Does ぜんぶ分からない mean ‘I don’t understand at all’, or ‘I don’t understand all of it?’ I would’ve thought the former, but I’m not sure anymore. How do we say each English sentence in Japanese? Am I thinking about this from the wrong angle? I didn’t want to use だいたい or ちょっと so…


  1. 全部 is a noun meaning ‘everything’. Therefore the example you gave means ‘I don’t understand anything’- if you use the particle が, that is (although see the next paragraph). The fact you’ve not used a particle makes this example ambiguous, and, speaking from a strict grammatical point of view, incorrect. If you were to use は as the particle, though, then the example could come close to meaning ‘I don’t understand all [of what’s been said, etc.], but I do understand some of it’. You could say, for example, 全部は分かりませんが、前半はだいたい問題ありません。In other words, ‘I don’t understand everything, but the first half (of the text, or whatever) is basically fine.’
    全部が分からない, by the way, sounds slightly unnatural to me. For ‘everything’ used in a negative sentence, like here, I’d use 全く(まったく)- unless you want to stress that you do understand some parts (by using は, as above). You could also use something like 一部(いちぶ)to make clear that there is some part that you don’t understand.

  2. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone say this. Are you sure you don’t mean 全然わからない?

  3. Nathan, you’ve given me some good particle advice to think over there.
    Hmm, yes, 全然分からない would be natural.
    Basically I am looking for a way to say ‘I don’t quite understand everything that was said.’ without having to say something as long as you kind wrote Nathan (using ‘but’).

  4. This is an interesing topic that I’ve thought about before. I have a theory I hope you won’t mind me sharing.
    When I was teaching English I often forbid my students to say “I don’t understand” because I felt it implies a sort of “giving up” like “I don’t understand, the end” also subconsciously it kind of promotes a defeatist attitude. Of course students learned this early on to cope with when they really didn’t understand and to communicate that, but it’s never effective because the person they are talking to doesn’t know what part they didn’t understand. Most people they would encounter would not be English teachers patient enough to explain things politely until they understood. So I tried to teach them a more active coping strategy. Instead of “I don’t understand” I encouraged them to say “Do you mean…?” or “What do you mean by..?” etc..
    This seems to be a more natural kind of communication catch ball where the exchange throws what they think they understand back and forth for confirmation until both parties are sure they understand each other.
    In Japanese, I try to use “わからない” only as “I don’t know” and try not to use “I don’t understand”. If I don’t understand something like I’m in a store and some clerk is explaining something, I try to explain it back to him as a question. For example “つまり…ということですか?” or “XXXってどんな意味ですか” or “XXXってYYYということですか?” where I don’t understand XXX but I’m guessing it might be same as YYY.
    I know this doesn’t answer your question but maybe it might help you. I know that my encounters with Japanese got better when I applied this kind of strategy.

  5. That’s some really great advice there Roy. When I use ‘分からない’ I often wonder whether the person I’m talking to realises which I mean, ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Normally it’s, ‘I don’t understand.’
    If I am faced with a stream of Japanese which I don’t understand then it might be harder to use your strategy but then again maybe you could use: それはXXXということですか.
    As for my original question, maybe I am looking for something which doesn’t really exist in Japanese.

  6. Hi, Darren,
    In my opinion, ‘全部わからない’ sounds childish or too broken.
    (I sometimes use it when I speak in dialect )
    ‘I don’t understand at all’ = 全然(全く)わかりません
    ‘I don’t understand all of it’ = どれもわかりません
    →どれもわかりません or 全くわかりません
    ‘全くわかりません’ can be used for both questions.
    I think it is because the number of object (all of IT or THEM ) is
    not so important in Japanese.