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:
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.
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.
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.
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: