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Home  /  Language Center  /  懂,明白,理解,了解 - The Line Between Simple Understanding and Deep Comprehension
懂,明白,理解,了解 - The Line Between Simple Understanding and Deep Comprehension print version
19-06-2010

The English language vocabulary (as well as the volcabulary of most tongues) doesn't provide enough words to express the different levels of 'understanding' to give us a solid translation of the following four words: 懂 (dǒng ),明白 (míngbai),理解 (lǐjiě),and 了解 (liǎojiě). Choosing one over the other is not always a mistake, though there are clear differences between the four, which every fluent speaker of Chinese should definitely 'understand'.

The four words are written here from left to right, from the most simple and concrete level of 'understanding' to the most in deep and abstract one. It can be said, to begin with, that 懂 and 明白 can be used, for example as a response to a short explanation given, such as a meaning of a word, guidance of directions, etc. 理解 is more appropriately used to express understanding of a more complex situation, such as understanding the relationship status between two people, understanding a beaurcratic system and even understanding the difference between 懂,明白,理解 and 了解, a task we hope you will fulfill within a few minutes.

了解 is perhaps the deepest level of understanding one can express in Chinese and is actually a word that can be translated to something between 'deep comprehension' and 'deep knowledge' (see here for an article about the differences between 知道,认识 and 了解). 了解 is less commonly said as an immediate response to one's given explanation, and rather expresses one's solid comprehension/knowledge of a certain situation, person, etc. In the following sentences, 了解 should be used as the verb when translating them to Chinese: 'After living in the Middle East five years I can say I understand the Israelian-Palestinian conflict.' 'I know my boyfriend, there's no way he would agree to such a ridiculous request.'

Thus, in everyday speech when people shortly explain something you do not understand, it is proper to answer with 懂了 or 明白了, when conducting a more in-depth conversation or lisetening to an elborative explanation, responding with 我理解 is more in tact. 了解 is a type of understanding that cannot be obtained by receiving a short explanation and is usually a deep comprehension that is obtained after being educated or exposed to a certain topic, situation, person, etc for quite a while.

   懂 明白   理解   了解
 Syntactic  
 Function
 Verb   Verb   Verb   Verb
 English
 Translation
 Understand  Understand  Understand, Comprehend   Understand, Comprehend, be familiar with
Sentence Examples

-“你要一直走,过了五分钟就到了“。 - “我懂了,谢谢您!“

- "You should go straight a head, you will get there after five minutes". - "I understand, thank you".

-你听得老师说的话,没有?

Do you understand what the teacher says?

我不明白为什么你不喜欢吃煎饼。

I don't get it how come you don't like jianbing (egg crepe, popular in north-east China).

他必须明白,他别无另外一个选择。

He must understand that he doesn't have any other choice.

理解她昨天没来的原因,可是他还觉得扫兴了。

He understand the reason that she didn't arrive yesterday, but he still feels disappointed.

我终于理解了‘懂’,‘明白’,‘理解’ 和 ‘了解’ 的不同含义。

Now I finally comprehend the difference between '懂', '明白', ‘理解' and ‘了解'.                               

 我了解我父母,他们肯定会喜欢那个礼物的。

I know my parents, they will surely like that gift.

虽然我是中国人,我还不了解中国的文化。

Although I am Chinese, I am still not very familiar with Chinese culture.



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