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Do I need to understand everything?

6 Mar 2012

My method for learning Polish involved mainly reading and listening to books in Polish. There are many variations on this method that involve the use of movies, podcasts or even video games instead of books.

As long as the method focuses on understanding real language and there is some listening component - it will be very effective.

The main challenge is understanding this language when you are still learning (especially listening).

Lately, I've been receiving a lot of emails that say something like:

When we are listening to podcasts (for example), do you think it's worth it to try and understand as much as possible? Should we listen to the same recording over and over until we understand everything?

Read more for my response!

Repetition but not perfectionism

Some people - particularly people who are learning their first foreign language - feel that they must understand everything before moving on. So they'll repeat the same material over and over.

Repetition can be very helpful, especially when you're just starting out.

But excessive repetition can very detrimental!

I've mentioned several times that there are diminishing returns in language learning. When you're just starting out, you learn very, very quickly. You can even go from beginner to intermediate in 3-6 months if you devote a lot of time to it. However, over time your progress slows. It can take years to go from intermediate to advanced.

The same idea applies to repetition! In the first few repetitions you will learn a ton. But after a while you learn less and less with each repetition.

Lots of small successes ...

... will eventually lead to big success.

Let's say you're listening to short podcasts (ex: 10 minutes). You listen to the podcast once or twice. Then you go through the transcript and look up all the unknown words and make flashcards. After reviewing the flashcards a few times, you listen to the podcast a couple more times. You can do all these steps over several days.

So long as:

  1. You understand the general idea,
  2. You enjoy yourself, and
  3. You learn something new

... you are ready to move on to the next podcast!

Yes, there will be things you don't understand. There will be new vocabulary you don't learn. But you learned something! So you're a little better with the language than you were before.

All these little successes add up and will eventually lead to big success.

The greatest danger

The most important thing is that you don't give up!

When people repeat the same material over and over it can get boring. It can be frustrating because you feel like you are never making any progress. It can stop being enjoyable.

All of these things lead people to give up and the only way you can fail to learn a language is by giving up!

Try to be conscious of your feelings toward your study activities: they should continue to be enjoyable and interesting. If you feel yourself burning out: take a break or try something different. Just don't give up!

What do you think? Should you try to understand everything? Or just enough? What is your experience with this problem? Please leave a comment below!

Anonymous's picture

David,
I agree 100 per cent with you, never give up and have fun!
Just enjoy process of learning and don't think about language, just enjoy the content of podcast - I guess this is the key to success. Is it make sense, I hope so :-)

PS we didn't speak each other for long time, that's a shame! :(

Posted by: Piotr (not verified) | Tuesday, March 6, 2012 - 16:43
David Snopek's picture

Hi Piotr,

Thanks for the comment! We should talk on Skype sometime soon just to catch up on what the other is doing. I try to follow your materials as best I can but you are such an efficient machine that it's hard to keep up! ;-) I'd love to collaborate on something again.

Please send me an e-mail and let me know when you're available!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 10:17
Anonymous's picture

Yeah David, you have used the right word – perfectionism. I am an introvert with a mix of a perfectionist. And these both led me astray many times.

Not only I have (should I write ‘not only have I’ huh?) trouble to break down the barrier of talking but also whether I have to know everything and in every situation (formal, informal, etc.)

Yes, I know that my English is far from perfect but many times I think that I’m the only one who would make this or that mistake.

The other question I keep asking myself is that, when will my ‘formal’ (though it is not formal!) learning finish. For example, I would like to learn another language, e.g German but I’m afraid that when I start learning it, I will forget English or it will make it much worse. Kinda vicious circle!

Most people tend to exaggerate when assessing their language level. The problem is I take it literally and reflect on it that they are better than I am, or I am so dumb since they have learnt faster.

So, that are my problems. :)

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 10:10
David Snopek's picture

Hi Wojtek,

I have never heard you speak English but your written English is always really, really good! So, I don't think you need to worry about your mistakes so much. (Although, yes, it should be "Not only have I..." - "not only" causes the subject/verb to flip.)

Starting a new language and maintaining the old one is an interesting problem. It's something I really failed to do with my Russian. But I never really spoke it all that well to begin with. ;-)

But I've heard lots of people say that taking a little time away from a language to focus on another, can actually cause the first language to improve when they come back to it! So, studying German for 6 months might actually improve your English!

I don't have much experience with this personally, but Steve Kaufmann writes about it all the time, for example:

http://thelinguist.blogs.com/how_to_learn_english_and/2006/07/take_a_res...

You just have to make sure to return to your English periodically.

As far as self-assesment: I think most people either drastically overestimate or underestimate their ability. I've found very few people who I think get it spot on. :-) But there are lots of people just like you who know a language very well but think your ability is less than it is.

Hope all that helps!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 10:27
Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the good words!

Yup, it is interesting and I’m curious if Kaufmann can use his 11? languages. For me it is rather an art for art’s sake, because the more data (input/knowledge) the higher risk that you will forget it.

Knowing one, two, maybe three languages and be fluent (though he do not like the word), OK. But you have to use them.

I’m saying ironically that I’m going to learn the languages of eternal enemies of Poland: German and Russian (who by the way attack us average 200 years :D) and the language that USED TO BE enemy, that is the language of American imperialists. :D

Maybe, if there is another war, I will get a good job in the army. And will retire quickly! :D

But to be more serious, now I use English in my work, that is selling on-line on eBay.co.uk. You know, I’m afraid that I can’t express myself, that I don’t come across well.
And sometimes, I reflect on that, that there are many immigrants in Great Britain who run their business. Also in the Internet!

And then I think that the natives can not only tolerate it but appreciate it since you can manage. Is it right? What do you think of non-natives running business that try to do their best?

Actually I don’t mind local Chinese who sell food, even though he is not fluent. But he can manage. :)

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Thursday, March 8, 2012 - 15:03
David Snopek's picture

At least in Milwaukee and I assume in the rest of the States (but, of course, I don't know for sure), we are very used to talking with people who aren't native speakers of English. This can be in many contexts! Maybe in business, maybe in education (lots of professors are immigrants).

Anyway, most native speakers definitely will NOT judge you based on your English ability and, in fact, will do everything they can to help and make sure it's a painless experience. :-)

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Friday, March 9, 2012 - 15:05
Anonymous's picture

Wojtek,

1. perfectionism
The best thing about knowing some foreign language is that you can communicate with others and... discover that we are all the same (attitudes, problems, and our secret phobias as well).
I am 43, mum of 2, teaching and translating (PL&Czech)in Prague. Believe me, if you are a nice person, honest, reliable and keeping your customers satisfied, nobody will bother caring about your grammatical errors.
Just read my post, probably is full of them, but who cares?
2. We are the victims of Polish educational method (stress putted on studying grammatical stuff more than speaking, high score of test more important than creativity or using language in everyday life...) Yes, we - Poles tend to underestimate ourself. Fight with this thoughts. There are not good for your 'internal environment' :o]. Using English as a second language means that you are more understandable for those who use it the same way! How many Brits are in this world? How many pure Britons are your clients (no Jamaican or Pakistan or Russian grand dad)?
3. Learning German. Yes, do it. Just learn it using English web sites and English books. Use Polish grammar book to work out the most crucial grammar problems but download the DE/ENG dictionairy with audio option. The advantages are various: English materials point the all similarities between those two languages (vocabulary, structure)and... you are still 'in touch' with ENG.
Keep going and S P E A K as much as possible. My big passion and help in learning are audio books. Combined with e-books or on-line news read by some text to speech program, eg. Ivona.
4. Extra time for learning - it is important to success, but is nowadays precious and rare. Using audio books means you listen in metro, doing some manual work, cleaning, cycling, walking, cooking, falling asleep.
Cheers and zdravím z Prahy, Marta

Posted by: marchewa (not verified) | Monday, March 19, 2012 - 07:55
Anonymous's picture

Thank you for the encouraging words, Marta!

Posted by: Wojtek (not verified) | Monday, March 19, 2012 - 09:27
David Snopek's picture

Hi Marta!

Thanks for the great comment and sharing your experience. :-)

I just wanted add a note to #2, where you wrote: "We are the victims of Polish educational method (stress putted on studying grammatical stuff more than speaking, high score of test more important than creativity or using language in everyday life...)"

This is not just the Polish education system! It very well might be all modern education systems.

Here in the USA, it's the same. There is a trend now that teachers compensation is tied to the standardized test scores of their students. And schools with low test scores can lose funding or be closed. If the situation wasn't bad before (and it was!), now more and MORE teachers are teaching their students only how to pass tests. :-/

In any case, I just wanted to let you know that Poland is not alone in this problem. :-) I hope we all manage to somehow solve it in the near future!

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 06:50
Anonymous's picture

Yes, I catch it. Thank for you explanation from the American point of view/background. The another truth about us Poles is that we tend to idealised the "Western Word".

Thanks God we all have an internet access. Nowadays it is so easy to become a part of the global community, much easier when I use to study Eng, ages ago ":o)). That is the greatest motivation for me, because I am a social addicted person. Living abroad means for me try to puzzle out the new language, the new culture. I am lucky to have this chance. Obviously it is not always idyllic life (I mean being a trailing spouse).

The modern educational system should help our kids become more independent, confident and basically be prepared for the FUTURE JOB MARKET. Unfortunately, the school programs are not being regularly updated...

What to do? Take your fate in your hand, as we use to say in Poland. It is possible now. Crossing borders via virtual way, studying on line, chatting in your favourite second language, listening to the foreign broadcast at your home... What a great motivation for all the self-study enthusiasts.

Cheers from Prague,
Marta

Posted by: marchewa (not verified) | Wednesday, March 21, 2012 - 07:40
Anonymous's picture

Hi David!!! How are you??Do you miss Poland?? I was thinking about your method of learning Polish language. That is good, but I think this method is good for people, who can able to speak, read, etc in an intermediate level. Maybe I am wrong. Depends on sombody. It is not to easy to find two hours a day, but it is easy to find an hour. I would like to speak to by Skaype for a while. Let me know when you are available. I am going to pass this exam ( CERTIFICATE IN ADVANCED ENGLISH (CAE)), which is not easy, but I want to be a teacher ;-).
I want to use your method;-) ;-) Kings regards Peter

r.wtyklo@wp.pl

Posted by: Peter Pan from England (not verified) | Friday, March 9, 2012 - 05:18
David Snopek's picture

Hi Peter!

I'm doing good. Yes, I do miss Poland quite a bit. :-)

My method is definitely easier for people at an intermediate level. But with properly prepared materials, I think even absolute beginners could do it! Of course, I don't know where one might get such prepared materials - maybe I'll have to make them. ;-)

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time to talk via Skype. It's especially difficult given the time difference. For the most part, I mostly just talk via Skype with people who I already have a relationship because it's hard to find time even for them!

But I invite you to e-mail me via the contact form and we'll see if we can work something out:

http://www.linguatrek.com/contact

Best regards,
David.

Posted by: David Snopek | Sunday, March 11, 2012 - 19:12
Anonymous's picture

[...] Do I Need To Understand Everything? – David Snopek, the writer behind Lingua Trek and Natural Language Learning Without a Teacher shares some great insights that will help you understand better how and what to listen to as you are learning a new language. [...]

Anonymous's picture

This is great - so many people get caught up in trying to learn and understand every single word that they get bored and feel down because they haven't got any further.

I like your idea of breaking things up in to small stages and incorporating a number of different methods (i.e. the podcast, the transcript, and the flashcards). This helps both listening skills, reading skills, and memory - great!

Anonymous's picture

[...] You don't have to understand everything. In real life, you can always ask for clarification. And when you're studying, the most important thing is that you learned something new and took one step towards your goal. [...]

Anonymous's picture

[...] Nie musisz rozumieć wszystkiego. W realnym życiu zawsze możesz prosić o wyjaśnienie. I kiedy się uczysz, najważniejsze jest to, że nauczyłeś się czegoś nowego i zrobiłeś jeden krok do przodu. [...]

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