To Improve Language Comprehension DON’T Try to Understand
Experienced language learners accept uncertainty, yet they keep going. They accept that they don’t fully understand.
In the above video I refer to two kinds of comprehension, listening comprehension and reading comprehension, but in this post I will simply refer to them as language comprehension.
Language comprehension is the most important goal in language learning
Understanding a language is the key to achieving a level where it is possible to have meaningful conversations. Comprehension is the key to learning a language and giving yourself the opportunity to speak well, understand movies, TV, podcasts, books etc.
It is okay if you do not understand at first or you keep forgetting what something means. If this has ever happened to you, you know it can be very frustrating. A natural response may be to get stuck in this confusion and become discouraged. It is important that we become aware of this potential pitfall and learn how to combat it effectively.
German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer once said that “the brain needs repetition but the brain needs novelty”. To relate Spitzer’s idea to the issue of language learning, I used the analogy of mowing a lawn. It will take multiple passes in order to achieve the correct length, especially if the grass is quite long.
Allow the language to enter your brain and your brain will respond by getting familiar with the language. You can start by setting the blades at a higher level. You may think that this will set you back because it will take twice as long to mow the lawn but it could take even longer and require much more stress to force yourself to push the mower through a higher volume of grass which creates more resistance.
The idea is to execute a difficult task in multiple passes, like mowing the lawn, the first pass at a higher level and a second pass at a lower level. In other words not to understand a lot the first time you study something but to understand more in subsequent sessions. Do not expect it to be perfect the first time. Do not force yourself. Move on to new material and accept that you will not understand everything.
This analogy of the lawn mower can be used in many different contexts. Nothing is going to be perfect the first time we do it. For example let us say we are writing an essay, a book, or any kind of text. In the first session we spend writing it the goal should be to write down the gist of what we are trying to say and not worry too much about perfect sentence structure and overall quality of the product. The text is still in a raw form and needs to be looked over many more times to achieve the quality we can be satisfied with. That is okay. We can’t let the desire for perfection interfere with the process of working toward our goals.
The desire to understand immediately is a major obstacle in language learning. Be easy on yourself, do not expect perfection right away. Simply continue to move forward. When we are studying a language, it is easy to fixate on one word or phrase that we do not understand. Don’t beat yourself up about it!
If you are using LingQ, simply translate the sentence and move on to the next sentence. Come back in an hour or the next day and study the same lesson, you will see progress if you are patient.
Forward movement is the most important thing. This is the same thing as being resilient and showing perseverance in language learning. Learning a new language should not be an overly stressful or painful experience. Real learning comes from spending time with a language. There is no secret recipe and everyone learns at their own pace.
There are ups and downs in language learning, just as there are in the pursuit of any challenging endeavour. The main thing is to not quit because we are discouraged. We must instead acknowledge the fact that we are not perfect and we will not pick everything up right away. Simply move along and continue down the path of growth in your language learning journey.
Once you have removed the expectation that you must understand what you are listening to or reading immediately, you allow the language to seep into your mind subconsciously. Do not fixate on one word or sentence and halt your progress to spend five minutes on one word or phrase. Let the language wash over your mind, you will learn gradually this way and comprehension will happen over time.