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What is the difference between nachvollziehen and verstehen? In my dictionary they both mean “to comprehend”. Do they have a big difference in usage?

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well nachvollziehen has usually a more distanced connotation. You can retrace the way someone has arrived to the thought, but (in some contextes) you might not agree. Like: "ich kann nachvolliehen warum du so denkst, aber ich bin nicht einverstanden", meaning "i can see where you're coming from, but i disagree". It can also be used in the context of a more complicated concept, when you understand each single step that leads to the final conclusion, and not just the conclusion per se. Verstehen, on the other hand, has a more positive connotation. "ich habe verstanden", "i grasped the concept". –  Matthaeus yesterday
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5 Answers 5

"Nachvollziehen" and "verstehen" both are very similar in meaning (as you already found out), but there are some subtle differences that I want to emphasize here.

Example A:
At first you don't understand the reasoning behind someones decision and they explain it to you. You then do understand the chain of thoughts that let to that decision.
Here, you'd rather use "nachvollziehen".
"Verstehen" is valid here as well, but doesn't carry the deductive meaning.

Das kann ich nachvollziehen".
Das ist nachvollziehbar.

Example B:
If you're unable to understand something for technical reasons, like acoustic failure or irritating noises, it would be wrong to use "nachvollziehen".

Wie bitte? Das habe ich nicht verstanden.

Since the word "nachvollziehen" refers basically to the brain-action of understanding something instead of the ear-action (yes, my English is awesome today), you usually don't negate it in the standard way: Use

Das kann ich nicht nachvollziehen.

instead of

*Das habe ich nicht nachvollzogen.

These details are kinda specific, so you should be fine with using both words synonymously in (most?) other places. When in doubt, use "verstehen" since it's more common.

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Short summary:

If you are either able to retrace or to reconstruct something or able to follow someone, then you can use nachvollziehen. If, however, it's just about understanding and comprehension of the nature of something, you can only use verstehen.

Elaborated answer:

Both words have an overlapping sense but verstehen is a little broader in meaning. You can use verstehen when you are able to hear someone, as in Can you hear me?:

Kannst du mich verstehen?

Or if you didn't understand someone, then you say:

Ich kann dich (akkustisch) nicht verstehen.

Apart from that, verstehen is basically used in the sense of to understand the meaning or significance of something. Examples:

  • Die Bedienungsanleitung versteht kein Mensch.
  • Unterschreiben Sie nichts, was Sie nicht verstehen.
  • Ich kann nicht verstehen, wie man so viel Glück auf einmal haben kann.
  • Ich verstehe nicht, warum es dir so wichtig ist.
  • Ich verstehe sehr gut, dass ...

As you probably noticed, verstehen is literally quite close to understand. See also notes on Etymology Online and Wiktionary entry for forstand.

Nachvollziehen is synonymous to verstehen in many contexts. I think there's a simple way to find out if that is true. This is actually already mentioned in the other answer, I will just put it in another way again.

The meaning of nachvollziehen is to retrace or to reconstruct something in mind. Example: If you are able to retrace the feelings someone has when someone close to them died, you can say1:

Ich kann sehr gut nachvollziehen, was du durchmachst.

Another example: Your math teacher explains how to solve an equation and you are not able to follow him, i.e. how to get from, e.g., step 3 to step 4, you can say:

Ich kann nicht ganz nachvollziehen, wie man von Schritt 3 zu Schritt 4 kommt.

In both example you can still go with verstehen though.

1: I am aware that you hardly ever will be able to fully understand what someone is feeling in such a moment; it's just an example to make my point.

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nachvollziehen can be used to differentiate between

  • understand logically
  • and understand the reason (e. g. why somebody has a certain point of view)
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Nachvollziehen has the connotations of being able to "follow" or "get" something.

Verstehen refers to "understanding" in the sense of fully comprehending, not just "getting" a piece of it.

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Nachvollziehen means to comprehend a complex situation by retracing it step by step from beginning to end until you get how this situation or outcome appeared.

Verstehen means just that you got it. Usually without having to retrace the steps. Because the thing to understand was less complex or in other words simple enough to get / understand without having to get a long explanation.

Or you had similar experience and "knew" the steps already. But then if it is complex, you can "nachvollziehen"; if it is simple, you just "verstehen".

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