HELP! I can’t understand a word! Posted by Sean Young on May 30, 2012 in Language Learning
In the beginning stages of language learning, getting that one sentence out in another language and having it understood by the native speaker can be thrilling. You’ve established communication! But then, you hear the reply and all you hear is a bunch of sounds spoken at rapid speed that makes your head spin. What happened? Was all that time and effort with the classes and books wasted on this moment?
No, not really. What’s happening is you are hearing the language as it’s spoken by a native speaker in a daily conversational style. When I was in Moscow, Russia twenty years ago, I spoke English to a University professor who taught English – and I had to slow down and speak somewhat clearly for him to understand me. So you see, it happens on all levels.
Go on, take a guess
Hangman, crossword puzzles, fill in the blank, multiple choice. All these have one thing in common – guessing. You won’t know the answers until you see or hear the clues and then based on any previous answers, you guess the right answer.
A native speaker doesn’t usually speak slowly and clearly, you will not know all the idioms and phrases that come out of their mouths, and you’ll hear vocabulary that you haven’t yet learned. To work through all this, you will need to go with the flow of the moment, deduce things from context, and simply guess at what is being said. Even the advanced learners eventually have to rely on this method.
Never let yourself get discouraged or frustrated. The more you try, the better you will become. After some practice you will find that it is not necessary to get the meaning of every word or phrase in order to understand the message.
It’s okay to ask for help
Even if you do get to understand most of what’s being said, there is no shame in stopping the conversation and saying you do not understand. Ask for clarification of words or phrases which are not clear. You’ll find the speaker is happy and willing to help you out in this respect.
As you practice, you will find yourself guessing less and less, and understanding more. We have an article from March (Improving Your Listening Skills) that gives you all kinds of tips to help lessen the confusion.