You don’t need to understand everything in order to learn something

This is another post where I share something from my personal experience. I’m a teacher, but I’m also a learner too – both a learner of other languages, and because I started a distance-learning degree last October in IT, a subject that I hadn’t studied before.

We often think that we need to understand everything. If we get a text in another language, we want to know what all of the words mean. But sometimes this can send us down a metaphorical rabbit hole, looking for information that we will never need again.

Of course, if you’re studying for an exam, it’s important to try and understand as much of the material as possible, because you don’t know what questions will be on your exam paper. Similarly, if you’re translating a text, understanding 70% of it isn’t enough to give a fair and representative translation.

But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the extra things that we do to help with our learning. The articles that we read or the podcasts that we listen to. Speaking of podcasts, I also talked about this topic on episode 156 of the English with Kirsty podcast.

You can learn from those who know more than you

So, on my course, I guess I’m somewhere in the middle of the group. My marks are a bit higher than that, but in terms of the knowledge I came in with, I’m not at the top of the class, but I definitely have some knowledge to draw on and there are some things that I find easier than other members of the group.

Anyway, there are sometimes discussions in the forums that go above my head. I still read them though, because there’s a chance that I might learn something.

Maybe someone has a problem thatI’ve never even come across before. But if I follow the discussion and find out the answer, I’ll know for another time.

It’s the same with Facebook groups about language learning. You might not know the answer to someone’s question, but following the discussion can teach you something too.

The other day I was having dinner with my partner and a friend. Sometimes they talk about their work. I listen, and certainly don’t understand it all, but as it’s an area that interests me, sometimes I’m surprised at how much I do understand. I don’t want to interrupt with questions all the time – I can do that later. The conversation doesn’t need to be an educational exercise, but still I learned from just listening and observing.

This reminded me of what I used to do when I was just learning German. When I spent time with German friends in Germany, I was usually the only English person, and I didn’t want people to speak English for my benefit. I was there to learn. I was also taking part in meetings as someone helping to run an online platform in Germany, and all of these discussions were in German.

At that time, I was quite shy about speaking German, but apart from my reluctance to speak, I chose to spend a lot of time listening. The more I listened, the more I understood. Listening to the native speakers really helped me, both in terms of my listening skills and my vocabulary.

I don’t mean I was spying on people – my friends knew that I was there, and I still felt part of what was going on. But sometimes it was ok not to be in the centre of things. If you’re someone who learns by observing, you can pick up a lot of information by just listening and absorbing the information.

It works when you’re on your own too

This doesn’t just apply to listening to other people. If you’re reading a book, it’s not fun if the book is much too hard for you and you have no idea what’s going on, but equally, you can learn a lot if you understand most of it. It doesn’t need to be every single word.

When I was a teenager and young adult, I spent so many hours reading German fiction books. It helped that I have always loved books, but I strongly believe that those books helped me to improve my vocabulary, whilst at the same time doing something that I enjoyed.

Coming back to the present day and my course, my partner listens to some podcasts that are related to his job and my studies. I thought they would all be too hard for me to follow because they are aimed at professionals working in that field. Some are definitely more complicated than others, but again I was surprised at how much I did understand – and if I don’t understand something, I can always ask.

As language learners, it’s great to use resources that were made for us – such as this blog – but we sometimes wait too long before we feel ready to start consuming content that was made for speakers of the language.

Of course it has to be done within reason. In my first weeks of learning Turkish, I put on the news in Turkish and didn’t understand a thing. That’s not good. But as I learned more, I got to the point where I could listen to things that had been made for a Turkish-speaking audience.

How you can apply this

The main point is – if we always choose materials where we understand every word, we won’t learn anything. It feels good, but it’s not a challenge.

So I’d encourage you to find ways to supplement your learning by observing and learning from those who know more than you, accessing content made for people who know more than you, and pushing your boundaries a bit. If you go too far, it can be overwhelming, and that’s not the goal here. But if you find things on the right level, it feels really good – and you may be surprised at how much you do understand!

More from English with Kirsty

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

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