If during conversation, I face problem in understanding what the other speaker is saying, I may come with following polite statements:


"Sorry, could not get you..."

"Pardon me..."

"Come again please..."

But my inability to understand can be due to two reasons. 1) "I could not hear what you said" and 2) "I could not understand what you said."

But as far as I know, the aforementioned statements can't help differentiating between the situations. So my question is Is there any polite expression out there which can explicitly tell for what reason I could not understand you?

If such expression/phrase exists, the speaker can understand the reason and take necessary step accordingly i.e. either elevate his voice or rephrase what he is saying.

3 Answers 3


The aforementioned statements exactly differentiate the situations.
If you can't hear something, that means the sound waves were not entering your ear canal at sufficient amplitudes for you to translate into speech patterns.

IF you couldn't understand something it's because your brain could not make sense of the sounds it received.

It is true that sometimes people say they couldn't understand something because they couldn't hear it, but if you can help it, you should avoid that and only use understand when you mean understand and use hear when you mean hear.

As far as politeness goes, the usual response is to add extra words to make it clear what you are asking for.

"I'm sorry but I couldn't hear you, would you please repeat that?"

"I'm sorry but I'm unfamiliar with hermeticity would you please explain that?"


Listening problems may be caused by various reasons. For example, someone may speak too fast. If it is a phone conversation, there may be clicks or noises in the phone. If it is an IP phone or Skype, there may be simply blackouts or other technical issues.

So you have to express what the problem is. I guess, a straightforward way is just fine: wait for a good moment (not to interrupt anyone abruptly) and say: "I'm sorry, there are noises on the line, can you please repeat it again?"

If you did not understand, besides a direct question, you may address it in an indirect way. Just ask a leading question, mentioning what you have understood, and ask to explain the rest.

During group conferences, it may also happen that native speakers don't even realize that you are not a native speaker. So speaking out (with your accent) will suggest them to speak slower or to choose less complicated words.


Stereotypically, the standard British way to deal with uncomprehending non-native speakers is to shout.

Seriously, if you know or suspect your problem is one of understanding rather than actually hearing the words, common ways to signal this are...

"I'm sorry, I don't quite understand." or
"I'm afraid I don't follow that." or even
"I think I know what [xxxxx] means, but could you rephrase it just to make certain?"

Assuming you're with someone worth talking to in the first place, three variations should be enough that you won't need to repeat them in a single conversation. Since you're talking in his language, he should have the good grace to adjust his register so you can concentrate on the message, not the medium.


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