Like “to know” and “to think” before it, “can” or “able” is an English word where translating into Chinese can be tricky depending on the situation. The differences between the two are very real, and become relatively simple with ample practice and real world exposure.
When you think about “can” in English, it *can* mean a lot of things. It can indicate your “learned” ability to do something (I can play the piano), your ability to complete an action based on circumstances (I can go tomorrow), or whether you are “allowed” to do something (can we smoke in here?)
We’ll take a look at both 会 and 能 separately, dive into some simple example sentences, and finish up with key takeaways.
1. 会- huì
Definition: can, able, will
Ah, yes, the beloved 会. Conjuring up images of meetings, parties, and all other types of social gatherings, it is one of the most commonly encountered of all Chinese characters (number 18 on the Mandarin Poster). For the purposes of this piece, let’s put aside its “social” definitions (社会- shèhuì -society, 聚会- jù huì- party), and focus specifically on its contrast with 能.
The most common use of 会 is “can” or “able to”, specifically for learned knowledge. Use it for actions you know how to do because you acquired the skill as a result of study, not necessarily because you were born with an innate ability.
Tā huì zuò fàn
He can cook
Wǒ bù huì shuō rì yǔ
I can’t speak Japanese
Tā men dōu bù huì dǎ lán qiú
None of them can play basketball
会 is also commonly used to indicate “will”, or “will be”. As shown in the example sentences below, “I will…” or “it will” is typically “会…”
míng tiān huì xià yǔ ma?
Will it rain tomorrow?
nǐ huì qù ma?
Will you go?
nǐ fàng xīn, míng tiān wǒ huì zhǔn shí lái
Don’t worry, I’ll be on time tomorrow.
2. 能- néng
Definition: Ability, capable of, able to
Use 能 to indicate physical ability to do something or complete a task. Considering the present circumstances, 能 indicates whether you are “capable” of completing the action based on the situation.
wǒ míng tiān bù néng qù yóu yǒng
I can’t go swimming tomorrow
Tā yī cì néng hē 7 píng pí jiǔ
He can drink 7 bottles of beer in one go
Nǐ néng bāng wǒ yī gè máng 吗?
Can you help me for a minute?
能 can also mean “be allowed to” or “may do”. In this case it is often interchangeable with 可以, but not with 会.
zài shì nèi bù néng chōu yān
Smoking not allowed inside
wǒ néng cháng yī xià ma?
Can I have a try?
1. 我会喝酒， 但是现在不能. I am able to drink alcohol, but I cannot right now. Thus, I 会 drink, but right now, because of present circumstances (I have to drive later, I have an important meeting in the morning, my girlfriend will get angry), I 不能.
2. Use 能 when your physical ability to do something is dependent on the situation. Use 会 for learned ability, blind to present circumstance.
3. In addition to both meaning “can”, 会 means “will” or “will do”, where 能 means “allowed to”.
That’s it! There is no substitute for practice and immersion, but these definitions, examples, and takeaways should help guide you.