Beyond ‘Ting Bu Dong’: 11 Better Ways to Say I Don’t Understand in Chinese

how to say i don't understand in mandarin chinese

One of the first phrases you might want to pick up in Mandarin Chinese is: I don’t understand. Learning to say “I don’t understand” is actually quite simple, but because of the way this phrase can be used in different contexts, learning its direct translation is not enough. We also need to learn the various ways this phrase can be used.

So in this article, we’ll look at the different ways to say “I don’t understand” in Chinese and how these expressions are used in practice. Then, we’ ll look at how to say “I understand” and “I get it now”. We’ll also study the pattern behind these expressions from the perspective of grammar.

Buckle up! You’ll learn the ropes pretty fast!  

The Most Common Way to Say “I Don’t Understand in Chinese”

The first phrase that’s likely to pop into your head would be “ting bu dong”, I bet. It constitutes a large part of the soundtrack that beginner learners hear when getting around in China. Just about everywhere you go, you are bound to hear people around you going “ting bu dong, ting bu dong”, sometimes it’s because you mess up your Mandarin pronunciation or tones, sometimes it appears that they are just avoiding contact with you…or, turning the tables, if a native speaker starts talking to you and you have no idea what she’s saying, the phrase you utter is, you guessed it, “ting bu dong.”

What Does It Mean?

But what does “ting bu dong” really mean in Chinese? To understand it, we have to look at it from the perspective of grammar.

The phrase “听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng)” conforms to a structure called Resultative Verb Compounds by grammarians. Well, we don’t want to get too technical on you, but it’s a very typical construction in Chinese. To put it simply, this type of construction is made up of two parts:

  1. an action
  2. an outcome or possibility (which is produced by the action)

The phrase “听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng)” is just made up of these two parts, with  “听 (tīng) – listen” being the action, and “不懂 (bù dǒng) – not understand” being the outcome or possibility it produced.

So, you can guess, 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) means “I don’t understand what I heard” (action-outcome) or “I won’t be able to understand when listening to it” (action-possibility) in different contexts. Essentially, this is to say that the speaker dose not have the ability to comprehend what’s coming to her ears, regardless if she has heard it already or not.

Let’s look at some examples of 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) used in sentences.

  • 听不懂中文。
    tīng bù dǒng zhōngwén.
    I don’t understand Chinese.
    Literally, I, (when) listening to Chinese, don’t understand.
  • 听不懂你的英文。
    tīng bù dǒng nǐ de yīngwén.
    I don’t understand your English.
    I, heard your English, don’t understand.
  • 听不懂这个笑话。
    tīng bù dǒng zhège xiàohuà.
    I don’t understand this joke.
    I, heard this joke, don’t understand.
  • 听不懂他们的方言。
    tīng bù dǒng tāmen de fāngyán.
    I don’t understand their dialect.
    I, (when) listening to their dialect, don’t understand.
  • 听不懂你在说什么。
    tīng bù dǒng nǐ zài shuō shénme.
    I don’t understand what you are saying.
    I, heard what you are saying, don’t understand.
wo ting bu dong I don't understand

听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) is usually used in a conversation, as it specifically tells others that you do not understand what you are hearing. If you do not understand something that you see or read, then you need to change the action part of the phrase accordingly, that is, the verb.


(certain) verb + 不懂 (bù dǒng)

Let’s see some examples.

  • 看不懂汉字。
    Wǒ kàn bù dǒng hànzì.
    I don’t understand characters.
    I, (when) seeing characters, don’t understand.
  • 看不懂这本书。
    Wǒ kàn bù dǒng zhè běn shū.
    I don’t understand this book.
    I, read the book, don’t understand.
  • 看不懂中文电影。
    Wǒ kàn bù dǒng zhōngwén diànyǐng.
    I don’t understand Chinese movies.
    I, (when) watching Chinese movies, don’t understand.
  • 看不懂那封通知。
    Wǒ kàn bù dǒng nà fēng tōngzhī.
    I don’t understand that notice.
    I saw the notice, don’t understand.
  • 看不懂他们在做什么。
    Wǒ kàn bù dǒng tāmen zài zuò shénme.
    I don’t understand what they are doing.
    I, saw what they are doing, don’t understand (their behavior).
  • 读不懂这个句子。
    Wǒ dú bù dǒng zhège jùzi.
    I don’t understand this sentence.
    I, read this sentence, don’t understand.
  • 读不懂这篇文章。
    Wǒ dú bù dǒng zhè piān wénzhāng.
    I don’t understand this essay.
    I, read this essay, don’t understand.
saying you do not understand something that you see or read in Chinese

You may also just use 不懂 (bù dǒng), which is the general word for “not understand” if you don’t want to be specific.

Compare these.

tīng bù dǒng zhōngwén.
I don’t understand Chinese when I listen to it. (maybe you can read)
I, (when) listening to Chinese, don’t understand.

Wǒ kàn bù dǒng zhōngwén.
I don’t understand Chinese when I see it. (maybe you can speak)
I, (when) seeing Chinese, don’t understand.

bù dǒng zhōngwén.
I don’t understand Chinese. (implying that you can neither speak nor read)

Another Word for 不懂 (bù dǒng): 不明白 (míngbai)

You may also have heard of the expression: 我不明白 (wǒ bú míngbai), which is another frequently used interpretation for “I don’t understand” in Chinese.

The word 明白 (míngbai) is pretty much the same as  懂 (dǒng), it just sounds slightly more formal (the meaning of 明白 míngbai  is “ be able to truly understand or grasp something with your mind/thinking”).

You can swap out the 不懂 (bù dǒng) in any of the examples we’ve given with 不明白 (bú míngbai).

For example,

  • 我听不明白你的英文。
    Wǒ tīng bù míngbai nǐ de yīngwén.
    I don’t understand your English.
  • 我看不明白那封通知。
    Wǒ kàn bù míngbai fēng tōngzhī.
    I don’t understand that notice.
  • 我读不明白这个句子。
    Wǒ dú bù míngbai zhège jùzi.
    I don’t understand this sentence.

When Not to Use 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng)

Unfortunately, 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) is not the cure-all solution in all situations. Essentially, you should only use it when you are anxious to escape a confusing situation or end a conversation before it even begins.

Why? You have to ask.

Well, 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) could sound rude sometimes. It has a strong implication that you don’t understand a thing the speakers are saying, and for that, hope them to spare you from the conversation.  

For instance, you try to strike a conversation with native speakers to practice your Chinese, and there comes some part of the communication that you don’t fully understand, and you want them to say it again or explain it differently, in this case, refrain from saying “我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng)”, or the whole conversation would shut down pretty fast, as they would think that you have completely no idea of what they are talking about and have therefore lost interest in pursuing the dialogue.

When you set out to practice and use Chinese to communicate with local people in China, you are sure to get lots of “听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng)”. Don’t be dismayed!

It’s not always about your Chinese skills. It could happen to anyone! Many Chinese people aren’t accustomed to speaking with foreigners (or the fact that foreigners can speak Chinese), and are often too shy to speak with them. Saying 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) is the quickest way to get themselves out of the awkward situation (it’s just another way of saying “I prefer not to talk to you because it’s too weird for me”). If that’s the case, just move on to the next person who is bold enough to interact with you.

Better Ways to Say I dont understand in Chinese

Naturally, most of the time you want your conversation in Chinese to last longer. So, instead of throwing in the conversation killer “听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng)”, what should you say to keep the conversation moving forward?

Here’s some easy fixes for you.

Wǒ tīng bú tài dǒng.
I don’t really understand.

You can easily soften your tone by adding a 太  (tài) before the verb 懂 (dǒng). It immediately clues the speaker into the fact that you may, in fact, have made an effort to catch a few bits and pieces from the conversation and is willing to give it another shot if the speaker can repeat or explain.

Wǒ tīng bú tài míngbai.
I don’t really understand.

It works the same as 我听不太懂 (wǒ tīng bú tài dǒng).

Wǒ méi (yǒu) tīng dǒng.
I didn’t (quite) understand.

Don’t be fooled, this is not the same as 我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng). This is to say “I didn’t quite get that, can you rephrase it?” rather than “stop talking, I am not getting any of this”. On hearing “我没听懂 (wǒ méi tīng dǒng) ”, speakers will happily pause, go back and explain what they’ve been saying with simpler Chinese to help you understand.

Wǒ méi ( yǒu ) tīng míngbai.
I didn’t (quite) understand.

It works the same as 我没(有)听懂 wǒ méi (yǒu) tīng dǒng.

Wǒ méi (yǒu) tīng qīngchǔ.
I didn’t hear you clearly.

It’s not always your fault that you fail to understand. Perhaps the person talking to you is too old to enunciate the words, or mixing Mandarin with dialects, or just mumbling… Claiming that you didn’t hear clearly (whether true or not) implies that if you had heard clearly, you may have understood.

Wǒ bù dǒng nǐ de yìsi.
I don’t understand what you mean.

This is a really good one to add to your repertoire. Literally “I don’t understand your meaning”, this sentence is perfect for those situations when you understood every word that’s said to you, but the sentence doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t know what the speaker is pointing at.

Wǒ bù míngbai nǐ de yìsi.
I don’t understand what you mean.

It works the same as 我不懂你的意思 (Wǒ bù dǒng nǐ de yìsi).

Nǐ néng zài shuō yí biàn ma?
Can you say that again?

Sometimes you might just need the speaker to repeat what they said, then this expression will come in handy. Another way of raising this request would be 你可以再说一遍吗?(Nǐ kěyǐ zài shuō yí biàn ma?)

Qǐng nǐ zài shuō yí biàn.
Please say that again.

This polite imperative works the same as 你能再说一遍吗?(Nǐ néng zài shuō yí biàn ma?). You can change it to 麻烦你再说一遍 (Máfan nǐ zài shuō yí biàn) to sound even more polite.

… 是什么意思?
… shì shénme yìsi?
What does … mean?

If your Chinese is good enough to go beyond 我听不太懂 (wǒ tīng bú tài dǒng) and you just missed a few details because of a particular word of phrase, you can simply ask “…是什么意思? (… shì shénme yìsi?)”

How to Say “I understand” in Chinese?

Learning to say “I understand” in Chinese might require a little more attention than learning it in other languages. This is because there are two contexts where you can use this phrase and it’s said differently. Let’s look at them in turn.

When You Understand at the First Relaying

  • 我懂。
    Wǒ dǒng.
    I understand.
  • 我明白。
    Wǒ míngbai.
    I understand.

我懂 (wǒ dǒng) or 我明白 (wǒ míngbai) could mean that you understand the information at the first relaying (or even before that) and there is no need for repetition. It’s like saying “I got it” in English.

When You Understand After Some Explaining

  • 我懂了。
    Wǒ dǒng le.
    Now I understand.
  • 我明白了。
    Wǒ míngbai le.
    Now I understand.

If you are lost at the beginning, but come to understanding after your conversation partner repeats or explains what they said, you can simply use a 了 (le) after 我懂 (wǒ dǒng) or 我明白 (wǒ míngbai) to express “I get it now”. 了 (le) is a useful particle in Chinese and can be used at the end of a sentence to indicate that the situation is now different compared to before, that the state of something has changed (in this case, from previously didn’t understand to understand now).

saying now i understand in Chinese

Wrap up: How to Say “I don’t understand” in Chinese 

There are many ways to say “I don’t understand” in Chinese. The most common one is 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng), however, it should only be used when you are desperate to pull yourself out of an uncomfortable situation. To keep the conversation going forward, use other expressions, such as 我听不太懂 (wǒ tīng bú tài dǒng) or 我没听懂 (wǒ méi tīng dǒng) to encourage speakers to rephrase and explain with simpler Chinese. You may also request the speaker to repeat themselves with 请你再说一遍 (qǐng nǐ zài shuō yí biàn) or sentences alike.

On a different note, 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng) is only used when you can’t understand something that you hear. If it’s something visual, use 看不懂 (kàn bù dǒng) or 读不懂 (dú bù dǒng) instead.

Remember, grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together, so don’t forget to check other grammar articles on ImproveMandarin.Com’s Grammar Channel! 谢谢 (xièxie) for reading this article!

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