Better Non-comprehension: Getting Beyond “ting bu dong”

25 Nov 2014

A while back I was having a conversation with my friend Ben about the challenges he faced learning Chinese. He said that one of the problems was that whenever he didn’t understand even part of something that was said, the whole conversation would shut down pretty fast. I asked him for some more details on these types of encounters, and pretty quickly it came out that he was using the phrase 听不懂 (tīng bù dǒng, “I don’t understand”) exclusively, anytime he had trouble following what was said.

Big problem! While 听不懂 is a useful phrase that any beginner needs to learn, it can’t help in all situations. In short, Ben’s strategies for communication were long overdue for an upgrade. His Chinese was good enough to go beyond just 听不懂; he really needed to start communicating his non-comprehension better. What he was communicating with that 听不懂 was essentially, “I don’t understand anything you are saying,” when in fact it was only part of what was said that gave him trouble.

There’s a solution to this problem. It involves better communication on the part of the listener. When you don’t understand, you can communicate what you don’t understand better. Because sometimes the person talking is drunk, or old, or young, or suffering from a speech impediment, or mumbling, or even drugged! None of that is your fault (one would hope), but you do have to deal with it.

Here are some options for when you’re ready to go beyond 听不懂:

"ting bu dong" Keanu

  1. 什么?我没听清楚。 What? I didn’t hear clearly.

    This one is good partly because it’s not the over-used 听不懂, which immediately clues the listener into the fact that you may, in fact, know more Chinese than just a handful of phrases from a phrasebook. Also, claiming that you didn’t hear clearly (whether true or not) kind of implies that if you had heard clearly, you may have understood. Give yourself a little credit. People frequently don’t speak clearly.

  2. 我没明白你的意思。 I didn’t understand what you mean.

    Don’t be fooled; this is not the same as 听不懂. This sentence may be used by native speakers when they understood every word, but the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or the speaker’s meaning is unclear. So this one is perfect for those situations when you understood every word but don’t know what the person means. This is a really good one to add to your repertoire.

  3. 你在说谁? Who are you talking about?

    This one only makes sense if you’re reasonably sure the person is talking about somebody, but you’re not clear who. Obviously, this can really backfire if they weren’t talking about any person, but most things people say involve some person, so there’s a little room for error here.

  4. 你的意思是…… So you mean…

    Sometimes your best bet is to just guess what the person means. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of this strategy! I’ve seen beginners with 5% comprehension totally guess what a speaker means (and then articulate it in super basic Chinese), while an intermediate learner stands next to them with 60% comprehension, dumbfounded. The difference is paying attention to context. One of the advantages of guessing the speaker’s meaning (even when you don’t guess right) is that you’re kind of “showing your cards.” You’re giving the person an idea of your vocabulary and listening comprehension level. And sometimes the words you use are enough to help them modify what they said originally into a form you can understand.

There are a lot of others you could use too, and probably all of them are better than 听不懂. You just have to put yourself out there a little. Don’t shut people out with your non-comprehension. They’ll help you if you let them.


Update: Fiona Tian has created a useful video based on this blog post:

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Damn good post. I remember quite consciously when I finally reached the point of being able to ask about word X that I was missing, “你刚才说的那个X是什么意思?”All of a sudden it was way closer to native speakers who, after all, don’t always understand each other either.

  2. I’d also suggest “沒聽懂” — unlike 聽不懂, the sense is “I didn’t get that,” rather than “I’m not getting any of this.”

  3. Uh ?
    Also works
    Lol

  4. What’s the difference between 我没明白你的意思 and 我不明白你的意思?

    • I think it is just a difference between past and present tense?

      我没明白你的意思 = I did not understand (past tense)

      我不明白你的意思 = I do not understand (present tense)

  5. Brian MacLean Says: December 6, 2014 at 7:59 am

    This is helpful.

    In English, you would sometimes say: “What did you say?” or “What are you saying?” I suppose you would translate as “你说什么?” Would 你说什么? sound natural in Chinese? Or would one just say 什么? as in 1. above?

  6. Very helpful post. Thanks.

  7. […] on an article by John Pasden on Sinoplice, this video teaches you new ways to say “I don’t […]

  8. I made a video based on this blog. Hope you don’t mind. Thanks for posting this great article.

    http://youtu.be/ogFSvccGLi4

    • Wow, Fiona, that’s really great! Thanks so much for the shout-out, and I’m adding your video to the end of this post. Nicely done.

      • Thanks for embedding the video on your blog. Could you make a tiny fix to my name to Tian. Thanks. Fi

      • Fiona,

        Sure, and sorry about the typo! Fixed.

      • David Lloyd-Jones Says: December 19, 2016 at 4:20 am

        Elbowing my way into the middle of this mutual admiration society, yes, John and Fiona, you guys are both great. Long on relevance and good sense, short on fluff.

        A note about all this replying stuff: the people we are talking to in our spavined version of their language start out pretty much at sea about how much or how little we know. From the very first syllable, we’re telling them a good deal about how to handle us.

        In many cases that very first syllable indicates a fundamental lack of respect for their language and culture. People from the always-talk-loud-to-furriners parts of the West can very quickly establish their entitlement to a completely sealed cocoon. By contrast, the ignorant but serious and respectful learner will show themself, and earn reciprocal respect, pretty early in the game.

        The array of good phrases her — and John and Fiona’s imho ver-ree competent and grounded teaching — are a big step in getting into this second group.

        -dlj.

  9. 墨西哥万岁! Says: December 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

    i also use this… 我不明白你说什么 i found this so useful. ah

  10. […] Better Non-comprehension: Getting Beyond “ting bu dong” […]

  11. […] potentially enhance your stale old self-introduction. Take the time to do the upgrade! Just like failing to upgrade your 听不懂 is going to affect your interactions with Chinese people, failing to upgrade your self-introduction […]

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