Posted by: janecronin | May 13, 2018


The best verb to use when talking about our understanding (or lack of it) in Spanish is “entender”.  This goes against what a lot of English speakers like to think, as they find the verb “comprender” easier to remember.  This is obviously because “comprender” is similar to the English word “comprehend” but in fact, when we’re talking about understanding the spoken or written word, rather than a situation, “entender” is used more commonly.

“Entender” is a root changing verb, which means that in the present tense, and by extension the present subjunctive, the second “e” changes to “ie” in four of its six forms.  Therefore “I understand” is “entiendo” (and “I don´t understand” is “no entiendo”).  In all other tenses and forms “entender” is a completely regular, standard verb.

Going back to the general tendency to use the phrase “no comprendo” or even “no comprende” for “I don´t understand”, I have a cautionary tale for you.  It is quite likely that a Spanish person who is explaining a situation to you – why your car hasn´t been fixed because the parts are still on order but yesterday was a bank holiday in Madrid, for example – that the explanation is completed with a questioning “¿Comprende?”  This means “(Do) you understand?”  (and not “I understand).  I think this is what some people pounce on as a word they can use in all situations.  A while ago I was told the story of some well-meaning expat whose car was stopped by the Guardia Civil.  In response to whatever the policeman said to the driver, he replied with “No comprende”, which he thought meant “I don´t understand” but in actually fact meant “You don´t understand, or comprehend”.  Apparently the Guardia reacted rather badly, which I think you’ll agree is a situation to be avoided.

A useful phrase that means “as far as I understand it” is “a mi entender” (literally – to my understanding).  However, when we try to reach a mutual understanding with someone, we refer to this as an “entendimiento”.   We can also use the reflexive verb “entenderse” in this context.  For example:  “No pude entenderme con mi vecino” (I couldn´t reach an understanding with my neighbour).  To make yourself understood is “hacerse entender”.  There is also a common phrase “dar a entender” which means “to give the impression” or “to lead (someone) to believe”.  The phrase literally translates as “to give to understand” and is therefore a good illustration of how tricky translation can be sometimes!

The opposite of “entender” is “malentender” (to misunderstand – or literally, to understand badly) and as in the above Guardia Civil story, we should always try to avoid “malentendidos” (misunderstandings).  At the end of an explanation, when you want to let someone know that you have actually understood what they have told you, you can say “entendido” (understood!)   However, if you haven´t got a clue what they are talking about you can always say “No entiendo nada” (I don´t understand anything).


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