It’s not always easy to understand what someone’s saying in French if you’re just starting out.
If you’re drowning in French vocabulary and struggling to understand what someone says to you, use the phrases in this article to tell someone “I don’t understand” in French.
We’ll start with the simplest way and then cover alternatives/variations.
How to say “I don’t understand” in French
“I don’t understand” in French is: je ne comprends pas.
This is the most direct and literal way to tell someone you don’t get it.
Now that you know the literal translation, read on for a list of other variations and alternatives for saying “I don’t understand” in French.
Are any of these familiar to you?
1. Je ne comprends pas tout
Literal meaning: I don’t understand everything
If you understand some things but have a few doubts about parts of what someone has said, use je ne comprends pas tout.
It means “I don’t understand everything.”
This French phrase is a variation of the more basic je ne comprends pas, which means “I don’t understand” in French.
It’s ideal if you intend to tell the native French speaker the specific part that you don’t understand.
One other alternative is to add an extra phrase and say je ne comprends pas tout ce que tu dis. This phrase means, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
2. Je ne comprends pas bien
Literal meaning: I don’t understand well
You’ll notice that this second phrase is a variation of je ne comprends pas tout.
But what is the difference between the two?
Whereas je ne comprends pas tout uses the adjective tout, meaning “everything,” this phrase features the word bien, which means “well.”
It means “I don’t understand very well,” You can use it if you are studying French and hardly understand anything someone is saying.
Note that both the first and second phrases on our list use French negation rules to turn a positive sentence into a negative one.
If you understand what someone is saying, you may say je te comprends.
However, if you don’t understand, use the negative sentence construction which features the verb comprends between ne and pas
3. Comment ?
Literal meaning: what?
There will be times where you can’t hear what someone says to you because there is too much noise.
Think of those moments when you go to a party and the music is loud so you can’t hear what your friend’s saying.
At times like this, use a short and straightforward word comment ? to clarify what someone said.
Remember to use a rising intonation when you say comment? as it’s a question. It can mean “what?” in French.
When you say comment ? to someone, they will typically repeat the sentence they have just said.
Being in this situation means you should avoid using comment ? if you don’t understand the particular verb or phrase they have said, they will most likely repeat the entire sentence.
4. Je n’ai pas compris (ce que tu viens de dire)
Literal meaning: I didn’t understand (what you just said)
Let’s mix things up and venture into the passé compose tense, which this French phrase features.
If you want to say, “I didn’t understand what you just said,” use the simple past tense verb compris in your sentence.
You’ll notice that this sentence construction is similar to the first two phrases on this list. However, you place the auxiliary verb between n’ai and pas in this case.
This example is a past simple, informal sentence that you can use when speaking with your friends.
You can tell that it’s informal because it uses the tu pronoun.
There are ways to tell people you don’t know that you don’t understand. Further down in this article, you’ll find some examples.
5. Pardon ?
Literal meaning: excuse me?
Use pardon ? with rising intonation in similar contexts to the word comment?
Pardon ? means “excuse me?” in English.
It’s an ideal way to get a native French speaker to repeat what they have said.
If you think you understood a little bit of what someone said, but part of their sentence was inaudible, use pardon ?
6. Quoi ?
Literal meaning: what?
Quoi ? is perhaps the most informal way to say “I don’t understand” in French on this list.
It means “what?” in English, so you should never use it when speaking with someone you don’t know as it can sound rude.
When should you use quoi ? If you’re speaking with your best friends or family, you can use quoi ? just as you would use the English word “what?” However, note that some strict families may frown upon the word quoi ? because it might sound almost too casual.
In cases like this, revert to pardon ? or comment ?
Use a rising intonation when you use quoi ? to emphasise that you’re asking a question.
7. Je ne t’entends pas bien
Literal meaning: I can’t hear you well
You have a particular verb for this when you can’t hear what someone said and cannot understand them due to background noises.
The verb entendre means “to hear,” and you can see that phrase number seven features this verb.
Je ne t’entends pas bien means “I can’t hear you very well.”
You can follow this up with the informal phrase peux-tu répéter s’il te plait, which is number nine on our list (continue reading to find out what it means).
Alternatively, if the person spoke too quietly, you may want to ask them to speak louder. In this case, follow up with the phrase peux-tu parler plus fort s’il te plait ?
This phrase means, “can you speak a bit louder, please?”
Use this one as you would use pardon ? _or _quoi ?
8. Pourriez-vous répéter (s’il vous plâit) ?
Literal meaning: could you repeat that (please)?
When you are speaking to someone you don’t know, in a formal situation, use pourriez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ? not only to tell someone “I don’t understand” in French, but to specifically ask them to repeat what they have said.
Note that this example uses the conditional tense to emphasise that you are being polite.
This construction is similar to the English phrase “could you repeat that please?”
You can tell that it’s a formal sentence because the verb pourriez is in the conditional tense.
Remember to be polite and consider the register you use when speaking in formal situations.
Also, note that we don’t use the imperative tense when asking someone to repeat what they have said in French.
You shouldn’t say répétez ! when you don’t understand.
9. Peux-tu répéter (s’il te plâit) ?
Literal meaning: could you repeat that (please)?
The phrase peux-tu répéter s’il te plâit ? is the informal equivalent of pourriez-vous répéter s’il vous plaît ? It also means “could you repeat that please?”
Note that you can tell this phrase is informal due to the pronoun tu.
When you compare this phrase with number eight on our list, you can see that tu replaces the formal vous.
10. Je pige pas / Je ne pige pas
Literal meaning: I don’t get it
Je pige pas is a colloquial way to say “I don’t understand” in French.
From the verb piger which is an informal word for “to understand” or “to get”.
You could reserve this one for informal situations as it would sound odd if you said it at work or with a stranger.
There are a few variations of je pige pas, including je pige que dale and j’ai rien capté.
These phrases mean “I don’t understand anything” and “I didn’t understand anything” – where this last phrase uses the simple past tense.
11. Je ne sais pas (ce que tu viens de dire)
Literal meaning: I don’t know (what you just said)
Similar to Je n’ai pas compris (ce que tu viens de dire) above, but this time using the verb savoir (to know).
Asking if someone understands you
Of course, you should also know how to ask the other person if they comprehend what you’re saying.
Here are several options:
Vous comprenez / Comprenez-vous ?
Literal meaning: do you understand?
This just literally translates to “do you understand” (formal).
To ask informally, you can use Tu comprends ?
Tu piges ?
Literal meaning: you get it?
Very informal, like above.
Avez-vous compris ?
Literal meaning: have you understood?
A slight variation on vous comprenez ? (can also use as-tu compris? informally)
T’as compris toi ?
Literal meaning: did you understand?
This one is for checking to make sure your friend or family member understands you.
Say you’re talking with a group of friends and want to ask someone what one of your friends said.
You can use t’as compris toi ? which means “did you understand?”
This phrase is ideal for those moments when you have a friend who can translate what someone is saying.
You can simply ask them t’as compris toi ? and they will notice that you are not following the conversation easily.
They will then explain what the other person said, hopefully slowly enough for you to understand them.
Use these phrases to say “I don’t understand” in French
If you want to improve, sometimes the only way to develop your French language skills is to tell someone you don’t get what they’re saying.
The French accent can be hard enough to grasp, as can the many French verbs and descriptive phrases.
It isn’t always easy to understand everything someone says to you in French. But with this list, you’ll be able to let them know when you’re confused.
Which French phrases for “I don’t understand” have we missed?
Add the phrase to the comments section below!