I'm not an English native speaker, and my question is, probably, only relevant for non-native speakers.

Sometimes, native speakers just don't care how easily the presenter can understand the question. Such a carelessness usually embarrasses the presenter enormously and makes him appear incompetent.

What is the proper way to behave for the non-native speaking presenter? Is it OK to ask for a repetition?

NOTE: I know, being a part of academic world requests some proper English knowledge. But you can hardly become as good as native speakers. And some native speakers have unusual dialects and use difficult expressions (sometimes, I bet, on purpose). I remember one speaker from Wales at a British conference. My God, that was Greek to me.

  • 18
    I've seen a lot of speakers who will mention that English is not their first language when asking someone to repeat themselves. Many (most?) native English speakers only know English, pointing out that English is your 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th...) language gives people with genuine questions an opportunity to rephrase using more common words. And if someone is using difficult expressions 'on purpose' it'll remind them that you're language skills are likely to be superior to their own.
    – Rob P.
    Aug 22, 2015 at 3:36
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    "I'm not an English native speaker, and my question is, probably, only relevant for non-native speakers." - while it happens less commonly, there are of course also occasional academic presentations given in languages other than English by non-native speakers of those languages other than English. Aug 22, 2015 at 8:05
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    I'm a native speaker and I frequently ask people to repeat what they've said, even if they speak in my exact dialect. Sometimes it's because they don't enunciate properly; sometimes I wonder if it's because there's something wrong with my hearing. It's perfectly fine to ask people to repeat themselves, including in the context you mention. It's not an issue.
    – user124384
    Aug 22, 2015 at 19:01
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    I'm protecting this question because it's on the "Hot network questions" list and seems to be attracting answers that don't add anything over existing answers.
    – ff524
    Aug 23, 2015 at 15:21
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    This can also be applied to cases where the asker has a foreign accent or quirky grammar. I have been to a PhD defence where the opponent had the thickest Russian accent I have ever heard, and made his questions very difficult to understand (in his favour I will add that he would rephrase each question in three or four different wordings before letting the candidate answer, but others are not so nice or aware of their skills).
    – Davidmh
    Aug 24, 2015 at 9:14

9 Answers 9


Yes, it is appropriate to ask the questioner to repeat the question, prefaced by:

"I'm sorry but I didn't understand the question. Can you repeat it or rephrase it?"

If you still don't understand it, you might ask someone else in the audience to restate it or rephrase it.

Some people at academic conferences are not good at asking clear, direct questions, even when they are native English speakers with normal dialect. I have asked people to repeat or rephrase questions for this reason, and I am a native English speaker.

  • 4
    A good session chair can often help in extracting the real question from a long-winded and badly worded question. They might after all need to repeat the question for the benefit of the audience depending on the acoustics. A glance at the chair as you ask the questioner to repeat/clarify may help you.
    – Chris H
    Aug 25, 2015 at 9:49

As with the other answers, I will echo that it's OK to not understand and to ask for somebody to repeat themselves. Even as a native speaker I often have a hard time understanding a question.

Sometimes, though, it's not because the question's hard to hear, but because the reasoning behind it is odd or because the question is just not coherent to begin with. As such, I want to add one other strategy: if I still don't understand the question after one repetition, I will simply make my best guess at a reasonable question I think they might be asking, saying something like this:

If I understand you correctly, your question is about why llamas prefer melons over grapefruit. The answer to this question is that ...

This way, I'm giving a good answer to some interesting question, and it might even be theirs. If they're satisfied, great; if not, they can try to clarify their question. Moreover, because I repeat the presumed question back, it's hopefully clear to the rest of the audience that if something's wrong it's with my ears (which are not scientifically important) and not my thinking (which is the important bit).

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    I think repeating the presumed question is important here. It bothers me a lot when someone asks a question and the speaker appears to answer a different question.
    – Vectornaut
    Aug 23, 2015 at 21:55
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    @Vectornaut In addition, it's very frustrating as an audience member to hear the speaker answer a question known only to the speaker and the inquisitor. Most people asking questions aren't asking in a way that everyone in the room can hear it; the speaker repeating the question also makes sure everyone knows what's being discussed. Aug 24, 2015 at 13:10

I have never come across somebody who seemed to be using difficult expressions just to confuse a non-native speaker. When people talk to you in complicated English, it's because they haven't realised you might not understand, and that is quite likely because your own English is good enough that they forget you don't speak the language perfectly. Just say something like, "I'm sorry but I didn't understand all of your question. Could you repeat it, please?"


Is it OK to ask for a repetition?

Yes, not only it is okay but also it is necessary. You are the presenter. You are responsible for answering the questions from the audience. If you don't understand the question, how do you answer it?

What is the proper way to behave for the non-native speaking presenter?

This depends on the situation. In my personal experience (I am a non-native English speaker), I would first say

I beg your pardon, would you please repeat your question? (An old fashion way).

After the asker repeats the question, if I still don't quite understand the question but I have some clues about what the question is (after all, the audience are in the same or close fields), I would say

It seems that you are asking blah blah ..., is my interpretation correct?.

If the asker agrees, then I answer the question if I can.

If the asker disagrees, if I am lucky, hopefully he would rephrase the question or some audience would volunteer to help to explain the question. If I get it, I would answer it. If I still don't get it, I would say

Can we talk about this offline?.

After the presentation, I would go to the asker and ask him to clarify the question and then answer the question if I can.

The above probably won't solve all the cases if you are not lucky. One of my worst personal experience is that an asker who is also a non-native English speaker asked a question that nobody in the room including myself could understand what he was talking about after several repetitions. I had to give up and I could not find him after the presentation.


If I don't understand the question, I ask politely for a repeat. If I still don't understand (either language or content wise) I usually suggest that we can discuss the matter after the talk and I go on with my talk or dealing with other questions.

The only time this not worked well was once where the person was pointing a typo in my slide, and I couldn't make out what was wrong, and more and more people started getting involved in telling me what it was (which is usually confusing...)

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    This solution is a nice one. The only problem is, some type of questions don't imply a broad discussion afterwards. If you are unlucky to offer this for a really simple question, that would sound strange and incompetent. Aug 22, 2015 at 11:02
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    True, but with almost no exception everybody in the audience has been on the other side so there is a decent amount of leeway. Actually, my experience is that when a questioner is not forgiving most in the audience get annoyed with the questioner. The only exceptions I've seen is in a couple cases where the presenter was seriously incompetent, but even then it is not worth pushing with a question. Aug 22, 2015 at 19:53

There is nothing wrong with politely asking for a repeat of the question. Your particular reason (learning the language) is an excellent reason for asking, but that's actually irrelevant, because politeness does not require you to explain why you are asking for a repeat (although if you asked them more than once, it might!) In fact, your asking them to repeat something may have unintended beneficial consequences, for instance, someone else may not have heard what was said and may also be wishing it would be repeated but was too shy to ask for themselves: this has happened to me, and I was truly grateful to the person who asked for the repetition :)

  • It is however helpful when the person asking the question knows whether the problem is language or something else, because that will hopefully shape the way in which they rephrase it.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 23, 2015 at 23:06

I will add one more option that I don't see mentioned before. It need not work for everybody but it works for me in cases when acoustics is a part of the problem.

Sometimes (often) it happens that the room sounds muggy, microphone is missing or working badly etc. In that case, you can simply make the couple steps towards the person, ask him to repeat/clarify the question, then come back to the stage, repeat the question and answer it.

Of course, you can't do this if you overshot the talk by 4 minutes and ate all the discussion time. But if you keep your talk in time, you should have 5 minutes left for discussion, which is plenty of time for this little manoeuvre.


It is OK to acknowledge you don't always hear or understand what is being asked. I often request a question be repeated or even rephrased.

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    @rpax: Why? This is clearly an attempt to answer the question. You may complain about it being not very elaborate or similar or even downvote it, but it clearly belongs in the answer domain.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 23, 2015 at 11:14
  • @Wrzlprmft Just a personal opinion. I didn't downvote it, neither flagged, but it seems to me more like a comment than an answer. Just an opinion. Maybe I am more used to SO, and the rules here are different. Ok. You are right. I will delete my comment for avoiding the attraction of close votes.
    – rpax
    Aug 23, 2015 at 11:21
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    @rpax: On Stack Overflow, unelaborate and short answers shall also be posted as answers. Deciding between answers and comments can be decided by a simple objective criterion: Does the post try to answer the question?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 23, 2015 at 13:34

You can mention that you are a non-native speaker of English. Being a non-native speaker of English myself I face the same problem too sometimes and I use these polite expressions when I have not heard or understood what has been said:

  1. Could you please repeat that?

  2. Repeat that please.

  3. I beg your pardon.

  4. Come again.

  5. Sorry (etc.)

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