Talking with my Chinese internet pals I’ve been realizing that there are various ways to say “I understand”. It comes up a lot because they often have to explain words or phrases that I don’t get at first and then after they explain they’ll ask 明白了吗 [míng bai le ma?] ([do you] understand [now]?), or expect me to say that “I got it now”. And as the question implies you can simply reply 明白了. But then one day a friend asked, 你理解吗？[nǐ lǐjiě ma?] (do you understand?) I thought maybe it might be a little more formal, so that the two would be equivalent to “I understand” versus “I got it”. Then, I got curious and tried out 我了解 [wǒ liaǒjiě] (I undersand) and I was corrected to 理解…
The dictionary is not very useful here:
Here’s are the entries for 明白, 理解 and 了解
As you can see it is far from helpful. So to sort out this mess I went to investigate.
Whenever you have trouble understanding the difference between two words it’s handy to have a synonyms dictionary. This is what I did and I found the entry for 了解:
There they were, the three words in question. Notice that indeed all three mean “to understand”, but that 了解 and 明白 have another meaning, to know, and to catch on, respectively. Also, notice that although 了解 means to understand it’s of sb or sth. Lastly, they also differ in their common usage, according to this text, where 了解 is most common followed by 理解 and then 明白. The examples also give us more clues, but I still wasn’t satisfied. This is where I went to the best dictionary I have close by, my Chinese conversation partner. I asked her and she added some helpful info.
Basically 理解 and 明白 are closer synonyms. They apply to reasons, moods, content, meanings, situations, and states. 了解 on the other hand is farther off from these meanings. You use it to say you don’t understand people because you don’t know them, their personality or their character. Same goes for not understanding situations and results. To summarize 明白 and 理解 are used when you don’t understand something because you don’t see the sense or logic in it, where 了解 seems to be that you do not have enough experience with that something (or someone) to be able to understand it.
Mystery almost solved, I guess. The thing to remember is that difference in synonyms is not always clear cut and you have to use them and hear them used in order to get a feel for them. That’s a really good thing to aim for, getting a feel for the language, because sometimes language use is not analytically comprehensible.
Do you guys have any other suggestions or explanations for these? Please leave a comment with your take on these words 🙂