Hi, everyone! It’s Maša.

I’m an English teacher and often times I get asked advice on how to deliver small talk, what to say when you don’t understand someone, short grammar explanations, and phrases and vocabulary in Business and General English. If you are interested in those topics, you are at the right place – revise your English, brush it up or learn something new.

That’s why welcome to English Snippets – short podcasts on interesting pieces of information in English language.

Today I would like to share a couple of tips on what to say when you don’t understand the person speaking to you in English. It is all about what to say when you don’t understand someone so you can avoid the unpleasant situation by responding effectively, continuing the conversation successfully and keeping your confidence in speaking.

This is great for the situations where you don’t understand someone or when someone asks you a question in English and you freeze and have no idea what they are saying – it all sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to you.

In English, we have a great idiom to describe the situation: To be like a deer caught in the headlights – it describes a situation where you are so frightened you cannot think.

For instance: When I was asked to give a presentation in English, I was like a deer caught in the headlights.

So, let’s look at some of the instances you can use in those situations:

In formal situations, for instance at work, meetings, with clients and customers, use polite phrases such as

“Sorry?” – notice how my intonation goes up

When my intonation goes up, it indicates I didn’t understand or hear something clearly and I want it repeated.

The opposite is to say “I’m sorry.” – my intonation goes down; this is where you apologize for something you did or said.

Another one is

“Excuse me?” – a popular and frequently used phrase

OK, let’s look at the longer phrases where you state you did not understand or hear completely what someone said:

  1. “I want to make sure I understood you perfectly. Could you say that again?”
  2. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Would you mind speaking more slowly?”
  3. “I didn’t catch everything you said. Could you repeat the last part again?”

In all three instances you avoid saying that you don’t understand and rather focus on the fact that you understood almost everything, but you want to be 100 % sure. When you use that kind of language, you focus on your confidence in speaking English and keep the control of the conversation.

Whichever phrase you use, it is OK if it suits you and you find it easy to remember. So don’t learn the phrases by heart, use the ones you feel most comfortable using.

Now, when you find yourself in informal situations, i.e. where you know the people you are speaking to well enough (your close colleagues or friends), you can go with a more conversational style of asking them to repeat themselves or communicate your lack of understanding:

  1. “’Scuse me?” – a more casual way of saying Excuse me. Notice how the first vowel sound is ommited and instead of Excuse me, you hear only “’Scuse me”.
  2. “Wha-dja say?” – can you tell what I just said? If you are not sure, it’s “What did you say?” Native speakers often times blend the words together and you don’t hear them all distinctively.
  3. You will also hear native speakers say “Huh?”, “What?” or “Hmm?”.

Alright, now that you’ve got that, let’s look at few idioms you can use in informal situations to highlight that you don’t understand something, but in a more creative and fun way:

  1. “I can’t make heads or tails of what you are saying.” – This idiom refers to someone or something that’s confusing.
  2.  “That was as clear as mud.” – The person is communicating in a confusing way.
  3.  “I think our wires are crossed.” – When two people have their wires crossed, they are not on the same page, their words are not connecting.

Now I would love to hear from you. Which phrases do you use? What idiom stuck in your mind? Let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for being here and ‘till next time.

Happy speaking!