How to Let People Know You Don’t Understand in French

Tell me if this situation sounds familiar. You’re having a conversation with a French person, and you’re SO excited to finally be using your French. But, all of a sudden, the person you’re speaking with says something that you didn’t understand, and you lose the thread of the conversation.

You’re stuck! What do you do?! You don’t want to switch the conversation back to English, right? Well, I’m here to help, with some ready-made sentences that you can memorize and use whenever this happens to you!

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1) What to say when you don’t understand French

Formal “correct” French:

  • Je n’ai pas compris. = I didn’t understand.
  • Qu’est-ce que t’as dit ? = What did you say?
  • Je n’ai pas compris ce que vous avez dit. = I didn’t understand what you said.
  • Je ne comprends pas ce que vous dites. = I don’t understand what you’re saying, or I don’t understand when you speak.
    → Great when there’s a thick glass panel, a broken microphone or a mask that makes words unintelligible.

Informal French with friends:

  • J’ai pas compris. = I didn’t understand (Informal French: cut the “ne” !)
  • J’ai pas compris ce que t’as dit. = I didn’t understand what you said. (With “tu”)

For politeness, you can start with “Excusez-moi” / “Excuse-moi” (= Excuse me, with “vous” or “tu.”) And for extra-Frenchness, you can also use “venir de” (= just) about the recent past. For instance:

  • Excuse-moi, j’ai pas compris ce que tu viens de dire. = Excuse me, I didn’t understand what you just said.

I dive deeper into the conjugation of “comprendre” (= to understand) in section 4 of this lesson.

Click here to learn more about some of these examples:

2) How to ask to repeat something in French

  • Vous pouvez répéter ? = Can you repeat?
  • Vous pouvez répéter, s’il vous plaît ? = Can you repeat, please?
  • Tu peux répéter ta phrase ? = Can you repeat your sentence ?

And don’t hesitate to call for a stop, with Attends / Attendez (= Wait):

  • Attends, tu peux répéter ? = Wait, can you repeat ?
  • Attendez, je n’ai pas compris. = Wait, I didn’t understand.

In general, ask them if they could speak slower:

  • Vous pouvez parler plus lentement ? = Can you speak slower ?
  • Plus lentement, s’il te plaît ? = Slower, please?

French people love to speak fast, though. They might speak slower for a few sentences if you ask them… but they’ll quickly pick up the pace, I’m afraid. At this point, you’ll also need to better understand spoken French altogether.

Click here to learn more:

3) What to say when you’re really lost in French

  • Je suis perdue. = I’m lost.
  • Je suis complètement perdue. = I’m completely lost.
  • J’ai rien capté. / J’ai rien pigé. = I didn’t understand anything. (slang)
  • J’ai rien compris. = I didn’t understand anything.

You can also a one-word answer, such as:

  • Pardon ? = Sorry? (Very useful! Short and polite!)
  • Quoi ? = What? (less elegant)
  • Hein ? = Huh? (even less elegant)

You can use these one-word answers anytime you don’t understand something, really.

Pardon and Hein have “nasal sounds”, and that can be a bit tricky to pronounce. Practice your French pronunciation here:

 

In the video, I use a clip from the 1972 song “Fais comme l’oiseau” (= Do like the bird), by French singer Michel Fugain. It’s a French adaptation of the 1971 Brazilian hit “Você abusou.” I find the French (and international) trend of adapting songs quite fascinating, to be honest.

4) What to say when you didn’t hear something they said in French

  • Excusez-moi, je n’ai pas entendu (ce que vous venez de dire). = Excuse me, I didn’t hear (what you just said.)
  • Excuse-moi, j’ai pas entendu (ce que t’as dit.) = Excuse me, I didn’t hear (what you said.) (Informal French)
Ask them to speak louder:
  • Vous pouvez parler plus fort ? = Can you speak louder?
  • Parle plus fort ! = Speak louder!
Mix it up if you’re feeling comfortable: Excusez-moi, je n’ai pas entendu ce que vous venez de dire. Vous pouvez parler plus fort, s’il vous plaît ? = Excuse me, I couldn’t hear what you just said. Can you speak louder, please? It’s formal and elegant! Or with a friend: Pardon ? J’ai pas compris. J’entends rien, parle plus fort ! = Sorry? I didn’t understand. I can’t hear a word, speak louder! This uses the verb entendre = to hear. It follows the same conjugation as comprendre = to understand. Entendre :
  • J’entends = I hear.
  • Tu entends = You hear.
  • Il / Elle / On entend = He / She hears / We hear (informal)
  • Nous entendons = We hear.
  • Vous entendez = You hear.
  • Ils / Elles entendent = They hear.
Comprendre :
  • Je comprends. = I understand.
  • Tu comprends= You understand.
  • Il / Elle / On comprend = He / She understands / We understand (informal)
  • Nous comprenons = We understand.
  • Vous comprenez = You understand.
  • Ils / Elles comprennent = They understand.
The past participle (and le passé composé) are different though:
  • J’ai entendu. Tu as entendu ? = I heard. Did you hear?
  • J’ai compris. Tu as compris ? = I understood. Did you understand?

“Entendre” is a false cognate in Spanish (and other Latin languages.) It didn’t use to be that way, though!
In French, “to understand” used to be “entendre” (like the Spanish “entender”) and “to hear” used to be “ouïr” (like the Spanish “oir.”)

However, a shift happened: “comprendre” took the place of “entendre”, “entendre” took the place of “ouïr”, and “ouïr” simply fell out of fashion.

You might still stumble on these older definitions in old novels or in some (often formal) French expressions.

5) “What does it mean in French?” and “How do you spell it?”

And “How do you say that word in French?”

Sometimes, you just lack the vocabulary. You can ask:

  • Comment on dit “[thing]” en français? = How do you say “thing” in French?
  • Comment on dit “[thing]” en français, déjà ? = How do you say “thing” in French, again?
  • Ça veut dire quoi “[machin]” (en français) ? = What does “machin” mean (in French)?
  • C’est comme ça qu’on dit ? = Is that how you say it?
  • C’est correct ? = Is that correct?

In the second question above, I added “déjà.” It means “already,” but at the end of a question, it means “Again? / Remind me? / By the way?”

Click here to learn more:

Finally, spoken French is hard not only because it’s fast, but also because it’s… well, because it’s not written.

So you might need to ask :

  • Comment ça s’écrit ? = How do you write that?
  • Comment ça s’épelle ? = How do you spell it?
  • Vous pouvez l’épeler ? = Can you spell it?

For example, in a full sentence:

  • Attends, c’est quoi ce mot ? Tu peux l’épeler ? = Wait, what’s that word? Can you spell it?
  • Attendez, je ne comprends pas ce mot [raisins]. Vous pouvez l’épeler, s’il vous plaît ? = Wait a minute, I don’t understand that word. Can you spell it, please?

Be careful here, though: “raisins” means “grapes.” And “Vous pouvez l’épeler, s’il vous plaît ?” sounds exactly the same as “Vous pouvez les peler s’il vous plaît ?” (= Can you peel them (for me) please ?)
[ So yeah, that’s a pun for the blog readers who read this far. Tell me about it in the comments ! 😉 ]

6) When you don’t understand in French: recap and examples

Let’s recap with some final examples. Can you understand each word? Can you understand how these sentences “work” ?

 

  • Vous pouvez parler plus lentement, s’il vous plaît ? = Can you speak slower, please?
  • Pardon, je n’ai pas compris ce que tu viens de dire. = Sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said.
  • Tu peux répéter, s’il te plaît ? = Can you repeat, please?

Learn them in depth, and think about variations. Practice switching between “tu” and “vous”, between “slower” and “louder,” and adding politeness and grammatical construction!

That’s a lot to master, I know, but knowing these examples will help you a lot when you’re in French someday.

You can come back to this lesson anytime, and explore the other lessons I shared today.

Or click here to learn more:

 

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!


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