Speaking, Seeing, Listening and Understanding – Essential verb groups for basic Chinese

We’ve neglected the beginner here at Chinesehacks, in a mix of news and idioms we’ve forgotten that there are people who are just beginning to learn Chinese, or people who just want to learn a few important Chinese keywords before visiting China or Taiwan. So here starts a new series of posts that will cover some essential Chinese words and how they are used in natural speech using basic examples. Even if you’re not a beginner you should find these posts useful as a refresher.

To start of this new series we’ll be looking at groups of basic verbs. These groups have been chosen because they represent the key words you’d need to know to be able to ask for and explain basic situations in Chinese. If you have any ideas about words or phrases to add to the groups then please let us know in the comments.

Speaking, Seeing, Listening and Understanding

Speaking

說(说)

Pinyin: shuō
English: to speak; to say

The word for speak is very important to learn since you’ll either be asking people if they can speak English of they’ll be asking you if you can speak Chinese. In the example below 會(会 huì)means “can” as in “are able to”. If you see any words that you aren’t sure of the after reading the examples see if you can guess the meaning and if not as a last resort check the dictionary. We’ll likely be covering these words in later lessons, too.

To speak Chinese

你會說中文嗎?

你会说中文吗?

nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?

Can you speak Chinese?

Say what?

In the following example 在(在 zài)means to be “in the process of”, so here it modifies 說 from “say” into ‘saying’.

他在說什麼

他在说什么

tā zài shuō shénme?

What is he saying?

See, Watch and Read

看(看)

Pinyin: kàn
English: to see; to watch; to read

While in English you read a book, watch television and see a movie, in Chinese you only need to learn one word, 看. It’s extremely versatile and has many uses beyond the examples here, but for know we’ll focus on the three definitions above.

To see a movie

你這個星期六要去看電影嗎?

你这个星期六要去看电影吗?

nǐ zhège xīngqí liù yào qù kàn diànyǐng ma?

Do you want to go and see a movie this Saturday?

To watch television

我很喜歡看電視

我很喜欢看电视

wǒ hěn xǐhuān kàn diànshì

I really like watching television

To read a book

我昨天晚上都在看書

我昨天晚上都在看书

wǒ zuótiān wǎnshàng dōu zài kàn shū

I spent yesterday evening reading a book

Listen and hear

聽(听)

Pinyin: tīng
English: to listen; to hear

While not as versatile as 看 it is still very useful as you’ll see in the Understanding section below.

Listening to music

我常常聽音樂

我常常听音乐

wǒ chángcháng tīng yīnyuè

I often listen to music

Can you hear?

In the example below 到(dào) is used, which usually means “to arrive”, here if we imagine the thing that is arriving is the noise to your ear it will make sense.

聽到了嗎?

听到了吗?

tīngdàole ma?

Did you hear that?

Understanding

There are many words for understanding, but for basic Chinese let’s just focus on this one to start since it’s very useful for beginners and you’ll run into it often.

懂(懂)

Pinyin: dǒng
English: to understand

Do you understand?

懂不懂

dǒng bù dǒng?

Do you understand (or not) ?

I understand

dǒng le

I understand (now)

In the example above 了 is used to express a change in state and changes the meaning from ‘I understand’ which could mean that you already understand, to ‘now I understand’, as in – after your explanation, now I understand.

Using the words we have already learnt above we can make some very useful sentences. To say that you can understand something by listening to it, or by reading it is different in Chinese:

Do you understand (from listening/seeing)

When you’re learning Chinese you’ll likely heat this sentence a lot, so get used to it 🙂

聽的懂嗎?

听的懂吗?

tīng de dǒng ma?

Do you understand? (what you are hearing/from listening)

Likewise, for reading or seeing the construct is the same:

看的懂嗎?

kàn de dǒng ma?

Do you understand? (what you are reading/from seeing)

The examples above should cover the verbs for basic situations involving speaking, seeing, listening and understanding. Let us know how you get on using them or if you have any questions or additions then please post below.

Keep an eye out for the next in the series covering essential verb groups for basic Chinese!

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  • David

    Just a li’l nitpick:

    Shouldn’t it be 你听得懂吗? Or is that form an endangered species, found chiefly in textbooks?

    Love the site.

    Cheers!

  • paarul

    你好 Dave!
    ‘吗’ 拼音 是 ‘ma’
    mā 错了.

  • My new bible!

  • I too think it should be 你听得懂.

    Maybe a future post on the differences between 的, 得, and 地? I find this quite pesky to teach.

  • york2275

    Hello everyone!!!

    I’m a Taiwanese college student,and I’m glad to see this wonderful blog about Chinese learning.

    The differences between 的,得,地 are quite subtle, which even confuse lots of native speakers.

    In the usage this article is talking about, the differences between them are the following:

    1.的:as a preposition before norms.

    ex. 那是我的書 That’s my book

    2.得:as a preposition before adverbs.

    ex. 我跑得很快 I run very fast

    2.地:as preposition “following” adverbs.

    ex. 我慢慢地跑 I run slowly

    Therefore, 我聽得懂 is the most accurate.

    However, the usage above is about the “very” formal case. Most of the time we use 的 for all cases above, so 聽的懂 is “correct” in general.

    If you google 聽的懂 and 聽得懂, you will find that 聽的懂 is more commonly used than 聽得懂, even the latter is more grammatically correct. It’s true for real life in Taiwan too.

    Feel free to use 的, cause it’s extremely versatile. 🙂

    • Wow, nice comment York2275! If you ever want to write a guest post just let me know 🙂

      • york2275

        Thanks for your appreciation.

        I’m glad to have the opportunity to use my humble knowledge.

        If I’m ready to write a guest post, I will definitely tell you!

        Thanks! 🙂