When you are learning English, there is one sentence that you have to say a lot, or you feel you have to say a lot. It is, ‘Can you repeat that?’, ‘Can you repeat that please?’, or ‘Please, could you repeat that?’. When you talk to natives and especially when you are listening to natives speak, it is highly likely that you won’t understand everything that they’ve said and you will probably want to ask them to repeat something so you can try to understand.
Unfortunately, many students feel embarrassed because they’re saying the same sentence over and over again. Can you repeat that? Sorry, can you repeat that? Please, can you repeat that? A lot of my students tell me that in the end they just give up and stop asking for repetition, which really isn’t good for their listening practice.
This post is really going to help you improve your speaking skills and indirectly help you with your vocabulary as well as your pronunciation. But if you want to improve your vocabulary and your listening skills even further, then I highly recommend the special method of reading books and at the same time, listening to their audio books on Audible.
It sounds complicated but it’s not so. Let us explain. Take a book that you have already read in English or a book that you would like to read in English. And once you’ve chosen that book, read it whilst listening to the audio book version on Audible. We recommend Audible in particular because they’ve got the most amazing range of books with fantastic native narrators.
Reading alone will not help you with your pronunciation because English isn’t a strictly phonetic language. The way something is written in English might not give you any indication as to how that word is pronounced in English. It’s like the spelling and the pronunciation is nearly separate. This is why so many students find pronunciation so hard but if you listen to a word as you read it, your brain will start making connections and the next time you see
that word written down, you’ll know exactly how it’s meant to be pronounced. The next time you hear that word, you’ll know exactly how it’s spelled.
Right, let’s get started with the lesson.
So the first alternative way of saying, ‘Sorry, can you repeat that?’, or ‘Sorry, I don’t understand.’ are the most natural native way. It is just one word, it’s ‘sorry’. Sorry? This is what we are most likely to say if we can’t hear or can’t understand what someone is saying.
Make sure you focus on the intonation. Down, up, down, up. That way we are showing the listener that it is a question. We are showing doubt. This is also a word that you can add on to lots of the other phrases which are going to follow but it’s a really nice quick one and because it’s so short, you don’t feel like you are repeating yourself as much if you have to say it over and over again.
Next, we have a slightly more formal one. It is ‘Excuse me?’ Excuse me? Many people end to prefer ‘Sorry’. This is because sometimes if ‘Excuse me’ is said with the wrong tone of voice and the wrong intonation, it can make it sound like you’re slightly offended. If somebody says something offensive to you, you would say, excuse me? Excuse me?
In order to prevent misunderstanding, you should definitely show with my body language that I’m offended. If you can’t understand what someone’s saying, you would say, ‘Excuse me?’ with the right intonation. Excuse me? And maybe shake your head to show that you are having trouble following what they’re saying.
Another one which is even more formal and this isn’t even the most formal one yet. The most formal one is
coming after this one. This is, ‘Pardon?’. Pardon? And this is quite a posh word. Not everyone will consider it to be posh but in general it is more of a posh word.
4.I beg your pardon?
And then the most posh of all of them, the poshest is, I beg your pardon? Now you have to be careful with the intonation of this one because again it can be used to show offence. If somebody says something offensive, I could say, ‘I beg your pardon?’ It’s often used in a jovial sense, kind of in a sarcastic way, maybe to respond to an accidental innuendo or something like that. If we want to use it to ask for repetition, you’ve got to say it like this.
Really showing with your body language and that upward intonation at the end that you are asking a question, a genuine question. If we’re showing offence, we’re likely to push our body back. I beg your pardon?
5.What was that?
Now, back to neither informal nor formal, these are just normal phrases you can say. You could say, what was that?
‘What was that?’ is much nicer than just, ‘What?’. Even better you can follow it with, sorry. ‘What was that, sorry?’ You could also say, ‘What did you say?’ Or ‘What did you say, sorry?’
It feels strange to repeat them over and over again but really the intonation makes it so clear. ‘What did you say, sorry?’
Now what if we want to be just really, really clear? We could just put it out there, you could just say, ‘I don’t understand, could you say that again, please?’ Or, ‘I don’t understand, please could you say that again?’ It doesn’t really matter where you put ‘please’ in the sentence as long as you say ‘please’. Pleases and thank yous are incredibly important, as they show that you are a polite person.
6.What did you just say?
Now if you want someone to repeat something that they have only just said very recently and you want to interrupt
them, stop them there and say. You want that exact sentence repeated again, then you can use the word just.
For example, ‘Sorry what did you just say?’
That’s real connected speech there. What did you just say? Just a little pronunciation tip for you here. You should miss out the /t/ sound between just and say. Say /dʒʌs-seɪ/ instead of /dʒʌst-seɪ/
Or an alternative version, ‘What did you say just then?’ Again, do not include the /t/ sound after just. Say /dʒʌs-ðen/
7. Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that?
Now, if you didn’t understand everything that someone said but you did understand parts of it then you could say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that?’ or ‘I didn’t quite catch that?’ And the ‘quite’ is implying that you understood some of it, you caught some of it but you didn’t catch all of it. And ‘catch’ here is used to mean to hear and understand. It’s a slang use of ‘catch’. So ‘I didn’t catch what you just said’ or ‘I didn’t understand/ hear what you just said’
An alternative for this is, ‘Sorry, I didn’t quite get that’. And both of these could imply that it’s not because you didn’t
understand what they said, it could be that you didn’t hear what they said.
8.Would you mind speaking up a bit?
And if you can’t hear what somebody is saying, then you could say something like, ‘Would you mind speaking up a bit?’ This is a nicer way of saying, ‘Please could you speak more loudly?’, Or ‘Please could you speak less quietly?’ To ‘speak up’ is to increase the volume of one’s voice.
9.Sorry, I’m not following what you’re saying.
Now if you want to make it clear that it’s not anything to do with volume, it really is that you’re just not understanding. Your understanding little bits but you’re not managing to understand complete sentences, you could say, ‘Sorry, I’m not following what you’re saying.’ I’m not following what you’re saying.
Or an alternative, ‘Wait a second, I’m a bit lost.’ And both of these imply that you would like the person to slow down. If you’re struggling to follow or you’re getting lost, it could make the speaker think that they are speaking too quickly and implying that they need to slow down without you having to ask them to slow down.
If you do want to be clear about it or they don’t understand you when you’re trying to imply that they’re going too quickly, you could say, ‘Would you mind slowing down a bit? I’m struggling to follow.’ Now, if there is a specific word or phrase that you don’t understand but you understand everything else but you want to ask a specific question about a specific word or phrase, then you could point it out and say something like, I’m not sure I understand what
you mean by, word or phrase.
10.I’m not sure what you mean by …
Or you could simplify it and say, ‘I’m not sure what you mean by + word or phrase’ It’s a bit of a funny preposition so make sure you learn it properly to mean by.
- I’m not sure what you mean by pigeon.
11.I’m sorry to interrupt but would you mind repeating …?
Now, one annoying thing about asking for repetition is that you constantly feel that you’re interrupting someone. But actually it’s okay to interrupt as long as you apologize for interrupting.
And you can say something as simple as, ‘I’m sorry to interrupt but would you mind repeating blah, blah, blah.’ Another alternative if you’re with friends, you can use a slang phrasal verb, which is to ‘butt in’.
- I’m sorry to butt in but could you repeat what you just say?
- I’m sorry to butt in again.
- I’m sorry to interrupt again.
Those two are really, really useful if you feel that you’re constantly stopping someone to ask them what they mean.
Now let’s have a look at four idioms or slang phrases that we can use to say that we don’t understand someone or to ask them to repeat something or make themselves more clear.
a) ‘This is all Greek to me’
A really fun one is, ‘This is all Greek to me’. This is all a foreign language to me. That would be a really funny one to use if you are actually Greek. This basically means this is all impossible for me to understand.
b) ‘As clear as mud’
Another one is, that was ‘As clear as mud’. That was as clear as mud. Now this, be careful with it. Just use it with friends and people that you like to have a joke with because you’re basically saying that what they have just
said was very unclear. And obviously a teacher or a professor or someone you don’t know that well is not going to appreciate such a sarcastic remark.
So if someone has been trying to explain something but they’ve been doing a very bad job of it, then you can say, ‘Well, that was as clear as mud’.
c) ‘That went right over my head’
If you want to say that something was far too complicated for you, you can say, that ‘It went right over my head’ or ‘That went right over my head’. It means ‘I didn’t understand or process any of it’.
d)What are you on about?
‘What are you on about?’ means ‘What are you talking about?’ But the phrase to go on about something implies that somebody is talking too much.To ‘go on about’ something is to talk excessively about something. So when you say, ‘What are you on about?’, it means ‘What you’re talking about? You’ve been talking for ages.’
Again, another one to use just with friends, people you have mutual trust with and maybe share a sense of humor with, not professors, not teachers, not your boss.
Right, that’s it for today’s lesson. we hope you enjoyed it and we hope you learned something. Most importantly, you will feel more comfortable when asking for repetition because you absolutely should ask for repetition. And any good person, any good native speaker should not be offended or should not get bored by you asking for repetition constantly. A really good way to get people to accept that you’re going to constantly ask them for repetition is to flatter them and to say ‘Look, I really like the way you speak English’ or ‘I’m trying to improve, would you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?’ or ‘Would you mind if I ask you to repeat some things?’
And then you can just use one word repetition questions like ‘Sorry?’, or just gesture to them so it’s less embarrassing
and awkward for both of you. Don’t forget to check out Audible.