#167: Professional English — What to Say When You Don’t Understand

by | Mar 11, 2020 | 42 comments

This lesson was originally published in 2015.
In 2020, it was updated with new content and a video lesson.

Have you heard the idiomatic expression, “like a deer in headlights?” To feel like a deer in headlights means to be so frightened or surprised that you can’t think, move, or speak. It’s the perfect idiom to use when you don’t understand someone in English.

Have you ever felt like a deer in headlights when speaking English?

Maybe they used a new word. Maybe it was their accent or how fast the spoke. Maybe it’s a new situation and you’re feeling nervous. 

But when someone asks you a question in English and you don’t understand, what do you do?

Many of us freeze. We don’t know what to say. The conversation stops. And we feel silly.

If that happens to you sometimes, let’s talk about how to fix it.

Today you’re going to learn the same expressions native speakers use when they don’t understand someone. 

Plus, I’ll include pronunciation tips so you’ll also learn how to say them more naturally.

Today’s lesson is focused on professional expressions in English, but these are also perfect to use when you’re talking to someone you don’t know very well.

But I did include a little bonus section with slang and information expressions as well.

Find out what native speakers say when they don’t understand so you can use the same expressions.
Lesson by Annemarie

What to Say When You Don’t Understand Someone in English 

When You Don’t Understand Someone

The questions below are always polite and professional to use in a conversation when you don’t understand someone or didn’t hear them clearly.

Be sure to watch the video lesson to get some useful pronunciation tips so you sound more natural when you use these questions.

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you said. Could you repeat it (more slowly)?
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that? Would you mind repeating it?
  • I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you clearly. Could you say that again?
  • I’m sorry, what was that?
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Could you repeat that, please?
  • I’m sorry?

When a Word or Expression is New

Use these the questions below when you don’t know the meaning of a specific word or expressions.

Be sure to watch the video lesson to get some useful pronunciation tips so you sound more natural when you use these questions.

  • I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you meant by [insert word or expression]?
  • That’s a new word/expression for me. Could you explain it?
  • What does [insert word or expression] mean?*

*Careful with this question. I often hear a mistake with the word order and structure of this sentence. For example, I hear: “What does it mean, deer in headlights?

To fix this, remove “it” and replace it with the word or expression that is new, for example: “What does ‘deer in headlights’ mean?

English Slang and Idioms to Use When You Don’t Understand Someone

Of course, with friends, family members, and close colleagues, it’s 100% okay to be more informal. So let’s look at a few examples of what you can say when you don’t understand another person.

Be sure to watch the video lesson for pronunciation tips and to learn more about how we use the idioms below.

 

  • What did you say? (Be sure to watch the video lesson for a pronunciation tip!)
  • What was that?
  • Excuse me? (Be sure to watch the video lesson for a pronunciation tip!)
  • What?
  • Huh?
  • Hmm?
  • I can’t make heads or tails of what you’re saying.
  • I think our wires are crossed.
  • Everything you said is just a word salad.
  • That was as clear as mud.

 

If you’d like to learn more about connected speech — which I highlight in this lesson — be sure to watch:

Sound More Fluent & Speak Faster in English

I’d love to hear from you and learn about your experiences! Please share your stories and advice in the comments section below:

  1. What is one question or idiom you learned in this lesson that you can use the next time you don’t understand someone? Try using it in your own example for practice. 
  2. Do you have a favorite question or phrase that you already use? If so, share it here. It might be perfect for someone else in the Confident English Community.

Thanks so much for joining me.

~ Annemarie

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