Learning French: Understanding what’s being said

Learning a new language involves mastering lots of skills, and often our understanding of what’s being said comes before our ability to be able to speak the language and become confident enough to contribute to the conversation. However, there will likely be times when you might have a problem understanding what’s been said or may not know the right words to express yourself in French, and it’s important that you know how to ask for clarification or information. In this blog post, we’ll look at some useful phrases to help you when this happens.

I don’t understand

The word for understand in French is comprendre. If you want to say I don’t understand, you can say Je ne comprend pas or Je n’ai pas compris (I didn’t understand). You can combine these phrases with some of the vocabulary we covered in our previous post about common courtesies to flesh it out a little.

Excusez-moi, je ne comprends pas. Sorry, I don’t understand.
Je suis désolé, je n’ai pas compris ce que vous avez dit. I’m sorry, I didn’t understand what you said.

You will see that these phrases use the negative construction ne … pas (not). In French, negative statements are formed by placing ne … pas around a verb (or the first part of a verb construction, as with “Je n’ai pas compris”). However, in conversational language, native French speakers will often drop the ne part.
Je comprend pas. I don’t understand.

Don’t be surprised if you notice this when chatting with French-speaking friends, though take care to avoid this yourself in more formal contexts.

Could you … ?

It’s great to improve your listening skills in conversation with a French speaker, but there will almost certainly be times where you miss something if someone speaks a little too fast. If you want someone to repeat something they’ve said, a simple Pardon? (Excuse me?) should suffice. However, you may want to ask the person speaking with you to repeat (répéter) something they’ve said, or perhaps to speak (parler) a little more slowly.

Pouvez-vous répéter, s’il vous plaît? Can you repeat that, please?
If you are using tu, you would say Peux-tu répéter, s’il te plait?

Pourriez-vous répéter, s’il vous plait? Could you repeat that, please?
This question uses the conditional tense, and would only be used in very formal situations.

Pouvez-vous parler plus lentement, s’il vous plait? Can you speak more slowly, please?
You could replace parler with répéterPouvez-vous répéter plus lentement, s’il vous plait? Can you say that again more slowly, please?

Of course, as in English, there are plenty other, less formal ways to ask someone to repeat themselves:
Qu’est-ce que t’as dit? What did you say?
Comment? What was that?
Quoi? What?
Hein?! Eh?!

Like their English equivalents, these are rather familiar turns of phrase…use only with those you know very well!

How do you say … ?

One enjoyable aspect of learning a new language is finding out about new words and phrases; the challenging bit can be remembering lots of new rules and vocabulary! So it’s good to know how to ask what the word is for something, or what a word means, when you come across a new word or phrase, or have forgotten how to say something.
Comment dit-on … en français? How do you say … in French?

Note that instead of tu or vous, the pronoun on is used in the phrase above: on can mean we, someone, they, you, or can be used to refer to people in general.

Ça se dit comment en français? How do you say that in French?
You could change the word order slightly, too, and say Comment ça se dit en français?

C’est quoi en français, …? What is … in French?
A less formal turn of phrase, but still very useful.

S’il vous plaît, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire, … ? Excuse me, what does … mean ?
A less formal way of phrasing this question would be Ça veut dire quoi? (What does that mean?)

Possible replies to these questions could be:
On dit… You say…
On dirait… You would say…
Ça veut dire… It means…

It can be easy to get discouraged when you find don’t understand or don’t know how to say something when conversing in French, but do remember that native speakers are often more than happy to accommodate learners, and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you need to – after all, the more questions you ask, the more practice you’re getting!

Come back for the next blog post to help you continue with the conversation!

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