Do you Understand Understanding? Revealing a key to stress-free learning


Have you ever listened to someone and scratched your head wondering just what that was you just heard?

Now if that had been in a foreign language you were learning, chances are you would have drawn a blank or got blocked at some of the words you didn’t recognise. You may even have felt frustrated and discouraged.


Frustration is a normal feeling when we don’t understand something, but why do we feel it more as a language learner and not as a native speaker?

This is where the real question comes in: Do you understand Understanding? And also, is it really the most important thing in learning? The answer to these two questions will reveal a key to stress-free learning.

So first, what is understanding? Take a look at these numbers. In a simple exercise I do with all my students, I give them something to listen to in the language they are learning. I ask them what percentage of the audio they have understood. Usual levels stand between 20%-40%.

I then give them an exact transcript of the audio and ask them to take a thick pen and mark all the words in the text that they understand. Very quickly, everyone’s text is transformed into a new colour. When I ask them what percentage of the text they have understood, usual levels stand between 75%-95%.

So why the big difference? After all, if understanding is what we all think it is, why, when listening to and reading the exact same text, do we get two completely different results for understanding or comprehension levels? Really, if you understand the sentence I brush my teeth with a green toothbrush when you read it, then if it is just a question of understanding we are talking about, you should also understand it when you hear it.

The problem here is not a lack of knowledge and thus not a lack of understanding. (Suddenly that list of things you thought you had to learn has gotten considerably shorter!) The specific problem is lack of recognition, in this case in an oral context. When my students focus on improving their oral recognition skills, automatically they start to understand far more, without even learning one new word.

A lot of learning today is context specific and we can be faced with similar challenges and frustrations. By learning to transfer knowledge and make it usable across contexts, we can save ourselves a lot of time, energy and, even better, a lot of stress and frustration.

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