand something, but have come to a new understanding about something. For this example I will use a sentence from a book I am currently reading, the Taiwanese version of Rework:
bùguǎn nǐ shì gēnběn méi xiǎng guò zìxíng chuàngyè de rén, háishì yǐ yōngyǒu shìyè qiě jīngyíng de hěn chūsè de rén, bùtóng de rén dōu néng cóngzhōng zhǎodào xīn lǐngwù.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never though about starting a business by yourself, or if you already have your own business and are running it successfully, different people can all find a new understanding from this.
Hopefully this has given you some, ahem, understanding about the differentChinese words for “understanding” and which words to use for each different situation. Don’t worry if it seems confusing, it’ll all come naturally as you progress further and begin to come across new words.