What If I Don’t Understand the Question?
It is totally natural not to be able to understand some of the questions the examiner might ask you. Think about how many times a day you have to ask someone to repeat or explain something in your own language.
The Speaking test is supposed to represent a ‘normal’ conversation between two people and it is totally normal to be able to ask the person you are speaking to for clarification if you don’t understand. However, there are some rules that you should follow.
- Don’t ask the examiner personal questions or any questions about the topics being discussed. There isn’t time for this and the examiner will probably ignore your questions and you might get offended.
- Don’t ask the examiner to explain what a whole sentence means. You can ask them to explain what ONE word means in a sentence, but nothing more than that.
- Don’t ask the examiner to change the question if you don’t understand it or you don’t know much about the topic. Always attempt an answer.
- Don’t ask the examiner to repeat every question.
- Don’t ask the examiner to explain one word for every question. Only use this when you really need it.
- Don’t wait for the examiner to help you. They won’t unless you ask them to and then only as much as they are allowed to.
- Don’t simply repeat the question to give yourself more time to think.
- Do ask the examiner to repeat a question if you don’t understand.
- Do ask the examiner to explain the meaning of one word if you don’t know it.
- Do attempt an answer for every question. It is better to attempt something rather than nothing.
- Do use some of the phrases below.
How Do I Ask the Examiner?
A problem many students have is not being able to ask the examiner in a polite way that also demonstrates your English abilities.
Many simply just look at the examiner with a confused look on their face and expect the examiner to know what they are thinking- they can’t. Others might just repeat the sentence or word they don’t know- again the examiner does not know what you mean when you do this and does not have to help you unless you specifically ask them. The worst thing you can do is say ‘What?’ or ‘Huh?’; this is not only poor English, but also considered impolite.
Below are some phrases that are not only polite, but also demonstrate quite a high level of English.
You should vary these phrases if you use them more than once.
Asking the Examiner to Repeat the Question
- I’m sorry I didn’t quite (catch/get) that, can you say that again please?
- Can you repeat the question please?
- Sorry, could you repeat the question please?
Asking the Examiner to Explain a Word
- I’m sorry but I don’t quite understand the word (X); can you explain it to me?
- I’m a little confused about the word (X); can you tell me what it means?
- Sorry, can you explain what (X) means?
What If I Still Don’t Understand?
All the questions in Part 1 are on familiar topics so it is very unlikely that you will not be able to answer them. Part 3 has more abstract questions, so they might be a little bit more difficult. The crucial thing is that you at least attempt some kind of answer. Often the examiner will try to test your English to the limit in Part 3, so don’t worry if some of the questions seem very difficult; they are supposed to be.
One tactic you can use if you don’t understand the question is to give yourself some extra time to think and then give an answer.
There are three stages to this:
- Paraphrase question
- Tell the examiner you don’t really know the answer
- Attempt an answer
Question: How has the internet changed TV viewing habits in your country?
Answer: Do people watch TV differently now because of the internet? That’s an interesting question, let me think for a second. If I had to give an answer I would say…….
Paraphrasing the Question
Paraphrasing is simply saying the question in a different way, but keeping the same meaning. For example you could be asked ‘How effective is public transport in your city?’ and you could re-phrase that as ‘How good are buses and trains here?’
This not only gives you extra time to think but also tells the examiner that you know how to paraphrase which can boost your score.
Again, you shouldn’t do this with every question, just when you need to.
Tell the Examiner You Don’t Know
The examiners do not expect you to know the answer to every question, but they do expect you to give some kind of answer. It is totally acceptable for you to tell them that you are unsure about what to say and give yourself some time to think.
Here are some phrases you could use to do that:
- That’s a difficult/interesting/tricky question, let me think for a second.
- I’ve never thought about that before, please give me a second.
- I’m going to have to think about that one for a few seconds.
- I’ve really no idea, just give me a moment.
The examiner will be far more impressed if you are honest with them and tell them you are unsure than saying nothing or not answering the question you were asked.
You should also not think for more than a few seconds. If you can’t think of an answer after a few seconds, just make an attempt.
Attempt an Answer
Finally, you should give some kind of answer. You can qualify this and let the examiner know that you are unsure and it is just a guess or an attempt at an answer by saying one of these phrases:
- If I had to say…..
- Off the top of my head…..
- Without knowing too much about this topic, I would say….
- If I was forced to say I guess……
Again, only use these phrases when absolutely necessary.