How To Cope With Not Understanding & Learn To Tolerate Ambiguity When Language Learning (Podcast!)

New language learners often find it difficult to cope with the experience of not understanding. We’re used to being in situations in our native language where we can understand almost everything perfectly.

To go from that to suddenly being bombarded with words, phrases and grammatical contractions that are totally alien and incomprehensible to us can be quite jarring.

Yet studies have shown that having higher tolerance thresholds for ambiguity can be a decisive factor in language learning success.

So on today’s podcast I invited two friends, Karl and Jorge, to discuss how they’ve learned to cope with not understanding and how all Chinese learners can develop our tolerance of ambiguity to make the process of acquiring Chinese smoother and quicker.

Listen here: Tolerating Ambiguity: How to Cope With Not Understanding Chinese (Podcast) – I'm Learning Mandarin


I guess basically perseverance and realizing that you can understand some words and that with time it will all make sense. I used to think of it like a puzzle and that every hour i listen im seeing and placing another piece. If you are actively studying and listening you should be able to eventually get there just with time. I realized too that the more i studied anki and memorized the words the easier listening was.

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Set small listening hour and word goals in the beginning to keep the persistence and reward the progress that the learner has made every time they feel discouraged.

Personally, I just hunt for the numbers on lingq and know that the higher something is, the better the progress and that is already motivating in itself.


Some thoughts:
First I think it is helpful to differentiate between listening and reading here: Because I generally assume that acquiring reading comprehension is easier than acquiring an equivalent level of listening comprehension. For example reading a transcribed podcast is often far easier than listening to it. That is, listening comprehension requires more time to develop, this seems to be especially true with Chinese. Therefore this is probably the domain in which we will experience most discomfort from ambiguity.
Discomfort in reading is easier to bear. If you read intensively, for example here on LingQ, you have various tools at your disposal that make life easier: dictionaries, community hints, translations, synchronized audio etc. Outside of LingQ, my favorite were always bilingual texts. Extensive reading normally presupposes a rather high 98% comprehension rate, which shouldn’t incur any particular discomfort anyways.
But listening to fast, colloquial speech is challenging. Especially in the case of podcasts which lack the visual element. If you’re listening and reading along to a transcript ambiguity is probably not too big a problem, but active listening and especially passive listening can have a high degree of ambiguity.
I think the main problem, aside from psychological discomfort, that comes with ambiguity is the danger of zoning out, losing concentration.

There is this one weird little trick that has helped me:
Making study active. Here are some ideas:

  • Physical activity. Especially if listening passively, go for a run, walk, move.
  • Shadowing: paradoxically it seems to be easier to remain focused when multitasking (moving around, listening, speaking, and/or reading)
  • Deliberately sit down to listen to something (podcast /audiobook) and make an effort to write everything down you understand, this helps to focus
  • try stop periodically and summarize what you understood (ideally in the target language)

Yes!!! I gave up video games to learn chinese, and basically turned the whole thing into grinding for stats and numbers - which is working out fantastically.

Number go up every day = progress

Also getting addicted to cdramas helps a lot - eventually you get so used to the tropes that if you miss stuff, it doesn’t matter since it is obvious what’s going to happen. Also watching a lot of silly bilibili videos - do i understand wtf the 弹幕 means? no. is it hilarious anyway? yes

I have struggled in the past with ambiguity for reading, and I’ve found the best is to just skim through a translation before each chapter if the book is above your level, (you need a certain level of chinese to read bad or machine translations, but hey it works). That way you don’t have to worry about missing plot details or characters and can really just concentrate on being with the chinese in the moment without struggling or getting frustrated. (And then you can read a lot faster along with an audiobook which I 1000% regret not doing from the beginning).

Eventually you need to look at the translations less and less until the magic moments of “oh wait, holy shit, i think i’ve learned chinese???” hits

This entire time I’ve tried to treat the language module part of my brain like how they make goose liver pate - just keep shoving chinese into constantly regardless of whether or not I can digest all of it.


Listening to whatever you want, whenever you want, and pushing through regardless of comprehension level is Cobra Kai.

To stay within yourself and continually look for interesting material that you can listen to comfortably with low stress is Miyagi-do.

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One of the hardest parts about learning a new language is not understanding what native speakers are saying. This can be frustrating and lead to feeling like you’re not making any progress. However, it’s important to remember that everyone goes through this when learning a new language. The best way to cope with not understanding is to focus on the words and phrases that you do know. This will help you to build up your vocabulary and become more proficient in the language. You can also try to guess the meaning of unknown words based on context clues. Over time, you will become more familiar with the language and be able to understand more of what is being said. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask native speakers for clarification if you’re unsure about something. They will appreciate your effort to learn their language and be happy to help you out.

Thanks for your comment. This has also been my experience.