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When saying that I don't know the language a friend taught me:

Я не понимаю по-ру́сски.

On a (German) language learner site they write to use

Извините, я не понял.

when not understanding what was recently said.

I don't comprehend why I should use imperfective when I don't know the language but perfective when I don't understand what was recently said. Thus I continued searching and found:

Я не понимаю, что вы говорите.

Apparently, both is possible using perfective and imperfective. How can I determine in that context when to use the imperfective (понимать) or the perfective (понять)?

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  • I had a book on maths, by G. Polya, in Russian translation; its English title is "How to solve it?". I always thought it's "Как это решИть?". But the exact translation of the title is "Как это решАть?". The former means "to solve it UP", the latter - a process of the solving. But actually all it does not matter too much. – user219 Jul 5 '12 at 13:33
  • Actually, the translation of the title is not Как это решать, but Как решать задачу (find this by googling пойя решать). I don't know what "solve it up" means, but I think Как решать задачу is a good translation of the title because the point of the book is to explain how to go about solving problems in general, thus more imperfective than perfective. – KCd Jul 5 '12 at 14:45
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Imperfective form denotes "state", perfective form denotes "entering into state". In other words, if you use "понимать", you refer to knowing how something is organized, what something means, and stuff like this. If you use "понять", you refer to a fact that you have realized something or understood something, probably after trying to figure it out for some time.

Examples:

Извините, я не понял, что вы только что сказали.
Excuse me, I didn't understand what you've just said.

Извините, я не понимаю, о чем вы говорите.
Excuse me, I don't understand what are you talking about.

Я прекрасно тебя понимаю. Я понимаю твои чувства.
I understand you perfectly. I understand your feelings.

Я так и не понял, почему ты не пошла на вечеринку.
I didn't understand why you didn't go to the party (and it all happened some time ago, I gave up trying to understand you)

Я не понимал, почему ты не пошла на вечеринку, пока ты мне не объяснила.
I did not understand why you didn't go to the party, before you explained it to me.

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  • A nice explanation! – Quassnoi Jul 5 '12 at 9:25
  • Nice examples. They're very helpful, now I see the different connotation when using "понима́ть" or "понять". – Em1 Jul 5 '12 at 10:23
  • It's actually the same for most verbs that mean "being in some state" vs. "entering into some state". – Olga Jul 5 '12 at 10:47
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Verbs in perfective form lack the present: only past and future simple. If you want present, you'll have to use imperfective form.

In past, the difference is pretty much the same as between English past continuous (or past perfect continuous) and past perfect (or past simple):

  • Я не понимал, что он говорит / I haven't been understanding what he was saying (while doing something else)
  • Я не понял, что он сказал / I haven't understood what he said (once)
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As a side note, you can't say:

Я не понимаю по-русски.

You need to say:

Я не понимаю русский [язык]. (I don't undestand the Russian langauge)

or

Я не говорю по-руский. (I don't speak Russian).

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  • 1
    You can't say "Я не понимаю русский"! "Я не понимаю русский язык" sounds odd to me, too. It sounds as if the speaker was trying to say that he didn't get the logic of Russian grammar, in which case "Я не понимаю русскую грамматику" would meet the bill, or better "Я не разбираюсь в русской грамматике". You could say "Я не понимаю русскую речь" though - that's when you mean only the comprehension of spoken or written Russian. "Я не понимаю по-русски" is also fine, but if your point is not only about comprehension, but about language in general, then the best choice is "Я не говорю по-русски". – brilliant Dec 21 '12 at 6:29

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