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Itís a very pleasurable sensation to be able to understand lengthy comments addressed to you in a foreign language that you have been at great pains to master over a long period of time. But itís a frustrating experience not to know the expressions in English that indicate that you do understand what is being said or alternatively not to know what you should say when you have lost the thread of the speakerís argument.
A few mumbled sounds of comprehension along the lines of mm, mm, mhm Ė mhm or the occasional inspired aha together with the doubtful em - em, well none of these offers any real personal satisfaction. In an attempt to fill in a little of this knowledge gap I want to suggest some expressions available in English to show understanding or lack of it together with the situations in which they might be used.
The most commonly used one is I see
. We say this when someone is explaining what he is doing or how he has come to be in a certain predicament: The reason why Iím standing waiting for the bus this morning is because the car wouldnít work
Ė and you remark Ė Oh, I see.
Or alternatively: The reason why Iím pushing the car this morning is because I couldnít find my wallet
Ė to which you could well reply Ė I donít see what you mean.
When the speaker is telling you a story and recounting the incidents step by step, a suitable rejoinder would be I follow
. I heard a knock so I went to the front door to see who it was and I saw this man with his face bleeding. Well, naturally I thought heíd had an accident.
Ė You show your agreement by adding Ė I follow
or conversely Ė Iím sorry I donít quite follow.
Expressing agreement with as well as support for the speaker is Iím with you
and the negative idea Iím not quite with you
or Iím not with you at all
. When youíre being corrected or being told off in a gentle manner, you can show your compliance with Iíve got the message
. Now you probably know this already but I want to make it quite clear that if itís at all possible you must look in the driving mirror before you slam on the brakes
Ė assuring the driving instructor you wonít do it again you maintain Ė Yes, thatís all right Iíve got the message, donít worry
. The negative idea is usually used for second and third persons. Thus the instructor is wondering whether he has made his point: I have a feeling he hasnít quite got the message
. A more forceful expression along the same lines and one thatís survived decimalisation is: The pennyís dropped
with the negative: The penny hasnít dropped yet
. Invariably we use this when we want to convince the speaker that weíve understood something that is perhaps rather complicated. The whole point of the joke lies in the pun on the word Ďliftí which can mean Ďraiseí and in a slang sense Ďstealí, do you see it now?
Well, if you do see a joke after it has been explained, then is the time to say: Yes, yes the pennyís dropped now.
When someone is explaining a manual skill, for example, an assurance that youíve mastered the skill is shown by saying: Iíve got the idea.
And the negative notion by: I havenít got the hang of it yet
. Now you hold the stick like this and adopt a crouching position before you strike the ball.
Should this movement come easily to you, then you tell your coach: Yes, I think Iíve got the idea now.
Mind you there are occasions when you canít say precisely one way or the other whether you have actually understood an explanation that has been given. For situations like these we use: Iíve got the general drift
. To the question: And what did you make of the Professorís two-hour discourse on Applied Linguistics?
you could well reply: Well, I wonít say I understood all of it but at least I got the general drift.
Two more expressions that are mainly used in the negative or interrogative: I donít see what youíre getting at/driving at or What are you getting at/driving at?
convey failure to understand as well as a certain irritation. When the speaker is being hesitant and is not coming to the point as in: We come next to the question of remuneration. Well - er as you may know weíre not a wealthy organisation and so
Ė you could justifiably interrupt with a: What exactly are you driving at?
And finally there are those few precious times when you understand every single point in a speakerís argument. For such situations when you see, you follow, youíre with the speaker, you get the message, the penny drops and you get the idea then you can proudly announce: Yes, thatís as clear as daylight
. On the other hand when you are completely lost, and hereís hoping you wonít feel like using it now, you can answer the question: Do you understand what Iím saying?
With these words spoken with appropriate sarcasm: Oh yes thank you itís all as clear as mud
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