Transparent Language Blog

Can You Speak Before Understanding? Posted by on Jun 26, 2017 in Archived Posts

When you learn a language, you generally are able to say less than you can understand. But is that always the case?

I got a fair amount of pushback on this comic. I guess it’s not as obvious to everyone else as it is to me that when you’re learning a language, you first understand, then you speak, in that order. It’s not an outrageous position – that’s how we learn as children, after all. First we spend a long time listening and digesting and parsing what the people around us are saying, and then we start to try out those sounds and words ourselves, refining and correcting as we go. But it’s not a chicken-and-egg situation. The way I see it, it’s firmly egg-and-omelette: one comes before the other.

Some folks tried to argue that if a language is close enough to your own, you can use words you know and feel fairly confident that it’s correct. I do this in Italian. I don’t know for sure what the word for “telecommunications” is, but I know that’s a latin-based word so I can be fairly confident it’s telecomunicazioni. But that’s not speaking before understanding, is it? I definitely understand the word in my native language, so I would understand it if someone said it in Italian, too.

Others have told me that once you reach a certain level in a language, a kind of “advanced beginner” stage, you have unlocked enough of the language to be able to say a few simple things like “good morning” and “where’s the bathroom,” but the vast majority of the language remains a mystery to you. Thus, it’s easier to speak than understand. But I’m not arguing whether it’s easier to speak or understand, what I’m saying is that you understand more than you can say, at every stage of language learning. I stand by that – even in the “advanced beginner” stage, you understand “that’s a good bathroom” even if you haven’t put what you’ve learned together in that way yet. It’s a matter of passive vs. active vocabulary.

But there are some exceptions I might be willing to concede.

In many languages, native speakers talk extremely fast or have regional accents or slang that make understanding incredibly difficult, even if you speak the language fluently. I mean, that’s often the case with English – there are some accents I just cannot parse, and I’m a native speaker! Looking at you, Scotland. So in these cases, sure, you speak better than you understand. But I’d consider these to be minor exceptions, since it applies to any language, even your mother tongue.

Another possible exception: you could be learning a language just through reading, or you could be learning a dead language. Then you definitely understand more than you speak, right? Nobody really knows how Latin is pronounced. Well, technically, yes, fine. But that’s a different kind of understanding. I meant specifically here to talk about listening comprehension rather than reading comprehension, which is different. But I’ll grant it as an exception. *gavel slam*

And finally, in perhaps my favorite of all the replies, one commenter wrote, “‘I speak more than I understand’ is recommended mode for politicians.” Laugh out loud. Good one.

What about you? Do you understand more than you speak? Or can you somehow speak a foreign language more than you can understand?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Michael Gyori:

    When I acquired my “second” L1″ as a toddler – German – I was already uttering in Hungarian, my mother tongue. When I went to an American (DOD) English-medium kindergarten at the age of four, I knew no English (my educationally dominant language) and recall having said, rather “parroted,” something in English that got me into a fight. I spoke, but knew not the meaning.

    Is it possible to speak with understanding before understanding what is spoken? I’d say as much as it is possible to read (decode) without understanding… 🙂

  2. Eugene:

    Yes, if you try to repeat a phrase you learned from a “friend”. Russian phrases that Jared Leto learned can cause a fight in a certain mood…

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Eugene Good point. Although maybe that’s just parroting, rather than actually “speaking”…

      • John:

        @Malachi Rempen But now you’re making a distinction between speaking (with comprehension) and speaking (without comprehension, aka, parroting).
        In that case your title is Can you speak with understanding before understanding? The answer to that one, by definition, is No.
        The reason people have been trying to help you see there are exceptions are because they’ve been thinking you meant Can you speak before understanding? The answer to that, of course, is Yes – but with a lot of caveats, and in some kind of very limited, specialized way.
        My immediate thought to the title, before reading the comic or your article, was to think of my younger sister and me moving to a Spanish speaking country at around 7 and 10, or so.
        She could understand what they were saying, but couldn’t speak well at all. I could speak to them, but couldn’t understand them.
        In phonetics class we had to practice phrases from all sorts of languages. So in a lot of languages I could speak more than I could understand. Admittedly that is a rare case – not many take college courses in phonetics.

  3. kathie:

    Speaking is usually the last of the three to be mastered, isn’t it? I can both understand and write in Portuguese far, FAR better than I can speak. To the point where I can understand a sermon given in Portuguese but mess up asking “where is the bathroom.” I think it’s wise to tell people “I understand more than I speak.” It saves everybody from awkward moments – it can save you from having to listen to the locals talk about you under your nose, and the locals the embarrassment of realizing you understood the whole time. Some people enjoy this, but I don’t. I prefer them to know in advance that I can understand the conversation even if I can’t participate.

  4. Lily:

    Well, totally not the case with me. I’m learning Mandarin now, and I can communicate on a basic level. I can speak pretty fast as well and people understand me, but most of the time I don’t understand a single thing people telling me. Same was when I was learning English, took me several years to start understanding others while I was already speaking, reading, and writing without any issues.

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