Understanding a language is about more than just learning the words…

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have heard someone who is trying to learn a language tell me: “But it’s useless, I still only understand half of what anybody is saying”. I’ve been learning languages for a long time. I’m English, I speak Spanish and Portuguese pretty fluently, I get by in French and I can mostly understand Italian. I’m not at all qualified to teach languages, but I consider myself fairly qualified to talk about learning them. And I can safely say that a lot of the time I only understand about half of what people are saying around me at best, often less.

One of the most important things I have learned about languages is that word for word understanding is usually unimportant. It’s important for translators and interpreters; it’s important for exams; it’s not important for socialising, living day to day, and generally having a good time. The key to feeling comfortable in a foreign environment is not to be able to mentally translate 100% of what people say. It’s learning to understand them whilst still not knowing what 50% of the words mean. Learning to understand when you don’t understand.

We all feel uncomfortable when we don’t know what’s going on around us. It’s natural - you can’t defend yourself, you can’t express yourself and so you can’t enjoy yourself. There are very few things that make you feel quite as powerless as standing in a room with 20 people who you can’t understand, and in some cases, in places where you really have no idea about the language, it’s unavoidable. But sometimes you can get by, and even making it seem like you understand can make a situation more comfortable: people are a lot less likely to say things about you that you wouldn’t like if they think there’s a possibility that you might understand.

A pair of examples: I was told by a friend the other day that I understood more Spanish than another foreigner here. I know that he speaks considerably better Spanish than me, so I asked my friend why she thought that. “You understand our jokes, he doesn’t ever get it” she replied. I can count the number of times that I have understood the jokes made by that group of friends on one hand. The difference? I always laugh, even if i don’t get it.

Another: I was in Denmark recently visiting some friends. I don’t speak Danish at all, and I understand it even less. I would go as far as to say that to me 98% of Danish is just noise - I can’t even tell where the words begin and end. But a few words are like English: house is ‘hus’, bicycle is ‘cykel’. And so when I heard my friends talking about a ‘cykel’, I jumped in, in English, to talk about what had happened earlier that day. They both looked fairly shocked: they couldn’t work out how I had known what they were talking about. But really it was simple - from the context of our previous half English, half Danish conversation about how much of a pain - and how expensive - it is to get around Copenhagen by bus, them going on to talk about the superiority of bikes, and how I couldn’t ride one because I had injured my knee, was a logical progression. I couldn’t be completely sure that this was what they were talking about, but it was likely, so I guessed.

And the beauty of it is that you don’t sound stupid when you don’t understand a language that you don’t speak - but it looks great when you do.