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Which "Can" should you use in Chinese: 会 huì, 能 néng, or 可以 kěyǐ?

Pierre Cerchiaro | April 26, 2019 | | 1 Comment
你可以幫我嗎

 

What is the difference between 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ?  

When starting to learn Chinese, one difficulty native-English speakers often encounter is the way of using the verb “can”. Indeed, in Mandarin Chinese, there are three different ways of using “can”, and picking the wrong one can sometimes change the meaning of the sentence.

 

It can sound complicated at first, but understanding the difference is really easy.

 

After reading this article and practicing the given sample sentences, you will be able to avoid making the mistake any more.

 

Let’s study them now!

 

1- 会 huì

The first way to use “can” is 会 huì. 会 huì is used to express skills that we are able to do because we have learned it. It can be for example swimming, riding a bike or playing the piano. To have a better understanding of the idea, you can replace “can” by “know how to”:
• 我会游泳
wǒ huì yóuyǒng
I can swim (I know how to swim)

• 我的妹妹不会骑自行车
wǒ de mèimei bù huì qí zìxíngchē
My little sister can’t ride a bike (doesn’t know how to ride a bike)

• 老师会弹钢琴
lǎoshī huì tán gāngqín
(My/our) teacher can play the piano (knows how to play the piano)!

And if you have the chance to come to China, one of the most common sentences that you will hear is:

  • 你会说中文吗?

nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?

Can you speak Chinese?

 

You can answer this question in different ways:

  • 会 huì
  • Yes, I can

 

  • 不会 bù huì
  • No, I can’t

 

  • 一点点 yī diǎn diǎn
  • A little bit

 

  • 马马虎虎 mǎmahǔhǔ
  • So-so

 

2- 能 néng

The second way to use “can” is 能 néng. 能 néng expresses the ability to do something.

 

  • 你今天晚上能来我家吗?

nǐ jīntiān wǎnshàng néng lái wǒjiā ma?

Can you come to my place tonight?

 

  • 不好意思,我的作业太多了,我不能来你家。

bù hǎoyìsi, wǒ de zuòyè tài duōle, wǒ bùnéng lái nǐ jiā.

I’m sorry, I have too much homework, I can’t come over

 

能 néng can also be used when people want to know whether you tolerate or accept something or not.

 

  • 你能吃辣吗?

nǐ néng chī là ma?

Can you eat spicy food?

(I know you’re able to put spicy food in your mouth, but would you handle it? Would you actually like it?)

 

  • 你能接受他的想法吗?

nǐ néng jiēshòu tā de xiǎngfǎ ma?

Can you accept his thoughts?

(Even though he has really conservative thoughts, would you still accept his point of view?)

 

To answer a question with 能 néng, you can say

 

  • 能 néng

           I can

 

  • 不能 bùnéng

           I can’t

 

3- 可以 kěyǐ

The third way to use “can” in Mandarin Chinese is 可以 kěyǐ. 可以 kěyǐ is used to ask for permission:

• 妈妈,我今天晚上可以出去吗?
māmā, wǒ jīntiān wǎnshàng kěyǐ chūqù ma?
Mom, can I go out tonight?

• 我可以戴你的帽子吗?
wǒ kěyǐ dài nǐ de màozi ma?
Can I wear your cap?

We also use 可以 kěyǐ to suggest an idea:

• 你也可以去重庆吃麻辣火锅
nǐ yě kěyǐ qù chóngqìng chī málà huǒguō
You can also go to Chongqing to eat spicy hotpot

 

Comparison between 会 huì, 能 néng, and 可以 kěyǐ

Now let’s pick identical examples using the three different “cans”:

• 你会说中文吗?
nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?
Can you speak Chinese?
(Do you know how to speak Chinese? Have you learnt it?)

• 你能说中文吗?
nǐ néng shuō zhōngwén ma?
Can you speak Chinese?
(I know you’re able to, and my parents right now don’t understand what you say in English, so please switch to Chinese)

• 你可以说中文吗?
nǐ kěyǐ shuō zhōngwén ma?
Can you speak Chinese
(*Pretend you are an English teacher in China and a student don’t understand what you just said in English *: I am sorry, I don’t understand. Could you say it in Chinese?)

• 你会开车吗?
nǐ huì kāichē ma?
Can you drive?
(Do you know how to drive? Do you have a driving license?)

• 你能开车吗?Nǐ néng kāichē ma?
Can you drive?
(Are you able to drive now? Haven’t you drank a little bit too much?)

• 你可以开车吗?Nǐ kěyǐ kāichē ma?
Can you drive?
(Are you sure your mom gave you the permission to drive tonight?)

 

 

 

Mandarin Chinese can sometimes seem complicated because it is completely different from the English language, but when practicing on a daily basis, everything becomes easier and logical. If you want to learn more, try our free online Chinese class and get the chance to practice with certified Chinese teachers.

  

Sign up for a free Chinese class! 
Pierre Cerchiaro

Pierre Cerchiaro

Pierre Cerchiaro is a contributing writer at TutorMing. He is a French expat working in Taiwan and has had both studying experience in China and Taiwan. He is passionate about the Chinese language and is a foodaholic.

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