Is it OK to Pretend to Understand What an English Speaker Says When You Don’t?

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

Pretend to understand English

Improve Spoken English

The other day one of my Irish workmates was telling me a joke. He started off speaking the way he normally does and I could easily make out what he was saying. After all – I’ve spent nearly ten years in Ireland and by now I’ve managed to understand different regional accents and also different types of speech – muffled, very fast, with word endings dropped and so on.

It’s not always possible, however, to understand native English speakers, especially when they throw in some slang words and expressions you haven’t heard being used before, and the indistinct speech makes it every harder to figure out what they’re saying ❗

As you can imagine, I had to pretend that I got the joke my workmate Louis was telling me and I just gave a short laugh as a sign that his joke was really good…

Please, don’t blame me!

I know that it’s not quite right to pretend to understand what native English speakers tell you because you run the risk of making a fool of yourself.

In fact, you shouldn’t pretend regardless of the speaker’s national background. It should never be a problem to admit that you didn’t get what was being said, even if it’s another foreigner trying to explain you something!

You see, denial originates in fear of being perceived as a poor English speaker, but then you can get yourself in even more embarrassing situations trying to conceal the fact that you didn’t understand something.

Admitting the truth almost always pays and you should treat such moments very casually; don’t make a big deal out of them.

If you radiate confidence, few people will ever think of associating the fact that you asked them to repeat what they just said or to explain what they meant with bad language skills.

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to end the conversation quickly and avoid discussing the same topic, it might give an impression of someone who’s not very comfortable using the English language.

So how do you know when you should definitely tell your conversation partner to repeat what they just said or say it slower and when it’s OK to pretend you understood them?

You Can Annoy the Hell Out of Others
If You Just Smile and Agree!

When I just started all those years ago in Ireland, I worked in a large warehouse. It was a mixed nationality team – Russians, Romanians, Latvians and a few Irish to supervise us, hard working foreigners. To be completely honest with you, in those early days I spent more time learning conversational Romanian than speaking English, and it just goes to show how easy it is to pick up a language by speaking it.

Anyway, what I wanted to tell you about is that I noticed on many occasions that my Romanian friends just agreed with the supervisor (to be fair to them – he was a really mean dude so no wonder no-one wanted to get involved in lengthy conversations with him!) when he was giving them instructions.

On quite a few occasions I witnessed our supervisor make remarks like “Yeah, sure…” after asking if everything was clear to that worker and I started to suspect, quite rightly, that he was making general assumptions about all foreigners.

Could I blame him though, for doing it?

I mean – if he can’t be sure whether someone understands him when he talks to them, is it hard to imagine why that person would think you can’t speak proper English?

I’m not saying our supervisor was doing all he could to make his subordinates feel comfortable. Yes, he was pushing us very hard and most of the team were just too scared of him to admit they didn’t understand what they were told!

Nonetheless, I believe our supervisor would have appreciated honesty much more than compliance, and even I have to admit it can be irritating to face a nervous smile and a nod of approval while you see incomprehension in the person’s eyes…

So let me tell you this – keep agreeing to something you don’t understand if you want to:

  • reinforce the notion your English is poor even though it might not be – and since you’re reading this blog, I have a feeling that it’s most likely not!
  • face really embarrassing situations when your initial shyness to admit you didn’t understand something suddenly backfires on you!

Believe me, I know only too well that often it’s not the lack of English language skills that lead to these issues. Fast speech and specific way of pronouncing words are the most common reasons why foreign English speakers might find it harder to understand part of the message.

If you look at the bigger picture, however, it doesn’t really matter if you WOULD understand what you were told if the person slowed their speech down or you WOULDN’T.

By concealing the fact that you missed part of the communication and you’re not sure what the message was, you confuse your chat partner AND make the whole communication ineffective!

When it’s OK to Go With the Flow &
A Beautiful Method of Fixing
Potentially Disastrous Situations

Remember I told you I laughed about Louis’s joke without actually getting it?

Just think what would have happened if the scenario goes something like this:

Louis: “… he… (something unintelligible) and then he (something unintelligible followed by sincere laughter)!!!”
Me: “Sorry Louis, can you repeat the last part, do you mind? I just didn’t hear it properly!”
Louis (laughter dying down) “well, he … (and then he goes on to tell the joke once more).”

Can you see now why I preferred to pretend and laugh about the joke I didn’t understand?

Yes, I just didn’t want to kill the joke!

I realized that there would be no harm done if I helped Louis to feel as the best joke-teller in the world. On top of that, I knew him well enough to be sure that he’s not going to ask me if I got the joke.

So is it a big deal if I laughed without understanding what I laughed about?

I don’t think so – especially considering I already know that my English is good enough and that I’m not doing myself a disservice. I spend the whole day in an English speaking environment, and I understand 99.9999% of what’s being said to me; the rest accounts for new words and expressions I haven’t heard before and I always make the point to ask for their meaning if I can’t guess it from context.

Anyway, the only situations you can afford pretending you understood what was said to you are:

  • when you’re told a joke and everyone gets it except you;
  • you can clearly see that you’ll get away with pretending you understand on that particular occasion;
  • you can infer meaning of the message from context, body language, reaction of others etc.

The best strategy of all, in my opinion, is admitting you didn’t understand and asking to say it again or to explain it using other words.

All you have to do is just master the art of letting it go, and you can also learn the method of averting disasters I mentioned in the subheading above.

It’s as simple as it’s genius – if you’re caught with agreeing with someone on something you didn’t have a clue about, just ADMIT IT ALL and MAKE A JOKE ABOUT IT!

If you’re asked – “You didn’t actually get it, did you?” – you can easily get out of the potentially embarrassing situation by saying “Yes, sorry, I actually didn’t quite get it but I didn’t want to sound rude and interrupt you!” – or something like that.

And even if you’re not told anything, but you can see that you just won’t get away with it, you can come clean and say “Hey guys, I was in a hurry and didn’t fully understand what you said to me, but hey – I’m too important to bother with such details!” (this is meant to be a joke – but of course you have to make sure you know those people well enough to predict such a joke will go down well with them!)

Remember – it’s not actually others who make you embarrassed; it’s up to you to control your own emotions ❗

As far as you radiate confidence – you’re fine!

But of course – it’s best not to be lackadaisical when it comes to your spoken English improvement and you better not be ashamed of asking to explain something you don’t understand in the first place.


P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!


English Harmony System

P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System
  • I don’t think there’s anything better that just asking that person to say it once more or to speak a bit slower. It shouldn’t cause any issues as far as it’s said in a nice tone and accompanied by a friendly facial expression!

    People generally don’t have issues with others openly admitting they’re having difficulties with understanding their accents and will adjust their speech accordingly or at least won’t object repeating certain parts of their speech so that they’re understood.

    I’ve done it many times, and I’ve never encountered open hostility or complete lack of understanding from those whom I admit not to be able to understand because of their accent and pronunciation. I guess the key is to make it obvious it’s YOUR problem, not THEIRS, so it’s important not to sound condescending and arrogant when making it clear you’re having a hard time making out what they’re saying!



  • Necarion

    I am a native English speaker with plenty of experience not understanding what’s said around me (I have traveled in other countries and made an effort to speak the language). But I was wondering what your thoughts were regarding the opposite situation: where a local speaker has trouble understanding the speech of a non-local (I’m trying to avoid native/non-native speaker because I generally haven’t the foggiest what Scottish people are saying). How do I deal with the awkward situation of genuinely trying to understand what’s being said without implying that the other person is at fault?

  • Thanks for positive feedback, much appreciated!

  • fatima

    for a start, it’s been beneficial to me reading your advices, to tell you the truth i had thought about some of them, but the problem was lack of practice. Thus, since i found out that they are really usefull i promised myself to practice them no matter what and teach them to my precious students. Thanks a million.

  • Well, as you can imagine it wouldn’t be advisable to pretend you understood something when serious matters are discussed. Medical consultation clearly falls under that category!

  • Sergio Rodrigues

    In a formal enviroment- say, a medical consultation – would be advisable pretend that you understantand what was said, even running rhe risk of leading to a compete misunderstanding?