Word of the week: yì si
If you’re learning Mandarin one thing I suggest you never say is wǒ tīng bù dǒng 我听不懂 (literally ‘I listen not understand’) or any of the other ways to say “I don’t understand” when trying to talk to a stranger. From my experience people will often take it to mean that you don’t understand Chinese at all and promptly stop trying to communicate with you. Either that or they will try and switch to their terrible English, which might not be any better than your Chinese.
A better option is to say wǒ tīng bù qīng chu我听不清楚 (I can’t hear clearly). This seems to shift the problem onto the speaker and they will often continue trying to communicate but make a bit of extra effort to slow down and put on their clearest, most standard Mandarin.
But sometimes it’s not a language thing at all, you just don’t understand the content. In these situations wǒ bù míng bai 我不明白 might contextually be better way to say “I don’t understand”. If you say wǒ bù míng bai it’s more likely to be interpreted as not understanding the logic or the argument being made, rather than being a reflection of your Chinese listening ability. The speaker might then try to re-word or paraphrase what they just said.
That said, it’s very common for Chinese people to be far more direct and just say shén me yì si 什么意思 (literally “what meaning?”). This you can say when you genuinely don’t understand what the speaker is getting at or when you don’t know a word. You can also just repeat the word you don’t know and add shì shén me yì si.
zhè jù huà shì shén me yì si (what does this sentence mean?)
yì si can also be used as a verb and when used as a verb it has a much more interesting meaning and usage. Firstly, you can use it to mean you do something but your heart isn’t really in it, you just do it as a bit of a show, something that you feel obliged to do and so you do it to just get it out the way.
Maybe, like many married people, you don’t like your mother in law but it’s Christmas day and you feel obliged to visit her. In this situation you could say to your husband or wife. wǒ men dāi bàn gē xiǎo shí, chī fàn yǐ hòu jiù zǒu. yì si yí xià ba (let’s just stay half an hour, have dinner and go. Meaning a little bit.) Here the phrase yì si yí xià perhaps most directly translates as “give a little meaning” but we can interpret it as “go round at Christmas just to show our faces”.
Or maybe you’re buying a Christmas present for a distant relative that you don’t know too well. You’re not going to buy them an expensive gift, but you buy them a little something just because you want to yì si yí xià (let them know you thought of them).
Similarly, if you’re a teacher and your school has provided you with a really bad textbook you might just bring it out for five minutes at the begging of class, ask the students to look as one page very briefly and then put it away. You’re not really working from the textbook, you’re just making a show of using it so you can yì si yí xià.