Neng, Keyi, Hui
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One of the difficulties when translating from one language to another is that certain words can have more than meaning. The English word can is a good example.
Beside the obvious distinction between can = noun and can = auxiliary verb, there are several meanings for the auxiliary verb can, and these meanings each take a different word in Mandarin Chinese.
DAYS OF THE WEEK | BASIC MANDARIN
The first meaning of "can" is "permission" - Can I use your pen? This "can" in Mandarin is 可以 kěyǐ:
Wǒ kě bù kě yǐ yòng nǐ de bǐ?
Can I use your pen?
The answer to this question would be either:
bù kě yǐ
We can also use 可以 kěyǐ to suggest an alternative idea, as in:
Nǐ yě kěyǐ xiě zhègè zì.
You can also write this character.
We can also use 可以 kěyǐ (or 不可以 bù kě yǐ) in answer to a question using 能 néng – our next translation of can.
The English word can can also mean "ability" – I'm not busy today, so I can come over. This meaning of can is translated with the Mandarin 能 néng.
We use 能 néng when talking about inherent physical ability, as in “People can’t fly (because they don’t have wings),” or “I can lift a car (because I’m very strong).”
We can also use 能 néng to talk about permission or possibility due to external factors: “I can’t come (because I’m busy right now),” or “I can’t tell you (because I promised to keep it a secret)”.
There is a bit of overlap between 能 néng and 可以 kěyǐ, as in a sentence like:
Wǒ néng bu néng yòng nǐ de bǐ?
Can I use your pen?
As we have already seen, the sentence above could be said with kě bù kěyǐ instead of néng bu néng.
The final meaning of can is "skill" - I can speak French.
To express this idea in Mandarin, use 會/会 huì.
We use 會/会 huì for things we know how to do because of our learned or acquired abilities:
Wǒ huì xiě zì.
I can write Chinese characters (because I’ve learned how to do that).
Wǒ bú huì shuō fa wén.
I can’t speak French (I’ve never learned how to).