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Based on what I've been learning, it seems that by saying 分からない, your suggesting that you just don't do "the act of understanding," but if you say 分かっていない, you are saying that "right now, I don't understand." However, I hear people say 分からない to mean "I don't understand" much more often. Is it just more colloquial, or am I missing something grammatically?

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Based on what I've been learning, it seems that by saying 分からない, your suggesting that you just don't do "the act of understanding," but if you say 分かっていない, you are saying that "right now, I don't understand.

I only wonder where and/or how you have been learning Japanese.

However, I hear people say 分からない to mean "I don't understand" much more often.

There you go! That is the default "I don't know/understand." for the native speakers.

Is it just more colloquial, or am I missing something grammatically?

It has nothing to do with formality -- none. It has much to do with the particular nuance of each phrase (especially わかっていない).

Things you わからない are as follows (as vague as they might sound).

New concepts/information. Things you have been told about or taught just now. In other words, things that you have fairly valid reasons to not know or understand.

For instance, let's pretend that I just explained to you how to use a certain idiomatic expression in Japanese. If you do not understand it, you would say 「わからない/わかりません」. It's alright because idiomatic expressions can be very difficult for the learners to use correctly or actively. Besides, I am a terrible teacher. A native speaker would almost never say 「わかっていない/わかっていません」 in that type of situation.

Things you わかっていない are as follows.

Old information and common sense. Things you are "supposed" to know/understand. Things that you might not have very good reasons to not know/understand. What have you been doing all these months/years?

There is a fairly clear lack of effort or willingness to learn on your part. That is when we use 「わかっていない/わかっていません」.

  • I think the reason I thought that わかっていない would make more sense is because I learned that you the ている form to show an enduring state, but this cleared it up, ty. – Jake Wiener Jun 17 '18 at 23:17
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It’s the same as English, you either do or do not understand. Saying “I’m not understanding” is not a natural way for people to say it.

わからない

わかりません

I don’t understand

You don’t use the て form for this. However, it is common to use the past form.

わかった

わかりました

oh, now I understand

yes, understood

While 分{わ}かる is the correct kanji, this is often written in hiragana by native speakers. The 普通形{ふつうけい} (conversational forms) are commonly used but it is still encouraged to use the polite forms with people you aren’t familiar with.

Similarly, you don’t use the て form for “know”. Since you aren’t in the act of “not knowing”, you just “don’t know” at the moment (or won’t indefinitely).

知{し}らない

知{し}りません

I don’t know

  • English understand is stative so we typically use the simple present: I understand. But it is not infrequently used with a dynamic meaning, which allows it to appear in the progressive be V-ing construction: if I'm understanding you correctly, for example. Likewise, in Japanese speakers do say both 分かる and 分かっている, along with 分からない and 分かっていない, so the explanation given in this post doesn't appear to work. It's also not true that you either do or do not understand; we frequently say things like I understand a little better now or I kind of understand. – snailcar Jun 19 '18 at 19:25
  • Indeed there are different expressions for understanding in both languages. However, the original question is a specific misunderstanding about a particular usage. I’ve specifically addressed this context, which is the most common use of わかる in daily life. – Tom Kelly Jun 20 '18 at 0:25

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