"Good evening," said Ronan. "Students, are you? And do you learn much, up at the school?"
[Harry] "Erm ––"
[Hermione] "A bit," said Hermione timidly.
"A bit. Well, that's something." Ronan sighed. He flung back his head and stared at the sky. "Mars is bright tonight."
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

What does the bold part mean? From the lexical meaning of something, it seems to mean "that’s an important thing." Yet, an example on a Korean website is translated as "one consolation in sadness," and this can make sense in the context.

What does it really mean?


It doesn't mean it's an important thing; in fact it's sort of the opposite. What Ronan means is that he wished they learned more than "a bit", but he's glad they're at least learning something. He might have said instead "Well, that's better than nothing."

This is generally used when you wish something more/better than what is happening were possible, but are accepting what you can get. For example:

Jim: "Did you get everything we needed for the party? Sally really wanted those special crackers she likes."

Mary: "They didn't have those, but I did find paper plates with unicorns on them!"

Jim: "Well, that's something. Sally does like unicorns."

Wherein Jim really wishes Mary had gotten the crackers, but is pleased that at least something Sally likes will be present.

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Let's say that, instead of winning the lottery, you won $15, which is $7 more than you paid in lottery tickets. Well, at least that's something.

In other words, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Which is to say, it isn't great, like winning the lottery would be. But at least it doesn't suck.

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This is one of those situations where the meaning lies in the tone-of-voice of what's being said.

"A bit. Well, that's something." Ronan sighed.

It's the sigh that gives away his disappointment. As @WendiKidd stated "he'd wished they learned more than a bit"

On the other hand, "that's something" can mean the complete opposite as in

Wow, that's something!

which can imply awe and surprise. It's also used to display being thoroughly impressed - like when you watch Superman overtake a speeding train in a single bound for the first time (because after the second or third time it becomes a little ho-hum, right?). It's a statement one aspires to hear for a much worked-on accomplishment.

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