I ran into the sentence in Duolingo:

本当に? 弟も中国ができます

which I was supposed to translate as:

Really? My younger brother also knows Chinese. 

I was a little rusty about the usage is "ができます" so I ran it through Google and Deepl, but neither translate it that way.

Google translates it as:

Really? My younger brother can also go to China

and Deepl translates it as:

Really? My brother can go to China.

Have to say, I've not been impressed with Deepl lately. I don't have to be an expert to know that it missed the usage is も.

I thought the できます meant "can"? Why wouldn't Duolingo use を知っています for "to know" a language?

Which translation is correct? Or are they all wrong?

  • 2
    中国 means China, not Chinese. Chinese (as a language) is 中国語.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented May 24 at 17:22
  • 1
    Duolingo sucks donkey balls. It is very detrimental to learning Japanese, except for Hiragana and Katakana. Commented May 24 at 21:36
  • 1
    Google and DeepL translate 本当に? 弟も中国ができます to, respectively, "Really? My younger brother can speak Chinese too." and "Really? My brother speaks Chinese too." If you copied the sentence accurately, the problem is with Duolingo.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented May 24 at 21:54
  • 1
    @NoelWhitemore I'm pretty sure that the apparent use of 中国 and 中国語 both for the Chinese language is merely a typo.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented May 24 at 23:03
  • 1
    Just to asnwer the question from the title, you may say できる, 分かる and 話せる for "speak" (a language); if you MUST you can use 知っている which literally translates to "know", but this verb isn't used as much as the ones above for this intent. Commented May 25 at 6:44

2 Answers 2


Normally, in Japanese one doesn't literally "know" a language; we use other verbs to express this instead. The English idea of "knowing" a language is actually a bit strange - or rather, the English verb "to know" is broad in a way not seen in many other languages. It's not as if the English language could be turned into a question, such that an English speaker knows the answer to that question.

(Aside: The 知っている/分かる distinction is not unlike savoir/connaître in French or wissen/kennen in German. And yes, 知っている isn't a plain form, but the reason why we don't typically use 知る is a whole other story.)

できる is a common choice. It's used as the potential form of する "to do"; so it sort of means "to be able to", "to be capable of" etc. (Yes, it's irregular - rather, it's a suppletion.) But it's a real verb, not a modal like the English "can"; the thing that "can be done" is typically (but not always) the grammatical subject; and that subject can be an ordinary noun. So 中国語ができます -> some action involving 中国語 is possible.

Of course, as Gui Imamura pointed out in the comments, it's also perfectly fine to say that you 分かる (understand) a language, or 話せる (can speak) it, etc.


I think the most common, general, and natural phrasing is

中國語ができます . . . I can speak Chinese.

I think 「. . . が話せます」requires a bit more context:

Q: "何か外國語を話せますか?"
A: "中國語が話せます。"

On the other hand, 「中國語を知っています」 would require a narrower context. For example,

Q: "Can you speak some second language?"
A: "中國語を少し知っています。" . . . I can speak Chinese just a little.

because you hesitate to say 話せます. That is, 「話せます」and「できます」imply that you can speak it adequately. If you aren't confident, you resort to 「少し知っています」。(But, at the moment, I can't think of a context where「知っています」 without 少し is appropriate.)

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