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Why does "to make oneself understood" mean "to communicate effectively"?

How can I understand this sentence?

He could make himself understood in sign language with only a few of his closest friends and relatives.

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To understand something is to comprehend it, or to make it clear. From The Free Dictionary:

understand v.tr.

  1. To perceive and comprehend the nature and significance of; grasp. See Synonyms at apprehend.

So to make something understood is to make it clear to others. Therefore to make yourself understood is to make your own words/actions clear to others. This is along the lines of being effective at communicating, because you're ensuring that others understand what you're trying to tell them.

As for your example sentence:

He could make himself understood in sign language with only a few of his closest friends and relatives.

This means that only his closest friends understand what he's saying when he uses sign language. The implication is that he's not very good at it, so only people who are around him a lot can comprehend his meaning. This is similar to when babies first start talking, and only their families can understand them clearly.

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