When you are a beginner language learner you are often unsure about what you are saying and whether a) it is correct and b) if you are pronouncing it correctly. It is probably the first time you have actually spoken the words that you have learnt to a native speaker. It is only natural for language learners to have these doubts when they first start speaking in the target language.
Similarly, when you listen to their reply you may think you’ve understood what they’ve just said to you, however you may not be 100% sure. You will probably find it difficult to keep up with what they are saying – as we all know how quickly Spanish people speak!
In this blog post we will go through some useful expressions for you to say that you don’t understand or are unsure of what someone has said to you. If you learn some of these phrases they will help you keep the conversation going. There is nothing to be embarrassed about when saying that you don’t understand or asking for clarity – Spanish people like helping learners improve their Spanish!
The most common phrase to use is “No sé” (I don’t know). You may hear variations of this such as, “Yo no sé” or “No lo sé”. They all mean the same, “I don’t know”. The subtle difference is, by adding “Yo” you are just emphasising “I”.
“Lo” just means “it” so really you are saying “I don’t know it”.
“Sé” is an irregular form of the verb “saber” – to know (something).
If you want to change the person who knows or in this case, doesn’t know something you would need to change “sé” to one of the following:
No sabes – you don’t know
Él no sabe – he doesn’t know
Ella no sabe – she doesn’t know
No sabemos – we don’t know
No sabéis – you don’t know (2 or more people)
No saben – they don’t know
The most common way to say, “I don’t understand” is “No entiendo”. This is from the verb “entender” (to understand).
[Note it is a stem-changing verb, hence the e-ie change.]
To change the subject of the verb change the verb as follows:
No entiendes – you don’t understand
Él no entiende – he doesn’t understand
Ella no entiende – she doesn’t understand
No entendemos – we don’t understand
No entendéis – you don’t understand (2+ people)
No entienden – they don’t understand
If you want to use past tense to say that you understood a little of what they said you could say:
Entendí un poco – I understood a little.
There is nothing wrong in asking someone to repeat what they said. It is much better to be sure of what they said than make a wrong guess!
¿Puede repetir, por favor? – Can you repeat, please?
Or, slightly more polite:
¿Podría repetir, por favor? – Could you repeat please?
Let’s say they say it again but you still don’t understand because they are speaking too fast. To ask them to speak more slowly you could say:
Habla más despacio por favor – Speak more slowly please.
Or: Habla más lento por favor – Speak more slowly please.
You may like to explain that you are a beginner or that you are just starting to learn Spanish. The following phrases will help you to explain your level:
Soy principiante – I’m a beginner
Estoy aprendiendo español – I am learning Spanish
Solo entiendo un poco – I only understand a little
Hablo un poco de español – I speak a little Spanish
To say how long you have been learning Spanish you would use the following structure:
Llevo tres meses aprendiendo español. – I’ve been learning Spanish for 3 months.
Or you could change this to say how long you have been “studying Spanish”:
Llevo tres meses estudiando español. – I’ve been studying Spanish for 3 months.
Sometimes you have understood a little but are not 100% sure. In this case you might just want to say “I’m not sure”.
No estoy seguro/a – I’m not sure. (-o ending if you are male, -a ending if you are female)
If you they explain to you more simply or slowly and then you want to say you are sure, you would say:
Estoy seguro/a. – I am sure.
Ahora entiendo. – Now I understand.
When you are talking to a native speaker in a mixture of Spanish and English if they can speak English, you often want to ask how to say something in Spanish or a translation of a word. Key phrases to help you do this include:
¿Cómo se dice …. en español? – How do you say …. in Spanish?
No sé cómo decir … en español – I don’t know how to say …. in Spanish.
¿Qué es … en español? – What is … in Spanish?
This is a good way of learning new vocabulary from a native speaker.
Often you just want to say “Pardon” or a polite way to ask them to say something again. The most common expressions to use are:
¿Cómo? – Pardon?
¿Qué dijiste? – What did you say?
¿Puede repetir por favor? – Can you repeat please?
To conclude, it is worth saying that you shouldn’t be embarrassed about not understanding or making mistakes when you are talking to a native speaker. They don’t think any less of you for making a few mistakes or having to repeat things. They appreciate any efforts that English speakers make to speak their language and they will enjoy helping you improve.
If you are soon to speak to a native speaker you may also like to read a previous blog post: “5 Tips to get the most out of your language exchange session”.