As you get a little more confident with learning Chinese, some of the initial problems such as tones, characters and strange pronunciations the mouth seems to refuse to make start to fade away. However there are still a few troublesome words that intermediate or advanced Chinese learners may struggle with. When simple words in English like ‘can’ have multiple words in Chinese depending on when and how we use them, which Chinese word do we choose?
‘Can’ has three Chinese equivalents: 可以 (kě yǐ), 会 (huì) and能 (nénɡ). The former, 可以, generally means ‘have permission to’, 会 means ‘to know how to’, and 能 means ‘be able to’. It all seems quite simple, but many Chinese learners may still confuse about how to use them in practical situations. (Besides, you can also check the comparison between 会 and 能 as well as more HSK grammar tutorial videos at here.)
可以 (kě yǐ) is generally associated with permission, for example 我明天可以拜访你吗? (Wǒ mínɡtiān kěyǐ bàifǎnɡ nǐ mɑ? / Can I visit you tomorrow?) or with denial of permission: 你不可以在这里吸烟！(Nǐ bù kěyǐ zài zhèlǐ xīyān! / You can’t smoke here!).
Can I ask you a question?
(Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ yí ɡè wèntí mɑ？)
The boss is having a meeting; you cannot enter the room.
(Lǎobǎn zhènɡzài kāihuì， nǐ xiànzài bù kěyǐ jìnqù.)
Mom said that we can go out to play after dinner.
(Māmɑ shuō chī wán wǎnfàn jiù kěyǐ chūqù wán le.)
会 (huì) denotes the knowledge of how to do something as in 他会说阿拉伯语。 (Tā huì shuō ālābó yǔ。/ He can speak arabic) or 你不会唱歌 (Nǐ bú huì chànɡɡē./ You can’t sing).
My friend can’t swim.
(Wǒ de pénɡyou búhuì yóuyǒnɡ.)
This international student can sing twenty Chinese songs.
(Zhèɡe liúxuéshēnɡ huì chànɡ èrshí shǒu zhōnɡwén ɡē.)
The teacher has told him five times and now he finally can do this problem.
(Lǎoshī jiāo le tā wǔ biàn， tā zhōnɡyú huì zuò zhè dào tí le.)
Finally 能 (nénɡ) expresses ability: 他能跑得很快。 (Tā nénɡ pǎo de hěn kuài. / He can run very fast). This is fairly straightforward but there can be some overlap. 能 can also be used to ask for permission: 我能不能借你的铅笔？(Wǒ nénɡ bu nénɡ jiè nǐ de qiānbǐ? / Can I borrow your pen?).
He had a sore throat, so he can’t talk today.
(Tā sǎnɡzi ténɡ, jīntiān bù nénɡ shuōhuà.)
Although he sits in the back row, he can still read the characters on the blackboard.
(Suīrán tā zuò zài zuìhòu yìpái, dànshì tā nénɡ kànjiàn hēibǎn shànɡ de zì.)
He has recovered well, so he can walk now.
(Tā huīfù dé búcuò， xiànzài nénɡ xià chuánɡ zǒulù le.)
Although similar, the main difference between 能 and 会 is that 能 indicates a physical ability to do something whereas 会 implies having had to learn something in order to be able to do something. For instance: 这只猴子会用电脑，但是现在他不能 。(Zhè zhī hóuzi huì yònɡ diànnǎo, dànshì xiànzài tā bù nénɡ./ This monkey can use the computer but he can’t now.) We aren’t given the reason the monkey can’t use it now but implicitly we know the monkey can’t physically do it at this moment. Maybe he has hurt his mouse finger or a gorilla has crushed the computer. At any rate we know the monkey has learnt to use the computer previously.
The correct use of the words ‘can’ in Chinese is made much easier by following the above guidelines. Once you master the various nuances of each word, it becomes quite natural and easy to use the correct one in the correct situation. Eventually, you will feel wrong when you use the incorrect word!