The Chinese room experiment has a fundamental function of giving the system/person interacting with it the illusion that the room understands chinese, but it seems flaky to me what the term understanding really means. What is understanding in humans for contrast?
The way I see it, the human operator inside the chinese room is just like a traditional computer who consults the "rule-book" which happens to be written in English and here we should stop and ask what exactly does it mean when the human understands English?
Searle calls this rulebook as the program but I think that obfuscates the matter of understanding rather than telling us straight out what is meant by the word understanding. A computer understands machine instructions is like saying, a computer obeys the laws of physics and electronics. Of course it does that, it was built that way, and all a program does is change the way electricity flows in the components.
Similarly, the human operator who is reading and "understanding" the rule-book written in English, is just following the laws of physics, deriving "meaning" or rather the illusion of meaning by behaving in a way that is expected of & consistent with that of an English speaker. Of course he can read the rule book in English because he was raised in that society, where his brain could make relations with certain words and behaviors. What he is now, as a mature English speaker, then a complex electronic circuit that can respond in expected ways to how we expect English speakers to respond to English statements.
Where in this picture does understanding creep in? Should we just say that understanding English is an umbrella term for shaping an individual's brain circuitry in such a way that they can respond to English words?
Why does he insist then, that he "really" understands English? Nothing about him understands except his physiology/neurology is now shaped in a way consistent with English speaking.
If a non-native speaker is asked a question about his non-native language in English, he must first associate the best English words consistent with that experience before uttering those, giving the asker the impression of being understood and responded to in English, very similar to what the Chinese room achieves.
I also believe that in order to be intelligible enough to pass the Turing test, Searle's Chinese room should have the property of updating their rule book in addition to performing token manipulation on Chinese symbols. Thus, the rule book is not static and grows over time with each speaker asking specific questions on a topic. The rule book must keep track of this. Therefore, is this change in rule-book volume the component of understanding?
This issue is made worse when we take into account the conscious first person experience of the person. An English speaker's persistence is based upon the confidence he "feels" (another word I'm not sure about), in his consciousness. Seeing that we have just explained his confidence in terms of how good he gets at shuffling around English tokens that falls on his ears and spitting the right ones back, consistent with his experience of the world, there is no room left for the understanding bit of the story.
Summary: We are English-rooms, and our rule book is our neurology, so how are we any different from Chinese rooms in the "understanding" bit of the question?