Sai I don't Understand in Chinese

What To Say When You Don’t Understand Someone In Mandarin Chinese

In Practical Chinese Phrases by Angel Huang1 Comment

One of the first phrases many Mandarin learners pick up is:

 "听不懂 tīng bù dǒng" (I don’t understand)

And no doubt, this phrase can be amazingly useful...

Especially if you’re anxious to escape a confusing situation or end a conversation before it even begins!

But, let me guess…

Most of the time you want your conversations in Mandarin to last longer. You want to practice. You want to use the language you’re learning to communicate with people.

And routinely blurting out 听不懂 tīng bù dǒng when you don’t understand what someone says gets in the way of that.


Well, the first thought that a “听不懂 tīng bù dǒng” might trigger in the head of a native speaker, is that you pretty much don’t understand ANY Chinese at all — they’ll assume you’re not ready or willing to give the conversation a shot. 

So, how do you avoid that scenario and encourage people  to continue talking to you in Chinese? How do you help them help you get the message?

In this video you’ll hear some phrases that native speakers use when they don’t understand...

BONUS: Download MP3 + PDF to Review This Lesson Anytime

Different phrase = Different response...

Did you notice how the listener in the video used different phrases to trigger different responses from the speaker? Let’s look at how YOU could apply this to your own conversations.

When You Don’t Hear Someone Clearly And Want Them To Repeat What They Said:

 不好意思!我没听清楚。 bù hǎo yì sī! wǒ méi tīng qīng chǔ.

Sorry! I didn't hear (you) clearly.

 麻烦你再说一次!má fán nǐ zài shuō yī cì.

Please say that again!

 什么?你刚刚说了什么?shén me?nǐ gāng gāng shuō le shén me

What? What did you just say?

When Someone Speaks Too Fast For You To Be Able To Process What You Hear And You Want Them To Repeat What They Said:

 什么什么什么,请说慢一点!shén me,  qǐng shuō màn yī diǎn!

What? What? What? Please speak more slowly!

When The Overall Meaning Of What Someone Says Is Unclear And You Want Them To Rephrase To Clarify The Message:

 我听得不太明白。wǒ tīng de bù tài míng bái.

I don't quite understand.

 你可以换个说法吗?nǐ kě yǐ huàn gè shuō fǎ ma

Can you put it another way?

 你在说什么?nǐ zài shuō shén me

What are you saying?

 解释一下,好吗?jiě shì yī xià,hǎo ma

Could you explain?

When Someone Uses A Particular Word Or Phrase That You Don’t Understand And You Want Them To Define Or Clarify The Meaning:

 __________ 什么意思?  __________ shén me yì sī?

What does _________ mean? / What do you mean by _________?

When You Think You’ve Understood What The Person Has Said And You Want To Confirm That It’s Correct:

 你的意思是(说) _________?    nǐ de yì sī shì (shuō) ___________?

So what you’re saying is ________? / So, what you you mean is that  _________?

In a nutshell…

When you struggle to understand what someone says, it’s good to get SPECIFIC.

The questions above can help clarify why or what you don’t understand. And this will make it easier for the speaker to meet you where you are.

Of course…

This is not always straightforward —  especially outside the “safe environment” of practice sessions with language partners and teachers!

That’s why it’s important to not just rely on “conversation strategies” and actually focus on learning to understand Chinese as it’s spoken in the real world.

If you’ve been following me for some time you may know that I created “The Real Spoken Chinese Vault” to help with this exact challenge.

Now, how about you?

  • How do you deal with situations where you have trouble understanding what someone says to you in Chinese?
  • Do you think any of the phrases from today’s lesson might come in handy in future conversations..?

Leave a comment below if you like 🙂

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