Comprehension delay

When I listen to speech in a foreign language there is often a delay between my hearing of what is said and my understanding of it. My brain is working hard to separate the continuous stream of sound into words, and to work out the meanings of those words, though I don’t usually translate the words into English in my head, as that adds an extra delay. It’s a bit like the delays you get on some trans-Atlantic phone lines.

Such delays are not too much of a problem when listening to the radio or watching TV/films, but I tend to miss things because I’m trying to understand previous utterances. When talking to someone though, such delays make it appear that I don’t understand what they’re saying so they repeat themselves a lot or switch to English, while I’m frustrated because I know what they’re saying, but not immediately.

Practice should reduce and eventually eliminate these comprehension delays, with any luck. In the meantime, perhaps what I need are words or noises that indicate that I’ve heard what’s been said and am considering my response. The length of time you can remain silent after somebody has said something varies from culture to culture. In many cultures , people start to feel uncomfortable after a few seconds and feel the need to say something to fill the silence.

In Japanese you say hai! frequently to show you’re listening. If you do the same in English it can sound very rude – as if you want to other person to shut up so that you can say something.

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5 Responses to Comprehension delay

  1. TJ says:

    I have exactly the same problem with every language I would try to learn some, and recently I have it as a major problem in my understanding for German. I can almost say that I can translate or understand the content in 60-80% of a text written in German, but when I hear a simple conversation even those made for teaching children, I get lost easily. Add to that I have bad ears myself and sometimes I feel deaf indeed.

    Before I had this problem with English but now I don’t think I have it much, and yet I used to get frustrated when I speak english even though I can read it perfectly in american accent, but when it comes to speaking it’s like a new experience I’m not used to. For now, English became like almost a second MOTHER tongue but I have to admit also that not all the words I pass by in my daily life I would understand completely!

  2. Adam says:

    I have this exact same problem understanding Spanish. But in my case, the delay is so long, that I can’t understand Spanish at all when it’s spoken at a normal pace. If someone speaks to me very very s-l-o-w-l-y, I understand 70-90% of what’s being said.

    I have a huge vocabulary, but Spanish is spoken at a normal speed, I can’t separate the sounds into words at all. I can read it quite well, though.

  3. Polly says:

    Where I live, programs are often simulcast in Spanish. All it takes is changing a setting on the TV, called SAP. I have used this to enance my comprehension of spoken Spanish greatly. (I’m pretty much fluent in reading) Watching a sitcom familiar to me in my L1 translated into Spanish makes it loads easier to follow. Something like this could do wonders for my Russian comprehension. Although there’s internet radio, it’s hard to follow. And net-radio really is frustrating with a dial-up connection.

  4. Nicholas says:

    I’ve also noticed this problem when learning other languages. Spanish and Russian are often spoken so quickly I can have trouble seperating out individual words, let alone working out their meanings. With Chinese I find it easier to easier to distinguish between words though I still have a big problem recognising tones at high speed.

    It doesn’t help that I’m a person who often likes to think before responding, even in English, so people often assume I don’t understand. IT does depend on the patience of the other person and how common pauses are in their culture. If there are words or expressions that act as conversation filler, to indicate that a person is thinking, then I’d like to know them. They should be taught to every language learner.

    While I find the speed of news programs much too fast when beginning studying a language, they can be useful, challenging practice for a more advanced student. I do like that Chinese news comes with hanzi subtitles.

  5. AR says:

    I listen to a whole section of spoken French and use the bits and pieces that I first comprehend to get the meaning.