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How do you say ‘can’ in Chinese?

‘Can’ or ‘be able to’ is an easy verb to translate in many languages, but in Chinese it is not so simple.

There are 4 words/ways to translate the idea of ‘being or not being able to do something’ in Chinese depending on the sentence:

1. Using a verb complement
2. 会 huì
3. 可以 kěyǐ
4. 能 néng

1. Using a verb complement

In this case, you normally have a verb + 得 (when you can do it) or 不 (when you can’t do it) + the result of the verb. I explain this in detail in another video.

For example:

我听得懂
Wǒ tīng de dǒng
I can understand

我听不懂
Wǒ tīng bu dǒng
I can’t understand

2. You often use 会 to mean ‘know how to’ when you are talking about a skill

我会说中文
Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén
I can speak Chinese

我会用筷子
Wǒ huì yòng kuàizi
I can use chopsticks

我会开车
Wǒ huì kāichē
I can drive (a car)

我会弹钢琴
Wǒ huì tán gāngqín
I can play the piano

3. 可以 normally means ‘can’ in the sense of ‘may’ ‘asking permission’ or ‘possible’

人类可以征服太空吗
Rénlèi kěyǐ zhēngfú tàikōng ma?
Can mankind conquer space?

我可以用一下厕所吗
Wǒ kěyǐ yòng yīxià cèsuǒ ma?
Can I use the toilet?

我可以借一下你的笔吗
Wǒ kěyǐ jiè yīxià nǐ de bǐ ma?
Can I borrow your pen?

4. 能 normally indicates a ‘general ability’, and often a physical ability to do something

你能帮我一下吗?
Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yīxià ma?
Can you help me?

你明天能来吗?
Nǐ míngtiān néng lái ma?
Can you come tomorrow?

这间房间能住两个人
Zhè jiān fángjiān néng zhù liǎng gè rén
This room can accommodate two people.

In fact, there is some overlap between these 3 verbs:

能 and 会 can both be used to say that you ‘know how to do’ a skill, but 会 is used more often.

能 can be used to ask permission to do something, but 可以 is more common.

When talking about the possibility of doing something, you can in fact use 能 or 可以:

我能告诉你
Wǒ néng gàosù nǐ
I can tell you.

我可以告诉你
Wǒ kěyǐ gàosù nǐ
I can tell you.

我可以参加你的party
Wǒ kěyǐ cānjiā nǐ de party
I can come to your party.

我能参加你的party
Wǒ néng cānjiā nǐ de party
I can come to your party.

Quick test!

I can ride a bike. (会)
2. Can you tell me your name? (能,可以)
3. I can speak 4 languages (会).
4. Can you see me? (能)
5. Can I open a window? (可以 or 能)
6. No you can’t (open a window) (不可以)
7. Can you give me a hand? (能 or 可以)
8. Silk can be used to make clothes (能,可以)