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The rules for the monk ability Tongue of the Sun and Moon state:

Starting at 13th level, you learn to touch the ki of other minds so that you understand all spoken languages. Moreover, any creature that can understand a language can understand what you say.
PHB, pp.79

The text says that this ability is something you learn to do, not something that simply happens to you, so it's not necessarily always on. Further, it seems logical to say that this is something you would do actively. That is, you could choose not to touch someone's mind, thereby excluding them from understanding you. You could also choose not to understand someone yourself, just in case they're telling the funniest joke in the world, or using a subliminal trigger.

Assuming you can choose not to touch someone's mind, let's reason further. Suppose you're speaking and don't know that there is someone listening in nearby. Would they understand you, i.e. is the default that you are or aren't touching someone's mind? Similarly, if you are speaking to a large group of people, would you have to focus on all of them at once for them to understand you? Would this take effort? Is there a range?

My questions are:

  1. Can you exclude some characters from understanding you while allowing others to do so?
  2. Can you decide not to understand someone who is speaking?

Basically, these boil down to: Can you choose not to touch someone's mind?

Then, assuming that the answer to the above is yes:

  1. Do you have to know someone is listening in order for them to understand you?
  2. Is there a limit to the number of people you can affect? A range?

I also asked this related question about the mechanism of the ability.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ please ask your questions individually. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Mar 2 '16 at 21:09
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You're asking for more specific rules about how Tongue of the Sun and Moon works, but you've already quoted all of the relevant text. There are no more relevant rules.

This is pretty much entirely in the realm of "Ask your DM". 5th Edition is a lot less precisely specced than 4th, or even 3rd, and this kind of question about what happens in situations where something isn't called out directly in the rules is supposed to be handled by the DM. There are no mechanics for how "touching the ki of other minds" works on a spiritual level, so this is well within the bounds of DM rulings.

That said, in one of my games, I'd allow you to do basically whatever you wanted to do with that ability. I feel that class features should always be benefits, not hindrances, and that creative play should be rewarded. Want to talk to some people, but not others? Great! That sounds like an interesting and non-linear way of using that ability. Want to purposely not understand someone speaking Demonic, since they may be cursing you? That'd work too.

For your third question: I'd run it that you don't have to know that someone is specifically listening, if you don't want to. Like, you could say something to an apparently empty stadium filled with invisible people with the intent that everyone who can hear you can understand you, and everyone would understand you, even if you don't really know that they're there.

For your fourth question: You're not really affecting people with anything, per se. Since there's no mention of a range, or any kind of targeting constraints, I'd run it that you could speak and understand anyone, anywhere. If someone broadcast a message on a TV in a different language, I'd let you understand it.

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Reading through the PHB I would argue that you would have to touch the person a.k.a. touch the ki of someone before understanding and communicating with him. Every other attack or bonus manipulating someone's ki in the book does need you to "touch/hit" him as well.

PHB pg.76:

The Magic of Ki

Monks make careful study of a magical energy that most monastic traditions call ki. This energy is an element of the magic that suffuses the multiverse - specifically, the element that flows through living bodies. Monks harness this power within themselves to create magical effects and exceed their bodies' physical capabilities, and some of their special attacks can hinder the flow of ki in their opponents. Using this energy, monks channel uncanny speed and strenglh into their unarmed strikes. As they gain experience, their martial training and their mastery of ki gives them more power over their bodies and the bodies of their foes.

Monks learn that Ki is the inner energy of someone/somethings. "Touch the Ki" (PHB pg.79: Tongue of the Sun and the Moon) would require a touch of the inner energy.

PHB pg.80:

Quivering Palm

At 17th level, you gain the ability to set up lethal vibrations in someone's body. When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike, you can spend 3 ki points to start these imperceptible vibrations.

The Monk needs to hit someone and spend his Ki to start vibrations in someone else.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Please don't hesitate to take the Tour if you have any questions. Also, for questions using the "Rules-As-Written" tag you must provide a link to a source to support your argument. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Jul 28 '15 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sandwich Not "must"—the tag has no special rules—but it's advisable because voters expect a solidly-backed answer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 28 '15 at 16:11

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