The Importance of Understanding

Posted on | June 14, 2011 | 15 Comments

Without understanding what the other person says, what you say does not matter. There is no conversation.

Most people would agree on this point. But yet some people will still think that you should try to converse in a foreign language as early as possible. What they fail to realize, I believe, is that it takes a lot of work to understand a foreign language, especially if the language remotely resembles your own.

I started learning Portuguese less than 4 months ago. Most of the work I did was input-related. I read and listened to comprehensible content. After I arrived here in São Paulo, I find that I can understand much more than if I were to split my learning between input and output.

To me, speaking to the locals is not really that difficult. The key is to understand what is said to me first. If I understand, simple responses like ‘sure’, “that’s fine”, or “I agree” are often sufficient. If I don’t understand, I become nervous. I would even stumble asking the person to repeat.

I always puzzle why some people would suggest others to engage in conversation with native speakers as early as possible. If you can understand the other person, perhaps because the target language is similar to yours, that is fine. If not, why on earth would you try to say something to someone without any hope of understanding the response. Are you trying to show off or what?

Understand first before being understood. I think the logic is as simple as that.


15 Responses to “The Importance of Understanding”

  1. Bakunin
    June 15th, 2011 @ 3:13 am

    Edwin, maybe you focus too much on words. Making heavy use of non-verbal communication and restricting the conversation to a narrowly defined context (likes and dislikes, whereabouts, immediate plans, food, sights etc.), it is possible to have a meaningful exchange. The holistic experience of language in such an exchange (including body language, facial expressions, situation, objects, touch, smell, taste etc.) facilities the acquisition of language. Acquiring vocabulary through listening and reading alone is likely to be slower compared to experiencing it in a specific real situation, with touch, smell, emotion / human interaction etc. attached to it. Or, to give a concrete example, reading a recipe in a cook book is likely to be less effective than preparing the meal with a native. The holistic experience of language, incorporating all physical senses, is the big advantage of the early speaker.

  2. Keith
    June 15th, 2011 @ 6:14 am

    Edwin, you are absolutely correct. I think you know the answers to your question about why some people insist on speaking as early as possible.

  3. edwin
    June 15th, 2011 @ 6:29 am


    Words are the basic building blocks of a language. I don’t see the problem with focusing on acquiring words.

    I think what you are saying is true at the intermediate stage. We cannot just listen and read. But I am talking about the beginner’s stage. I believe listening and reading at the beginner’s stage is much more effective than splitting the time between input and output.

  4. edwin
    June 15th, 2011 @ 6:33 am

    I am more annoyed when some people state that early-speaking works for them. In reality, they spend days, weeks, or even months in studying the language, then go into the environment and tell people that they are speaking from day 1.

  5. Gavin
    June 19th, 2011 @ 12:30 am

    Hey Edwin, I’ve enjoyed going through some of your posts and reading your experiences. On this particular post though I think I have to agree with Bakunin on this one. From the beginning, there is much more going on when two or more human beings interact than we realize. The basic building blocks of ‘language’ are much more basic than words. Dealing with misunderstanding is just as much a part of learning to interact as successfully communicating through speech and the acquiring words. Interested to see how your experience in Brazil goes, I really miss it there, I had an amazing time when I lived there. Enjoy Sao Paulo!

  6. edwin
    June 19th, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Thanks, Gavin, for your comment. Different opinions are always welcome here.

  7. edwin
    June 20th, 2011 @ 6:31 am

    Of course, I didn’t mean that I have a completely different opinion from Gavin and Bakunin. I just don’t see the efficiency of having an early immersion. Other than this, I agree with you.

  8. Lucas
    June 23rd, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    Parabéns pelo seu blog e espero que esteja gostando dessa linda cidade que é São Paulo.

  9. Lucas
    June 23rd, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    Parabéns pelo seu blog e espero que esteja gostando dessa linda cidade que é São Paulo.

    Entender é o segredo.

  10. Andrew
    June 29th, 2011 @ 8:20 am

    It depends.

    It depends on the expectations of the native speaker–if they understand that you’re a rank beginner and that that’s what they’re going to be working with, then it’s fine. If they’re some random native you take by surprise then it’s unreasonable to expect them to just stand there and essentially give you Spanish/German/whatever lessons.

    However, I honestly don’t buy the argument put forth by some that speaking early on actually hurts your progress–any practice you do with the language (reading, listening, speaking, whatever) helps.


  11. edwin
    June 29th, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    I think my position is less extreme. I think it would be more efficient to concentrate on listening first.

    But then by definition, not doing so will hinder the progress, and thus it will ‘hurt’.

  12. Alexandre
    June 30th, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    The more you speak, the more you understand. Not the other way around.

    With the possible exception of learned phrases that we might miss when said to us at full speed, we all understand more than we speak. Even in our first language, we can all understand complex ideas and concepts that we couldn’t paraphrase quite as eloquently. Some people even understand languages they can’t speak. Speaking ability will always trail behind listening skills.

    The more you speak, the better you are at speaking. Learning to speak is a process of trial and error. I’ve never actually paid attention to when I start speaking when I learn a new language, but I’ve definitely never shied away from an opportunity to speak, no matter how early it was. As soon as I start learning, I go into oral mode and I read out loud, try to use the phrases presented in self-talk, etc. Whenever I can, I use the language. Is it right from day 1? Logistically speaking, that would be unlikely. Is it the first week or the first month? Probably, but I can’t say for sure.

    I’ve found myself in situations where I tried to say as much as I could, and then couldn’t understand the answer and I don’t see what the big problem is. If you’re stuck, you say you don’t understand or can’t speak the language very well and that’s it. In the vast majority of cases, people find another, simpler way to answer. Besides, when you are part of the conversation, you control part of it and it becomes easier to understand.

    When you try hard to speak a new language, 2 things happen — people understand that you take learning the language seriously, and they are willing to make an effort to help you. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

    A conversation can be a lot of things. It’s not only a deep debate on the state of the European Union. It can also be a quick exchange about the weather, a short greeting, an order in a coffee shop or a question about an item you are looking for at a store. It can be asking an elderly person if they want your seat in a bus or telling someone they dropped something.

    Having a conversation requires a bit of forethought and you can prepare for it. If you are going to take the subway, learn how to ask for directions or how to buy a ticket. Learn how to offer your seat or ask someone if they could move out of the way. If you are passive in your learning and you wait before you start talking, you miss opportunities to use language in context. You miss chances to learn where your learning is weak and what you need to work on.

    You said: “I find that I can understand much more than if I were to split my learning between input and output.”
    No matter how much I concentrate on oral, my listening is always ahead of my speaking abilities. I’ve never felt that my listening suffered in any way. Compared to other learners, after a similar period of time, if I concentrate on oral (which I always do), my listening skills are never behind, but my speaking ability is always ahead.

    You said: “why on earth would you try to say something to someone without any hope of understanding the response. Are you trying to show off or what?”
    I’m practicing. I’m trying to improve. I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to push my limits. Or you could just say nothing and learn nothing. Up to you, really.

    It’s quite possible that we either choose to speak early or to delay it because of whatever feels more comfortable, but there is no downside to speaking from the start. If there is, I’ve yet to witness it, and it has yet to affect me. I’ve never felt that my speaking was inadequate at any given stage of my learning, while most of the people I know feel that they need to improve their speaking.

    To take a chance with speaking, even if you risk not understanding the reply at all, is to put yourself in a position where learning is possible. Isn’t that a student’s job?

  13. edwin
    June 30th, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    Alexandre, your comment is longer than my post!

    I was trying to response to your comment, but got stuck trying to understand what you mean by “The more you speak, the more you understand.”

    There is a misunderstanding that input-focus learners have a tendency to shy away from conversing with others. I don’t see any direct relationship.

    Thanks for you comment, and I think you deserve a complete post from me as a reply.

  14. O nauce języków, nie tylko angielskiego – linki, czerwiec ’11 | Język Angielski dla każdego - Ucz się sam!
    July 5th, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    […] The importance of understanding – Co jest ważniejsze, umiejętność wyartykułowania tego co chcesz powiedzieć, czy zrozumienia tego co do Ciebie mówią inni? “Most people in São Paulo don’t speak English, and they are not ashamed of it. There is nothing wrong with them, just the foreigners who cannot speak their language. I kind of like this attitude.” […]

  15. Petra
    December 11th, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    Nice article and so to the point.

Leave a Reply

  • Subscribe

  • Recent Posts

  • Posts by Categories