What to say if you didn’t understand someone in English

Learning a new language can be a tricky business; but you want to get it right. Right?

When you are learning English, a lot of effort is put into picking up vocabulary, spelling, reading and writing.

However, the area where your learning becomes most crucial is when it finally gets put into practice – not just in the classroom, but in real life. In the classroom, be it online or in a school, someone is at hand to listen, to support, to test you and shape your learning.

But how can you make sure you understand what’s going on once you go out into the world and begin to practice your English? Often as we begin to practice our new-found language skills, we realize that the way words sound in conversation can be very different from how we learned originally. Accents, speed, slang and idiomatic variances can mean we feel very lost – almost as if the other person isn’t speaking English at all.

Here is the EF English Live guide to helpful phrases and words to use when you’re not quite sure what someone is telling you…

Improve your English grammar, vocabulary and more with EF English Live. Get started for free


These short phrases are polite ways to communicate that you didn’t hear or don’t understand something in the English language.

  • Sorry?

  • Excuse me?

  • Pardon?

  • I beg your pardon?
    [this is particularly formal and now mostly used in England]

Longer formal sentences

These sentences will help you when you don’t understand something even though you have heard it.

  • Sorry, I’m afraid I don’t follow you.

  • Excuse me, could you repeat the question?

  • I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you say it again?

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Would you mind speaking more slowly?

  • I’m confused. Could you tell me again?

  • I’m sorry, I didn’t understand. Could you repeat a little louder, please?

  • I didn’t hear you. Please could you tell me again?


These are more common, casual, conversational ways to ask someone to repeat themselves, or communicate your lack of understanding. Some are more informal (i.e. rude!) than others.

  • Sorry? – most useful for when you simply didn’t hear

  • Sorry, what? – useful for not recognizing the sound you heard

  • A little more informal (can be rude)

  • ‘Scuse me? – a more casual version of ‘excuse me’

  • Huh? – not quite a word but a sound; careful how you use it as it can sound rude; as a sound is more commonly associated with ‘I don’t get it’ or ‘I don’t understand’ rather than ‘I can’t hear you’

  • What? – sometimes this can seem aggressive, be careful!

  • Eh? – a sound usually used to communicate that it is difficult to hear/decipher someone

  • Hmm? – a sound used when you are a bit more absent-minded or maybe not listening so hard


  • Come again?

  • Say what? – this is particularly American English

  • Pass that by me again?

  • You what? – this is more common in the United Kingdom

  • I don’t get it… not a question but a statement, meaning simply ‘I don’t understand’


Idioms are sayings particular to their language of origin. Here we take a look at three that you might use if you wanted to find a more creative way of saying something that sounds complicated, unclear or difficult to understand.

  • I can’t make head nor tail of what you’re saying.

  • This is all Greek to me.

  • Sorry this is as clear as mud to me.