Learning Japanese can be quite tricky for those just starting out. First you learn some basics, like how objects are followed by the を particle. Then, you learn 分かる (wakaru) means ‘to understand’ in Japanese. Your first instinct would probably be to try and write a sentence like this:
- 僕は日本語を分かる [Wrong!]
However this sentence is grammatically incorrect. The reason is that わかる it is an intransitive verb, so it usually doesn’t take an object using を.
Rather, the proper way to say this would be the following:
- I understand Japanese.
In this sentence 僕 is the topic, 日本語 is the subject, and 分かる is the verb.
To help myself understand the usage of 分かる, I sometimes think of it as ‘to be understood’. In fact you can also use には before the topic of the sentence like this:
- Japanese is understood by me => I understand Japanese.
As with many other uses of が, it’s often safe to omit it. In fact, in this example sentence I would argue it’s more natural without the が。
- I don’t understand that.
分かる is often used in the past tense (分かった）where it is close in meaning to the English expressions “I got it” or “OK”.
Since the 〜ている form can be used to express an ongoing state (such as 知ってる, “I know”), you might wonder if 分かる can also be used in this form. It can, but it carries an exaggerated connotation, as in this brief dialog.
- Father: 明日、学校だよ！
- Father: You have school tomorrow!
- Child: 分かってるよ！
- Child: I know!
Though 分かってる can mean ‘I understand’, another one of it’s meanings is ‘to know’, and that fits better in this situation.
Similarly, 分かって(い)ない is only used when you really want to exaggerate that someone doesn’t know something.
If really want to use を, you can with the verb 理解する (rikai suru) which also means ‘to understand’, but is a transitive verb that takes an object as you would expect. Just keep in mind it’s a bit more stiff/formal than わかる。
- I generally understand math.
As I mentioned above, を is usually not used with the verb 分かる. However, sometimes when 分かる is used in place of 理解する you can see を分かる used. There is some debate as to whether this is grammatically correct, so I don’t recommend ever trying to use that yourself. If you are curious, you can see a nice thread on the topic here in Japanese.
One final interesting thing about わかる is that the kanji frequently used to write it, ”分” also means “to divide” (it’s also used as the counter for minutes). If you think about it, being able to “divide things” can be seen as an important step in understanding something, like identifying the basic components that are part of a complex thing. So “日本語が分かる” would translate to “Japanese can be divided”, and hence “understood”. I haven’t researched the origin of 分かる so it may be nothing more than conjecture, but I enjoy this sort of philosophical connection nonetheless.
わかる can also be written as 解る or 判る, though these are used less frequently than 分かる。