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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:

Wǒ tīng de dǒng
I can understand

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

Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén
I can speak Chinese

Wǒ huì yòng kuàizi
I can use chopsticks

Wǒ huì kāichē
I can drive (a car)

Wǒ huì tán gāngqín
I can play the piano

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

Rénlèi kěyǐ zhēngfú tàikōng ma?
Can mankind conquer space?

Wǒ kěyǐ yòng yīxià cèsuǒ ma?
Can I use the toilet?

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

Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yīxià ma?
Can you help me?

Nǐ míngtiān néng lái ma?
Can you come tomorrow?

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:

Wǒ néng gàosù nǐ
I can tell you.

Wǒ kěyǐ gàosù nǐ
I can tell you.

Wǒ kěyǐ cānjiā nǐ de party
I can come to your 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)