“I don’t understand” in Japanese — Avoiding confusion

Curious about how to say “I don’t understand” in Japanese? Whether you’re a beginner or looking to expand your Japanese language skills, mastering this phrase is essential for effective communication.

Man with one hand up looking puzzled, with 2 question marks on top of his head

When conversing with native speakers in Japan, they’ll likely use words and phrases you don’t know or assume you speak more Japanese than you do.

Let’s explore how to convey that you didn’t fully grasp what someone was saying in Japanese.

How to say “I don’t understand” in Japanese

There are two ways to say “I don’t understand,” one formal and one informal. First, the polite way:

  • 分かりません | わかりません | wakarimasen

This is useful in most instances. The verb here is 分かる (wakaru). The basic phrase is わかりません (wakarimasen), where “ません” (masen) is the negative form.

When you get more comfortable, you can utilize the informal version, which sounds like this:

  • 分からない | わからない | wakaranai

You can also use the plain negative form わからないです (wakaranai desu) to sound slightly more respectful.

One very useful aspect of Japanese is that the phrase for “I don’t understand” is the same as the phrase for “I don’t know.” So whether you want to tell someone you didn’t understand what they said or simply inform them that you don’t know the answer to their question, you can use the same phrase.

How to say “I don’t speak Japanese”

Generally, instead of telling someone you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll use “wakarimasen” to tell them you don’t understand Japanese. Here are a few ways to indicate that your Japanese is less than fluent:

  • 日本語が分かりません | にほんごがわかりません | nihongo ga wakarimasen – I don’t understand Japanese.
  • 日本語を話しません | にほんごをはなしません | nihongo o hanashimasen – I don’t speak Japanese.
  • 日本語を話せません | にほんごをはなせません | nihongo o hanasemasen – I can’t speak Japanese.

It’s not wrong to say you don’t or can’t speak the language, but if you’re only going to memorize one word, go with “wakarimasen.” Occasionally, you might wonder if learning Japanese is indeed hard to learn and feel a bit discouraged. But no need to fret!

Becoming an expert overnight isn’t expected. Simply take things step by step. Even small daily improvements count as progress.

How to say “I speak Japanese”

Whether you know a lot of Japanese or just a little, you can inform strangers that you’re able to understand them in case they assume you can only communicate in English.

  • 日本語を話します | にほんごをはなします | nihongo wo hanashimasu – I speak Japanese.
  • 日本語を話せます | にほんごをはなせます | nihongo wo hanasemasu – I can speak Japanese.
  • 日本語が少し分かります | にほんごがすこしわかります | nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu – I understand a little Japanese.

Another way to say “a little” is ちょっと (chotto). You can use ちょっと (chotto) and すこし (sukoshi) interchangeably in most instances, just like you can use either はなします (hanashimasu) or はなせます (hanasemasu) and get your point across.

The correct pronunciation for “masu” is to leave off the U-sound, so はなします (hanashimasu) sounds like “ha-nah-shee-mas” and はなせます (hanasemasu) sounds like “ha-nah-se-mas.” To know more about Japanese pronunciation, read our full article here.

How to ask someone if they speak English

In many situations, your small amount of Japanese may not be enough. If you want to locate someone at an airport or train station who can help you, here’s how to ask whether the other person speaks English.

  • 英語を話しますか? |えいごをはなしますか? | eigo o hanashimasuka? – Do you speak English?
  • 英語を話せますか? | えいごをはなせますか? | eigo o hanasemasuka? – Can you speak English?
  • 英語が分かりますか? | 英語が分かりますか? | eigo ga wakarimasuka? – Do you understand English?

The pronunciation for えいご (eigo) is “ei-go.” When talking about yourself, you can ask if the person can speak, does speak, or understands English, but the most basic one to commit to memory is “wakarimasuka?”

This is useful if you want to quickly find someone who can talk with you in English.

How to tell someone that you understood what they said

Now let’s learn how to tell someone if they started speaking to you in Japanese and you want to let them know you were able to grasp what they said. Like many phrases in Japanese, there are both formal in informal ways to say this. First, the polite form:

  • 分かりました | わかりました | wakarimashita – Understood.
  • 分かりませんでした | わかりませんでした | wakarimasen deshita – I did not understand.

And the less polite or casual form:

  • 分かった | わかった | Wakatta – Understood.

This last form is only for when speaking with friends or people you are familiar with. In general, as a tourist, you can always stick to the polite form and only switch to the informal or casual form of a phrase when you’ve heard someone in your group use them. If you wanna tell them “I know!” in Japanese, you can learn it here. 


Knowing how to say “I don’t know” in Japanese is a small yet significant step in effective communication. It helps prevent misunderstandings and ensures that you’re on the same page with the Japanese people you’re talking to.

There are times when communicating with the locals through single words could be helpful, even just a tad bit. Check out our list of Japanese words here!

Navigating the nuances of when to use each form can be difficult, but remember that no one will expect a foreigner to know these things right away, and they are unlikely to be offended. They’ll appreciate that you’re trying, and now you’ll be able to let them know that you speak a little Japanese!

がんばってください (ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

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