Why is it so hard to understand other languages?

Languages can be hard to understand

During the four years I spent in Quebec, there was one response I seemed to hear all the time when I asked people if they spoke French or not.

“I can understand everything, I just can’t speak it.”

My experience seemed to be quite different – my problem was that I couldn’t understand much at all. I could usually find a way to express myself when I had to, using the words I knew.

As time went on, I realised that these people were perhaps just not being entirely truthful. Maybe by recognising the odd word and picking up on gestures they could figure out what was going on. But in reality they didn’t know French at all.

You might be reading this because you’ve heard the same tall tales I did, and you’re starting to wonder if something is wrong with you. But let me put your mind at rest. Until you reach an advanced level, understanding is indisputably harder than speaking. Think about it – you have a bunch of words and concepts that you know in the target language. By using those, you can probably express yourself, ask a question, give an opinion etc, albeit inefficiently.

When someone is talking to you, if you’ve not heard the words before or can’t make the words out, then you’re screwed. They also might just be speaking so quickly that you can’t keep up. But by digging into these issues I’m going to help you understand why listening is so hard and what you can do to make it easier.


1. The speaker is using words you don’t know.

This one is obvious. How can you understand if you’ve never come across this word before?

Languages can be deceptive, because when we’re with the same people (either a teacher or a native speaking friend) we often talk about the same subjects and our knowledge is known to the other party. This can sometimes lead us to feel great at the langauge before someone else comes along and throws a spanner in the works.

The way to improve here is simply to learn more words. You can do this by watching videos, either ‘real life’ things like interviews and news articles, or stories. The important thing is that they have a specific theme that’s easy to identify. Analyse the video carefully – play it hundreds of times if you need to. Make a list of all the vocabulary you’ve not seen before. Create flash cards for these words and try to learn 100 or so a week.

I’ve found it easier to learn vocabulary when you can associate the words to something you once watched or read, instead of simply downloading a worksheet with 50 types of food on it an trying to memorise everything. For example, by reading the The Three Little Pigs in Spanish I learnt three materials that I’ll never forget. Straw, wood and bricks. It would have been considerably more mundane to look up the words for common building materials. And I probably would have found it hard to memorise everything.


2. The speaker is using words you know, you just aren’t identifying them.

Oh my lord, this is annoying. I’m talking about watching a video and struggling to follow it at all, then watching it with subtitles and understanding almost every word. Your eye flashes across the subtitles and they match up blissfully with what you’re hearing. So why is it so damn hard when the subtitles aren’t there?

Well, native speakers speak quickly and don’t always pronounce every word. If you step back and think about it, you do the same in English. Actually, try and clock onto this the next time you’re chatting with someone. Which words or groups of words do you blend together into an almost incoherent mess? These things make perfect sense to you because you’re used to hearing them, but to someone learning you’re language you’re actually making it very hard to understand.

The key is to start to identify patterns in the language. Which words seem to get treated with less respect? Which words are often almost completely inaudible?

And more important still is start looking beyond individual words. Which words are often mashed together? How does this end up sounding? As you watch more videos and listen to more people, you’ll hear the same examples coming up time and time again. Start putting these groups of words onto your flashcards. Drill them over and over until you can reel these off as quickly and recklessly as a native speaker.


3. The speaker is just going too fast.

YouTube has a handy feature in which you can slow a video down by 25% or 50%, and you should use this to your advantage. If you think someone is speaking too fast, just slow the video down and you’ll know for sure whether or not that’s the problem.

If it is the problem, you can try practising at half-speed and just work your way up.

We sometimes try almost too hard when we’re learning a language, and you might find that when you’re listening to someone speak or watching a video you’re foolishly attempting to translate every word as it comes. It’s simply impossible to keep up if this is what you’re doing, because your brain is stuck on a word it heard a second or two ago and you’ve totally lost your connection with the speaker.

Like I wrote above, it’s time to graduate from words to groups of words. Once you become more comfortable with common groups, or what we call ‘collocations’ in linguistics, your brain will start to translate in bigger chunks and you’ll be able to gloss over the things you know well. This allows it to keep up, and you may even find yourself anticipating what’s coming next. That’s when you know you’re getting somewhere with this language.


Why passive listening doesn’t work

Unfortunately, despite the fact many crooks seem to cash in on this concept, you can’t learn a language in your sleep nor can you learn it through background noise.  Listening to the news or a podcast in a foreign language while you’re cooking or cleaning can certainly help you get used to the sounds of the language, but this form of passive listening actually does very little for your ability to comprehend a new language.  That’s because your brain is conditioned to completely gloss over words you can’t understand.

The only way to really improve your language comprehension is through active listening.  This means employing the techniques mentioned above, in which you’re actively trying to figure out the meaning of what you’re hearing.  When you do this enough you’ll notice improvements, and in time your background listening will actually start to register in your mind.


The tables will turn

I’ve been in this position several times before.  It’s easy to get frustrated and shout “why can’t I understand this?!”

But when you reach an intermediate to advanced level, the tables will start to turn and comprehension will become a little easier than production. That’s because you now know enough words to understand almost anything, but your speaking is hindered by a lack of practice and possibly a bit of stage fright.

This is a way more fun position to be in though, because you can dive into conversations without feeling afraid that you’ll lose track.  It’ll be less hard to understand native speakers.  Now you can start to perfect your speaking and get into the little nooks of the language.

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