This is a recurrent theme, I know, but it drives my absolutely nuts when people tell me that they really HAD to look up every word they didn’t know in order to ‘understand’ a text.
I froth at the mouth when students who refuse to practice listening at all, because they prioritise studying obscure elements of Italian grammar or memorising words they’ll probably never use or hear, complain that Italians speak too quickly and/or slur their words. If ONLY they’d speak clearly, and at a reasonable pace, they exclaim!
What you might not understand about not understanding is that it is the norm, the default.
Communication between humans is, by its very nature, imperfect – I might read this short news article, for example, and understand one thing, whereas you might glance at it and come to an entirely different conclusion.
Motivation matters, too. The more you want to know, the more effort you may make. I pay particular attention to anything that might cost (or earn) me money, or when over-hearing gossip about people I know.
Our familiarity with WHAT is being discussed or read is obviously a factor in how easy or difficult it is to grasp what’s being communicated. As are other factors such as our appreciation of a written genre, or the level of background noise where a conversation is being held.
You probably forgot what it felt like to be a child listening to adults talking amongst themselves, or attempting to read an article from a newspaper that really wasn’t intended for an elementary school audience. But that feeling is not dissimilar, I’m sure, to what it often feels like to be listening to a conversation in a foreign language you don’t yet know well, or attempting to read an authentic article or novel.
Kids grow, though, and as they do, they gradually pick things up. In the end, understanding or not understanding comes down to, in a large part, experience. I’m fifty three, so I’ve been listening to English being spoken for that same number of years. I’ve lived in Italy for over two decades so, while I often have no idea what my kids are mumbling about influencers, social media and the like, I mostly have no difficulty answering the phone or dealing with customers or suppliers.
‘Understanding’ what you hear or read in a foreign language need not take nearly so long as half a century or decades. It’s possible to build reading and listening skills in a foreign language in just a few months or years, as long as you are happy to define success as achieving a PARTIAL understanding of what you read or hear.
But that’s not well-understood. Many students wrongly treat each and every text they encounter as a challenge from which they will not rest until they have understood absolutely everything. Those are the ones that tend not to stay the course.
Or perhaps it’s you, the insecure student who so wants to understand what’s being said to her that she has to continuously ask for things to be repeated, even when what’s being said is clearly of no significance or will likely be restated at some point anyway.
Another thing people don’t know about not understanding, and I say this as I enter the final twenty percent of the rather long original text of ‘La conscienza di Zeno’, is that the more not understanding you actually do (hundreds of pages, hours of listening) the more you will, in the end, understand.
I would bet my last euro that a student who spends an hour understanding ‘everything’ about a short article, were such a thing actually possible, will enhance their dictionary skills above all, but also have a much deeper appreciation of what the author was gettting at than someone like me, who skims over it in a few minutes and only gets a general idea.
But were the person like me to continue reading other articles for the remaining fifty-five minutes that the dictionay-user was forensicallly analysing the original, she would have read perhaps a dozen articles, on different themes, and so come across different styles, varying vocabulary, and a wider range of grammar.
The reader or listener who can tolerate not understanding will, in my humble opinion, end up understanding as much (or perhaps more) than the student who treats each text or conversation as something sacred to be understood ‘completely’, and consequently reads/listens to much less.
N.b. This argument applies only to ‘authentic’ texts and conversations, so reading a newspaper, a novel or an article, or joining a conversation with native speakers, or listening to the radio in the language you’re learning.
It is, however, entirely reasonable and practical to prepare yourself for such ‘authentic’ situations in advance of encountering them. For example by using graded materials, such as our ‘easy reader’ ebooks, or materials which combine both text and audio – video with subtitles, audios with transcripts, or combined media such as EasyItalianNews.com.
Before I began this article, I was busy practising not understanding Swedish (listening to the radio news while washing the dishes). I’ve been learning that language for three or four years now, so manage to get the gist of some of the stories at least. But it comes and goes.
Sometimes I’m worrying about taxes or Covid 19 rather than really paying attention to the radio. Or it’s simply above my head and I never even get an inkling of what’s being talked about even though I try to. But often I do understand what I’m listening to. Sometimes I’ll find myself later on telling my wife about something I’ve heard, perhaps without even having consciously realised I was listening to it.
I began with several year’s worth of ‘easy’ Swedish listening, sometimes an hour or more each day. I no longer do that, but the hundreds of hours of exposure to the sounds and elements of the language, to the styles of communication, to the typical topics, to the names and the facts, all added up.
Your brain is a marvellous learning machine, but it needs input to be able to do its job. It needs to be able to feel its way around, to map out the territory, to learn to make guesses, to correct itself.
Not understanding is the route to understanding.
Not understand more and you will, eventually, understand more.
Short-cut that process with graded materials designed for learners at your level, or below your level if you’ve been wasting your time with a dictionary and a grammar book.
Step up a level as soon as you’re no longer not understanding enough. Your aim should be to be always not understanding enough, if you see what I mean
Push up through the levels until authentic materials no longer seem impossible, anzi, that they begin to represent the next moutain to be conquered.
One day, leave the baby stuff behind, as I have done. Now you’re out in the real world! Not understanding will still be the norm, but you may one day look back in amazement at how far you were able to come, and in such a short time.
Tuesday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.
Advice on how to use it is here.
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