It may seem like a small thing, but, if you think about it, it really could be important some day to know if someone is asking “if you are able do such-and-such” or “if you will do such-and-such”. You don’t want to accidentally be thinking you are indicating an ability, only to find you have agreed to prepare food for the company’s summer picnic. There are a few key things that can help you out. For this lesson, I was being taught about the use of the Chinese word “hui” 會, pronounced pretty much like the English “way”, but with a definite “hw” at the beginning and said in an emphatic down tone. “Hui” most commonly means one of the following: will, able, understand, meet or meeting. (you can click on the photo to enlarge it.)
First of all, if there is a reference to a specific time near the beginning of the question, this is most likely asking if you will be doing something because it is assumed or known that you are able. For instance, both of these questions are asking when or if cooking will be done for a certain meal.
(ni3) (shen2 me. shi2 hou4) (hui4) (zuo4) (fan4) ?
(you) (what time, when) (will) (make) (meal)?
When will you cook (the meal)?
(ni3) (jin1 tian1) (hui4) (zuo4) (fan4) (ma.)?
(you) (today) (will) (make) (meal) (particle marking this as a question)
Will you cook today?
Whereas this one is inquiring about the ability to cook:
(ni3) (hui4 bu2 hui4) (zuo4) (fan4)?
(you) (able not able) (make) (meal)
Can you cook?
or you might put it like this –
(ni3) (hui4) (zuo4) (fan4) (ma.)
(you) (able) (make) (meal) (particle marking this as a question)
Another clue is if the “hui” (會) has a concrete, time dependent verb associated with it, like “go”. This type of verb means that a particular potential action is being asked about, not just an abstract knowledge of whether you know how to do something. So,
(ni3) (hui4 bu2 hui4) (you2 yong3)
(you) (able not able) (swim)
Are you able to swim?
is probably a more important question than:
(ni3) (hui4) (qu4) (you2 yong3) (ma.)
(you) (will) (go) (swim) (particle marking this as a question)
Will you go swimming?
Possibly it will be even more clear if the speaker throws in some time frame clues. Notice that it doesn’t matter if the question is indicated by using the phrasing “hui4 bu2 hui4” or “hui4 …. ma.” What is important is the time and the verb.
(jin1 tian1) (xia4 wu3) (ni3) (hui4 bu2 hui4) (qu4) (you2 yong3)?
(today) (after noon) (you) (will not will) (go) (swim)?
Will (or will you not) you go swimming this afternoon?
And then there are other important questions like –
Are you able to make cookies?
Can you make cookies today?
Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule (in every language), so some things just have to be memorized and practiced. Sometimes there is no replacement for knowing what the whole conversation is about to help understand the question. And there is the age old trick of using synonyms to help clarify. The Chinese word “neng2” 能 also means “can, able to, capability” so you could ask
(ni3) (neng2 bu4 neng2) (pao3 bu4)
(you) (able not able) (run)
Are you able to run?
although you might want to add more helpful context, like
(pao3) (de.) (bi3) (e4 yu2) (kuai4)
(run) (ending indicating possible action) (compared to) (crocodile) (fast)
Put it all together and you have: Can you (or can you not) run “faster than a crocodile.” Hypothetically, of course, for most of you (click here to see other examples of how crocodiles have helped me study Chinese).