When you think of well-rounded language studies, you usually think of developing your ability to speak, listen, read, and write. All of these are important, but many language learners fail to understand that these four abilities together don’t necessarily equal comprehension.
What is comprehension?
Comprehension is the action or capability of understanding something. This means not just understanding the words used in conversation or writing, but the underlying meaning behind those words.
For example, if you know the meaning of every word in the phrase “Give me a hand.”, you still will be confused if you don’t understand that idiomatic language is being used.
Comprehension requires more than a large vocabulary and an adequate understanding of grammar. One must also understand context, culture, and the overall ‘collective consciousness’ of a society.
Why is comprehension important?
Comprehension is essential for effective communication. Without mutual comprehension, communication breaks down.
Being able to recite phrases you’ve learned will only go so far if you can’t understand the replies of native speakers. And eventually, when they realize you can speak better than you can comprehend, they will switch to your native tongue.
The ability to comprehend is more important that having thousands of words in your arsenal. If you understand what is being said to you, you can figure out how to navigate around your limited vocabulary and still communicate effectively.
Note: Non-verbal communication is important as well. A phrase could possibly have different meanings depending on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.
What are the obstacles to comprehension?
Language is not just vocabulary and grammar. Language represents a shared history among a society. With that shared history comes unique cultural norms and forms of expression.
This is why you can translate words, but you can’t translate meaning. Studying Chinese vocabulary out of context will not prepare you for food slang unique to Chinese culture. Studying Farsi grammar won’t help you learn ta’arof.
Each language also has its own musicality. If you are ‘deaf’ to the pronunciation, intonations, etc. of your target language, it will make comprehension difficult.
Audio material made specifically for foreign learners often contains speech that is clear and polished, but also unnatural sounding. If you only expose yourself to audio from textbooks, you will have problems understanding native speakers.
Most learning material for tonal languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese will teach you individual tones, however, tones in isolation don’t sound the same as tones within a sentence. And in the case of Mandarin Chinese, some tones change in different contexts.
Four Tips for Improving Your Comprehension
Use Native Material
For reading material, use bilingual texts. Try to find a book that interests you personally. Something that you would actually read even if it wasn’t for studying. If you have the patience, try analyzing individual words in a sentence vs the actual meaning of the sentence.
Listen to podcasts and music to get yourself used to the sounds of the language. People often reference popular culture in their daily speech. Also, being familiar with songs in your target language can help you make friends.
Watching movies and online videos will allow you to observe how people interact in a language. Observe body language, facial expressions, and the ways native speakers convey different emotions.
Techniques such as reverse translation can be used to test your ability to comprehend a text you’ve read. Translating is being able to express a thought from your native tongue in your target language. It is not about knowing all the corresponding words across languages.
Simultaneous interpretation is helpful for training your comprehension of the spoken word. Forcing yourself to interpret as you’re listening will eventually enable you to quickly process whatever is being said.
Ask Native Speakers about Expressions and Figures of Speech
When you make friends with native speakers of your target language, ask them questions about the language. If you’re lost on how exactly to inquire about this, you can try the following questions:
• What are things foreigners have trouble understanding about your language?
• How do you say (insert phrase here) in the way a native speaker would?
• What are your favorite sayings in your language?
• What are some ways you express ideas besides basic literal language?
Research the History and Culture of the Language
Expressions in a language can come from various sources such as historical occurrences, ancient literature, and popular culture. You want to familiarize yourself with the history and culture from which the language originates in order to comprehend expressions, idioms, jokes, etc.
Do some cultural research. If you want to understand the way a different culture thinks, you have to understand them from a perspective that takes into account their history, where they are now, and where they’re headed in the future.