How to say I don't know and I don't understand in German

In German, “I know” uses a completely different verb than “I know you.” The sentence “I don’t know German” doesn’t even use the verb “to know” and “Bitte” can mean “Can you repeat that, please?” but that’s just one of five meanings…

Sooner or later the German language is likely to make you go “I don’t understand.” When that happens, we’re here to help.

You already know that German can be a funny language, and at times a little confusing. Of course there’s just the right graphic German expression that we use when someone looks extremely confused: “drei Fragezeichen im Gesicht haben,” which means someone has “three question marks on their face” – but don’t worry. It won’t be you.

After reading this article, you’ll know exactly how to say “I don't know” and “I don’t understand” in German, plus some fun alternative phrases and where to go, so you’ll never even need any of them.

How to say I don’t know in German.

How to say I don’t know in German

The general translation for “I don’t know” in German is “Ich weiß nicht”, a valid answer to a number of questions. While learning German, you’ve probably had to use the phrases already. Especially if you’re taking a German class, there will be times when you just don’t know the answer to your teacher’s questions.

If you’re in a German-speaking country and you’re actually trying to avoid all follow-up questions, you can try telling the other person that you don’t know German: “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” (literally: I don’t speak German).

English German IPA
I don’t know. Ich weiß nicht. [ɪç vaɪ̯s nɪçt]
I don’t know, yet. Weiß ich noch nicht. [vaɪ̯s ɪç nɔx nɪçt]
I don’t know German. Ich spreche kein Deutsch. [ɪç ‘ʃpʁɛçə kaɪ̯n dɔʏ̯tʃ]
I don’t know what to do. Ich weiß nicht, was ich tun soll. [ɪç vaɪ̯s nɪçt vas ɪç tu:n zɔl]
I don’t know what to say. Ich weiß nicht, was ich sagen soll. [ɪç vaɪ̯s nɪçt vas ɪç za:gən zɔl]
I don’t know how to say that. Ich weiß nicht, wie man das sagt. [ɪç vaɪ̯s nɪçt vi: man das zaːkt]
How do I say that in German? Wie sag ich das auf deutsch? [vi: zak ɪç das aʊ̯f dɔʏ̯tʃ]
I don’t know her/him. Ich kenne sie/ihn nicht. [ɪç ˈkɛnə zi: / iːn nɪçt]
I don’t know that movie. Ich kenne den Film nicht. [ɪç ˈkɛnə de:n fɪlm nɪçt]
Don’t know Weiß nicht [vaɪ̯s nɪçt]
Don’t ask me Frag mich nicht [fʁa:k mɪç nɪçt]
Beats me Da bin ich überfragt [da: bɪn ɪç ˌyːbɐˈfʁaːkt]
Good question Gute Frage [ˈɡuːtə ˈfʁaːɡə]
No idea Keine Ahnung [ˈkaɪ̯nə ˈaːnʊŋ]
No clue Kein Plan [kaɪ̯n plaːn]
I have no clue (literally: I have no pale shimmer) Ich habe keinen blassen Schimmer [ɪç ˈhabə ˈkaɪ̯nən ˈblasnˈʃɪmɐ]

When to use “Wissen” and “Kennen” in German

In German, there are two different expressions for “to know”: “wissen” and “kennen” - and the difference between the two can be tricky. Both of them translate as “to know” but “wissen” is about knowledge or awareness, while “kennen” indicates familiarity.

Now before you get mad at us for making up such a random distinction for something that clearly works as a single verb - it’s actually English who’s the odd one out in this regard. Most languages differentiate between the two forms of knowing, including French, Finnish, Hungarian and Hindi!

In fact, even English originally used to differentiate between the two meanings. In addition to the verb “to know”, Old English had “witan”, related to the German “wissen” and words like “wise.”

I don’t know who my new professors will be in German.

Here’s a general rule of thumb to help you pick the correct verb form:

  • When using “to know” by itself (without an object) or with a subordinate class, use “wissen.
  • When using “to know” with an object, use “kennen.
Context English German
Know (without object) I don’t know. Ich weiß nicht.
Know + object I don’t know the answer. Ich kenne die Antwort nicht.

Context English German
Know + subordinate clause I don’t know what the book is about. Ich weiß nicht, worum es in dem Buch geht.
Know + object I don’t know the book. Ich kenne das Buch nicht.

Context English German
Know + subordinate clause I don’t know who my new professors will be. Ich weiß nicht, wer meine neuen Professoren sein werden.
Know + object I don’t know my new professors yet. Ich kenne meine neuen Professoren noch nicht.

I don’t understand in German

There are some seriously weird words and expressions in German. Some are just a little long or unfamiliar, while others actually look like someone fell asleep on their keyboard.

When you’re reading a paragraph about the German “Stra­ßen­ver­kehrszu­las­sungsord­nung”, it’s perfectly acceptable to get up and say “I don’t understand this!” or in German “Ich versteh das nicht.

I don't understand in German.

English German IPA
I don’t understand. Ich verstehe nicht. [ɪç fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːə nɪçt]
Sorry, I don’t understand. Entschuldigung, ich verstehe nicht. [ɛntˈʃʊldɪɡʊŋ ɪç fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːə nɪçt]
I don’t understand the question. Ich verstehe die Frage nicht. [ɪç fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːə diː ˈfʁaːɡə nɪçt]
Excuse me? Wie bitte? [ˈviːbɪtə]
Could you repeat that? Kannst du das noch mal wiederholen? [kanst du: das nɔx ma:l ˌviːdɐˈhoːlən]
(Can you repeat that), please? Bitte? [ˈbɪtə]
What? Was? [vas]
Wait, what? Warte, was? [ˈvaʁtə vas]
Huh? Häh? [hɛː]
I don’t understand anything
(literally: I only understand train station).
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. [ɪç fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːə nuːɐ̯ ˈbaːnhoːf]
I didn’t understand that. Das hab ich nicht verstanden. [das ha:p ɪç nɪçt fɛɐ̯ˈʃtandn̩]
I don’t understand German. Ich verstehe kein Deutsch. [ɪç fɛɐ̯ˈʃteːə kaɪ̯n dɔɪ̯t͡ʃ]
Could you say that in English? (polite) Könnten Sie das auf Englisch sagen? [ˈkœntn zi: das aʊ̯f ˈɛŋlɪʃ ˈzaːɡn̩]

Now you do know

The one thing that’s even better than knowing how to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” is being able to say “Oh, I know. I finally understand that”: Oh, ich weiß. Endlich verstehe ich.

To make sure you can proudly say “I get it” next time, keep reading our German language blog where we break down the complex German language one topic at a time!

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