German Language Blog

How To Express ‘I Don’t Understand’ In German Posted by on Feb 23, 2022 in Language

Guten Tag! Today I’m going to give you some vocabulary and phrases for those times when you don’t understand. Even in our native languages, we sometimes need a person to repeat what they’ve said, so it’s a useful set of vocabulary to have. Comprehension aside, we sometimes say we don’t understand because we need clarification, or to express disbelief. This post will cover ways to say ‘I don’t understand’ in German, so you can communicate effectively should you find yourself in one of these situations.

i don't understand

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To understand: verstehen

The main verb you need for this is verstehen. Here is the verb verstehen in the present tense:

Ich verstehe – I understand
Du verstehst – You understand (informal)
Er/sie/es versteht – He/she/it understands
Wir verstehen – We understand
Ihr versteht – You understand (plural)
Sie/sie verstehen – You (formal)/they understand

Similar verbs are begreifen (to grasp) and kapieren (to ‘get it’ – this one is informal compared to the others!).

The general way of saying ‘I don’t understand’ is ich verstehe nicht. If in doubt, you can use this for any situation.

I don’t understand: meaning

If you want to express that it’s the meaning of the words, specifically, that you don’t understand – either because of lack of comprehension, or because the environment you’re in is noisy and you can’t hear well, for instance – try this:

Ich verstehe nicht, was du sagst – I don’t understand what you’re saying (informal- for people you know, friends, family etc.)
Ich verstehe nicht, was Sie sagen – I don’t understand what you’re saying (formal- for people you don’t know, managers, authority figures etc.)

If you like, you can preface these with the words ‘Tut mir Leid’ – ‘I’m sorry’, for example:

Tut mir Leid- ich verstehe nicht, was du sagst.
I’m sorry- I don’t understand what you’re saying.

You can then follow up with a request for the person to repeat what they’ve said:

Kannst du das bitte wiederholen? – Could you repeat that, please? (informal)
Könnten Sie das bitte wiederholen? – Could you repeat that, please? (formal)

i don't understand

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I don’t understand: I need clarification

This is for when you comprehend the words that’ve been said, but there’s something you don’t understand about the subject matter, or what’s being asked of you. There are lots of ways you can express this, but here are a few examples:

Ich verstehe nicht viel davon – I don’t understand much about it.

Ich verstehe nicht, was du meinst (informal) / Ich verstehe nicht, was Sie meinen (formal) – I don’t understand what you mean.

Ich verstehe nicht, was du von mir willst (informal) / Ich verstehe nicht, was Sie von mir wollen (formal) – I don’t understand what you want from me.

Ich verstehe nicht, was das mit mir zu tun hat – I don’t understand what that’s got to do with me

Was sagst du genau? (informal) / Was sagen Sie genau? (formal) – What are you saying, exactly?

Was meinst du damit? (informal) / Was meinen Sie damit? (formal) – What do you mean by that?

You could then ask the follow-up question:
Kannst du das bitte weiter erklären? (informal) / Könnten Sie das bitte weiter erklären? – Could you please explain that further?

I don’t understand: disbelief

Finally, there are times when we say ‘I don’t understand’ as a means of expressing disbelief, shock, or confusion. In this case, we’re not really asking for clarification, but expressing that we don’t understand how something came to be. You could express this in German with the phrases Das gibt’s doch gar nicht (roughly, ‘That can’t be real’) or Das kann ja nicht wahr sein (‘That can’t be true’).

i don't understand

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I only understand train station!

Other ways you can say you don’t understand are the popular phrase ich verstehe nur Bahnhof, which literally translates to ‘I only understand train station’, or the phrase ich kann mir keinen Reim darauf machen, which is the German equivalent of ‘I can see no rhyme nor reason in it’ (der Reim: rhyme).

I hope this has been of help. Let me know in the COMMENT BOX if there are any other phrases you’d like to delve deeper into.

Bis bald (see you soon)!

PS. If you liked this post, you might also like this one: Yiddish: Can You Understand It?

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About the Author: Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze and I live in the UK. I'm half English and half German, and have been writing about German language and culture on this blog since 2014. I am also a fitness instructor & personal trainer.