How To Say “I Don’t Understand” In Japanese

Japanese people talk pretty fast when you’re a beginner. And there are so many words out there to learn, that it’s no surprise that there will be times when you don’t know what they’re saying. In times like these you’ll want to know how to say “I don’t understand” in Japanese.

In fact, as silly as it may sound, this is probably one of the first phrases that you should learn when you’re getting started with the language.

At least that way people will know that they need to find an alternative method of communication for you.

I Don’t Understand In Japanese

The Japanese verb わかる (wakaru) means “to understand” and all you have to do is change it into the negative form in order to say “don’t understand.” You can do that by changing it to わからない (wakara nai).

Having said that, it’s probably best if you use the polite form of the language so that you come across well when speaking to strangers or people who have a higher position than you (like you boss or teacher).

The word you’ll want to use is わかりません (wakarimasen) which is a polite way to say “I don’t understand” in Japanese.

Since the Japanese language doesn’t use pronouns unless necessary, you rarely have to use words like 私 (watashi) for “I” when using this phrase.

That’s because most people know that you’re referring to yourself when you say わかりません. After all, it’s not likely that you would know if another person doesn’t understand something.

If someone starts talking to you in Japanese and you want to let them know that you’re not that good at the language, you can use the following:

  • 日本語が分かりません。
  • nihon go ga wakarimasen.
  • I don’t understand Japanese.

As you can see from this last example, there’s a kanji that sometimes gets used for this word. You will see it written as both 分かる and わかる so it’s best to get used to them both.

You could also substitute the word for Japanese 「日本語」 in this sentence for something else that you don’t understand such as a particular kanji 「漢字」 or a word 「単語」 (tango).

  • この単語が分かりません。
  • kono tango ga wakarimasen.
  • I don’t understand this word.

You might also want to learn the Japanese word for sorry so that you can come off as polite when saying “sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying” and the like.

Other Forms Of I Don’t Understand

There are some other forms of わかる that are pretty common to see and hear. I figured that it would be a good idea to cover them here so that you can become familiar with them.

The first one is pretty casual and is わかんない (wakan nai). This one gets used a lot because it’s easy to say and informal.

  • 意味わかんないよ。
  • imi wakan nai yo.
  • I don’t understand the meaning (of this).

Another one that you might hear is わからん (wakaran) which is an even more casual version of the word. As you can see, each time it gets a little shorter, but the beginning part at least stays the same.

  • まったくわからん。
  • mattaku wakaran.
  • I don’t get it at all.

The word まったく (mattaku) means “entirely; completely” and often gets combined with the different versions of わからない to emphasize that you truly don’t understand it at all.

I Don’t Know In Japanese

So far we have been covering the word わかる which means “understand” but if you want to say that you “know” something then you typically use the word 知る (shiru).

So this means that in order to say you “don’t know” something you have to change it to 知らない (shiranai) or the more polite version of the word, 知りません (shirimasen).

Having said that, you should stick to using 知りません for the most part because saying 知らない actually has a second meaning that we’ll cover in the next section of this post.

In the last section we added the word まったく to わからん in order to change the meaning from “I don’t understand” to “I don’t understand at all.”

It wasn’t a big change, but it is a common thing to see.

Well as it turns out, we can do a similar thing with 知りません by adding the word 全然 (zen zen) in front of it.

  • 全然知りません。
  • zen zen shirimasen.
  • I don’t know at all.
  • I’ve got not clue.

It’s pretty common to see the word 知りません used in the past tense when you say “I didn’t know that” about new information that a person just provided you with. In order to do that, we have to add でした (deshita) to the end of it.

  • 知りませんでした。
  • shirimasen deshita.
  • I didn’t know that.

Or if you’re in an informal situation, you might just use 知らなかった (shirana katta) instead.

I Don’t Care In Japanese

There are a number of ways to say “I don’t care” in Japanese and I’ve actually written about them before in a previous post.

Click here to learn several ways to say I don’t care.

For this section in today’s post, I’m only going to be covering one of them. I alluded to it earlier and now we’re going to go over it.

Remember how I said that 知る means “to know” and you can changed it to the negative form 知らない to mean “don’t know”? Well, technically that’s true as you can see from the below table.

However, the Japanese word 知らない is actually a common expression that means “I don’t care” or similar to the way that we say “whatever” in English when we’re kind of blowing off something.

So as you can see, there is a possibility to create a misunderstanding for situations where someone asks you a question in Japanese and you reply with 知らない.

You might just want to tell them that you don’t know, but if you use that exact phrase it’ll come off more like “who cares?”

Comments? Questions? Let Me Know!

Well that’s all for today’s post on not-knowing things.

Let me know if you have any comments or questions about the things that I covered in this post. Or if you’ve got anything that you’d like to add to the conversation, that would be great too!

Thanks for reading!

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