When you are discussing with Japanese friends, there might be some point where you want to express that “You have no idea regarding the topic” then you’d express “I don’t understand what you are saying” to your Japanese friends. Moreover, when you are learning Japanese then you cannot understand the phrase or sentences then you have to show that you do not have any clue about it, you have to be able to express nicely “I don’t get what you are talking about” in Japanese, right. Then, this article is for you!
In particular, when you are still a beginner in learning Japanese, being capable enough to express “I don’t understand” in Japanese would be very useful for you and avoid such a weird moment when your Japanese friend keeps looking at you and waiting for your response.
Generally, expressing “I don’t understand” in Japanese is not complicated. Since in Japanese, we just need to say verb then you just need to remember these 2 verbs: 知らない (shiranai) or 分からない (wakaranai). Both of these phrases have a common meaning “I have no idea” in Japanese. These 2 phrases are commonly used, however it has quite different nuance.
In order to deepen your understanding of these 2 phrases, let’s get through the following guide and leave me your comments if you have any questions or unclear stuff. I am looking forward to hearing from all of you, guys! From now, let’s continue!
1. The meaning of Wakaranai（分からない）
Originally, the phrase 分からない (wakaranai) came from the original verb 分かる (wakaru) that means “understand or know”. Then, wakaranai is the negative form of the original verb wakaru where the letter ‘ru’ at the end of the word is being replaced to be “ranai” becoming wakaranai that has the meaning “not understand” (negative). Since, it is the verb in Japanese, the overall meaning has changed from “I understand” to be “I don’t understand”. When we try to translate it into English, it actually, rather than just “I don’t know”, when we use わからない (wakaranai), the meaning is closer to “I don’t understand.”
According to that condition, わからない (wakaranai) is a phrase that expresses mostly intellectual or emotional matters. When you say わからない (wakaranai), your Japanese friend who hears that would get a nuance that you have tried to understand the topic, unfortunately, it is beyond your capacity then you were unable to understand it then there is no other better option than you must say that you don’t know.
Let’s go through the example below:
Moushiwakenai kedo, itteru koto ha wakaranai.
I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.
Nihongo ga wakaranai desu.
(I) don’t understand Japanese.
In both examples above, the speaker is expressing that they don’t know, unfortunately, in context, it means not being able to understand although they have tried to be able to understand.
In addition, 分からない (wakaranai-the negative form) and the affirmative form 分かる
(wakaru) have meaning to “understand” in Japanese has a nuance of the trying to relate to the speaker and their words/feelings as well. During the situations, when we have tried to understand and establish a deeper connection to a person’s feelings, unfortunately after tried it is beyond our capability then we are unable to, then we can use分からない (wakaranai). Alternatively, of course, if you do understand although slightly you also deserve to say分かる(wakaru).
At the part below, let’s use another options using additional word such as よく(yoku), あまり (amari) and 全然 (zenzen) instead only say 分からない wakaranai to make your Japanese sounds more rich and natural.
2. I don’t understand well: よく分からない yoku wakaranai
At this part, let’s learn another additional word that suits “wakaranai”, as well as this word, which is very commonly used in real conversation with the Japanese. You may have a chance to hear this when you are studying or discussing some topic with them.
At the moment when you are incapable enough to understand what you or your partner are explaining very well, you can use yoku wakarani よくわからない. The first part of this phrase is よく (yoku) that has a meaning “well” in Japanese. Following after that the わからない (wakaranai) as we have discussed above, that means “don’t understand”. In accordance, the literal meaning has changed from only わからない (wakaranai) which is “I don’t understand” becoming “I don’t understand well”.
In particular, this phrase shows that you were incapable to connect your thinking to a piece of a topic you are discussing at the moment, whether that be because you don’t have the same knowledge, or it is because this topic is not familiar enough for you.
Then, at the condition where you are probably trying to connect or relate to what your partner is talking about, using this phrase would be a lot way more polite and nice. When you say this, they will get an idea that you have been trying to think of what the content is, unfortunately, your knowledge to understand that is not sufficient enough probably not more than 75%, once again, please use this phrase, よくわからない (yoku wakaranai).
Let’s look at the example below when you are trying to understand the JLPT N1 preparation book for grammatical, however, there is a part that you cannot understand although you have been reading and reading it to understand it more than 3 times.
Kono bunpō wa fukuzatsude, nankai yonde mo yoku wakaranai.
This grammar is complicated and I don’t understand it no matter how many times I read it.
When you add this phrase, yoku on wakaranai, it is perfectly expressing that you have been trying to understand it, however, you think that your understanding is still insufficient then you came up to say よく分からない (yoku wakaranai). Just try it and look at your partner’s response.
3. I don’t really understand: あまり分からない amari wakaranai
Not only よくわからない (yoku wakaranai), the following phrase is also often said by the Japanese in their daily life. On the occasion, when you think that you kind of only understands a little which is very limited under 50%, you can say あまりわからない (amari wakaranai) as another option.
The general nuance appears by saying あまりわからない (amari wakaranai) is that a considerable understanding is not there. What this means is that when you came up and say あまりわからない (amari wakaranai) to your partner, you are basically explaining to them that you only understand a little or very minimal on that content.
Unfortunately, please think that it does not mean that you are completely have no idea on it, it is just because your knowledge of the content is very minimal. To demonstrate the point, please read the following example:
Sono kotoba wa hajimete kiitanode, amari wakaranai.
I’ve never heard that word, so I don’t really understand it.
This sentence might have another meaning as: “I’ve never heard that word, so I only understand a little about it (only know from what you have explained)”.
The word あまり (amari) in English means “not really”. This word as its meaning emphasizes that you are “not really” understand the context. In Japanese, the word あまり (amari) is used to express addition to express the amount of something that is not much, not more than 50%.
Amari nihongo wa hanasenai.
I couldn’t speak Japanese very much.
4. I completely do not understand: 全然分からない zenzen wakaranai
One more interesting alternative additional word for 分からない (wakaranai), that is super commonly used as well by the Japanese is 全然 (zenzen). 全然 (zenzen) is an adverb that has several literal meanings as the following and often used for negative occasions:
- completely (not or negative condition)
- not at all
- entirely (negative condition)
全然分からない (zenzen wakaranai) would probably become a perfect option when you deeply want to emphasize that you have 0% understanding about the context. When the word 全然 (zenzen) is being added, it can be translated as “I have absolutely no idea” or “I completely don’t understand” in English.
Although, it still expresses that you actually have been trying to think of and then trying to understand the context, unfortunately, you are completely clueless about it.
In order to make you can imagine how to use this phrase (全然 zenzen), just take a look at the following example:
Hanashikata ga hayakuchi de, zenzen wakaranai.
The speak is fast, (I) completely don’t understand.
Amazingly, you probably would hear the Japanese say this phrase multiple times as the response, they even attach 全然 (zenzen) at whatever the beginning of all of the expressions that they want to emphasize there is none at all, completely not at all or not even slightest.
5. 分からん (Wakarang): Wakaranai in the Kansai dialect
Have you ever traveled into the Kansai area in Japan? The way they speak is a little bit different with people living in Tokyo and the upper part of Japan. In Kansai, people use Kansai hougen or Kansai dialects. That’s why in Tokyo area people say “wakaranai” or sometimes women or childrens say “wakannai” casually. However, in Kansai area, people say little bit different in the last part of the word. Instead of using “ない nai” but they use “ん n or ng”. Therefore, in this case, the word “wakaranai” has been changed to be “wakarang”.
The meaning is not changed, it still has the same meaning “don’t understand”, however, saying “wakaran or wakarang” has a nuance of “(really) cannot get that way of thinking or that kind of opinion is very weird or not supposed to be as that way”.
After all, let’s wrap what we have discussed about “分からない wakaranai” into the following points:
- The meaning of 分からない (wakaranai) is “I don’t understand” in English.
- Wakarai could be felt more polite and respectful when being added with the other adverbs such as よく (yoku) to be よく分からない, あまり (amari) to be あまり分からない and 全然 (zenzen) to be 全然分からない (zenzen wakaranai).
- Adding the specific adverbs before wakaranai would make our expression more accurate and respectful.
Wakaranai could also be said as wakarang as it is commonly said in the Kansai dialect with the same meaning “I don’t understand”.