The importance of not understanding when we learn languages

I am often surprised at how concerned people are about understanding every word and every sentence when they learn languages. I think that this holds us back. Just as we need to make mistakes in order to progress, we need to accept that often, very often, when we listen or read, we simply will not understand. It doesn’t matter. In fact we need to confront things we don’t understand, in order to learn. If we understand too well, maybe we are not learning enough. I elaborate on this in a recent video:


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2 comments on “The importance of not understanding when we learn languages


I get your point and agree with most of what you said, but most of the people who feel the need to understand everything are probably complete beginners learning their first language. I think you might want to take it a little easier on them. 😉 I used to be more like that, its hard learning your first language, until I’m at a decent level in my German ( mid-intermediate level) I’m sure I will still want to have a good grasp on what I’m reading/listening to. Sometimes I guess we just have to take ones word for it who has done it before and has gone through the hardest part of the language process. As you’ve said in the past regarding the lifting of the fog and seeing the fog lift for yourself, the learner will then in my opinion start feeling more re-assured.


I agree with your point also but as a teacher of English as a second language, I am sometimes frustrated by students who go too far in their comfort in not understanding. That is, the listen to or read something and have only the vaguest notion what it means and then tell me they understood it and have not questions about anything. I’m preparing students to entering an English language MBA program and they all want to exit ESL as soon as possible so their reluctance to take advantage of having a teacher present to clarify what they didn’t get often puzzles me. I think the ideal student combines the motivation and desire to understand with a tolerance for a moderate level of ambiguity, understanding that they don’t need to understand every word but the do need to understand what the speaker or writer is really trying to say.

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