Why can't you understand free flow spoken language yet

So I’m closing in on the end of my six month russian challenge. I find I can mostly understand some of the clearly spoken lower intermediate podcasters. e.g. like Russian with Max
I cannot understand really quickly spoken free flow podcasters who aren’t trying to be understood by non-natives like the Kate Clapp or Varlamov. I just realized why. I don’t actually understand understand. It’s simulated understanding. I’ll explain what I mean below…

So Max in Russian with Max speaks pretty slowly and he leaves gaps between words. I understand him mostly.
I can definitely recognize a ton of the words that e.g. Kate Clapp says but although I recognize them, my first thought was she is simply speaking too quickly to understand rather than simply recognize.

But that’s not it I just realized.

I just caught my brain in the act.
I’m trying to translate into English.

I can just about manage this with Max but with Kate Clapp or Varlamov no way can I translate fast enough, hold the English translation in my head and still pay attention to what they are saying.

Light bulb moment. This is the difference between my Spanish and my two other L2’s (French and Russian).
In the case of Spanish I’m not translating into English. It just kind of hits my ears and I know what it means. Like I know the concept not the match to English.

Conversely with both French and Russian they do not just hit my ears and I understand. I need to process somehow and it looks like I’m translating into English.

I forget how/what I did in order to get the Spanish to just being it’s own thing with no real link to English translation back and forth.

Any polyglots on here able to speak to this: to go beyond “fake” understanding to “real” understanding without English translation as a go-between?


I’m not a polyglot, but I remember well the period I paid deliberate attention to this thing. The habit of translating into Russian still pops up once in a while, but very rare.
The first obstacle is uknown words and phrases, of course. With excessive density of them the flow of understanding is just stumbling over too often. Something around 12K known words for English was my pivotal point.
For me, listening to familiar material in 1.5x and 2x speed worked out well, because I just didn’t have time enough to translate and eventually I’ve given up on that, the speed just forced me into listening+imagination (since I already knew every phrase in those texts).
Actual direct understanding comes when you’re not only know or have seen phrases, but got quite bored with them repeating over and over again, like you know, you watch some TV-series and what is first to catch on is something like “what’re you talking about?” or “what’s wrong with you”, or “Why would I…” :smiley: First time you hear them you look them up, the 1001 time you don’t really translate because you don’t need to anymore.
Here again, the amount of read/listened-to words per day can at least ensure reinforcing of those phrases which have become known, but not habitual yet.

It is an ongoing exercise/practice. It is all about exposure. Even in Germany, my understanding varies from person to person. I perfectly understand what my local postman or banker is explaining to me.
My listening hours are nearing the 3000 mark yet understanding working-class people where I work is not easy.
I feel like I am back to A0 in listening/ :slight_smile: My brain was not used to their speed of talking and slurring. The first few days were tough however now my brain is trying to pick up the language.
Additionally, I am trying to listen to street interviews with German speakers. I am not using any subtitles as a crutch. Also, it helps if you listen to the same language day in day out for example I have completely eliminated listening to my native language or English. If there are free moments while doing mindless tasks I always switch on to listening to German. This way I am training my brain to only think in German.
When I watch Television shows I do not use subtitles. Therefore, I am fully focused on deciphering the language. Also, listening to the content at 1.5/2.0x helps.
You can increase your listening hours in Russian to tackle this issue of translating into English.


interesting take on the 1.5x and 2x speed. I read somewhere recently that it’s counter productive since the sound gets distorted a bit and you’re not hearing how people really speak - which would be less effective than listening at natural speed.

In French I’m ok reading and speaking, but my listening is still weak. I might try this out.


Heads up are it can be different when you just listen something from scratch without reading prior to this.

Exactly, what I did and still do is reading first time without audio, next time at 1.0x and looking at a page near the words the narrator is spelling, but holding the focus strongly on audio (it can be tricky but it’s crucial) and taking a peek for a split second at words only if I haven’t get them clearly. Next time the same at 1.5. So it’s like an active listening, where you’re able to check yourself out quickly when it needs. There rest of the day I listen passively.
Podcasts and YouTube shows of 10-15 minutes are the best for this activity.

One time, For 2 months I did nothing but listen to YouTube Shows at a various pace without any subtitles. My understanding was good enough, but without before-hand preparation I haven’t notice any further growth, unfortunately.

I used some simple mental gymnastics while listening that seemed to help: Instead of thinking about the word I just heard, I’d try to anticipate what the next word would be. Focusing on what comes next helps you avoid the inclination to mentally translate what you just heard. Don’t fret too much about the overall meaning; as you develop the ability to put more and more phrases together, that will come.


Not a polyglot here either, but I have considered this a few months ago.

It may be that I’m at the level that it makes sense to do, but what I try to do simply is to not try and translate in my head. Just let the words flow over me, in me, or whatever =)

In the past I’d try to grab on to words I knew and, yes, translate and/or think about the english word in my head. It still happens, but rather than pausing the brain to think about the word I try to shove it out of the way and focus on the incoming words whether I understand it or not. This helps with the flow. Yes, for a while perhaps I even understood less, but I think it’s beginning to pay off (or I’m simply getting better with more exposure).

The other thing I have a hypothesis of, is to try and up your reading speed. Perhaps from time to time, pick a source and simply try to read it as fast as you can, trying to grab the meaning, but not worrying about words or phrases you aren’t quick enough to understand. This even makes sense to try out on “easy” material. The “easy” material you probably understand if you read slow, but if you read fast, you may find you really don’t process it very quickly. You’re still translating in your head.

So these are things I try to work on. The latter is probably most difficult for me because I have this strong urge in LingQ or using other tools to confirm the meaning of some words I know, but simply still feel a little unsure.

So probably best to do the latter exercise away from something that would help provide those hints unless you’re disciplined.

These are the things I’m trying to do in my own effort so maybe they’ll help you.


I have no idea, maybe when you are at C2 level it’ll become automatic. I don’t translate in the other languages I know but I suppose at the beginning I was, I can’t remember anymore.

Weird thing that’s happening to me studying German is that I think in English, but English is not my native language. So I think in English and translate in German and vice versa :S

Probably I just like to keep it messy! It gives much flavor.


Assuming you haven’t learnt most of your Russian outside of Lingq and your statistics here reflect your level accurately you quite simply haven’t enough known and read words. Knowing the words first is necessary to be able to understand them in spoken form and with your word count it will be impossible to understand anything. Get your known words count above 100k and your read words into the millions. The need for direct English translations will get “washed out” of your brain.


Yep. 11 million words of reading to be exact. https://linguapath.com/learn-language-through-reading/


00:42 Why listening comprehension is hard 02:16 Connected speech 04:02 Two reasons you don’t understand when listening 06:40 Two rules for improving your listening comprehension

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I do have quite a bit of experience with language learning (i.e. I’m onto learning my fifth language now, and am at a good level in my second, third and forth languages)… And I have to say that I’m quite sceptical about the theory that the barrier to understanding is “translating in one’s head“.

I have don’t experience a “translation stage” of learning a language nor do I believe in the idea that once you move “beyond translation” you are then suddenly able to speak and understand much better. I see translation of specific words, expressions and sentence fragments as simply a useful tool to initially understand those particular elements. As soon as they are well enough understood, the meaning of those specific elements will be there within you and available to you automatically…. Or at least that’s how it works for me!

I think the main barriers to understanding in a new language are (1) not knowing enough of the vocabulary and (2) requiring more “reflection time”. Aside from reading and/or listening to material at the right level for your current knowledge of the language, one way to greatly improve understanding is to listen to whatever material you’re working with in very short chunks, pausing at least after every sentence and perhaps even oftener (i.e. after every few words). This gives you time to really notice and process and hugely improves understanding without having to listen to the material at an unnaturally slow speed, which I personally don’t like or believe in.

As others have also suggested, pre-reading before listening is also extremely helpful. And listening multiple times to the same thing to really tune your ear into it.

If you have difficulty with full speed non-pedagogical material, my diagnosis would simply be that you don’t yet have enough experience with the language you’re in the process of learning. Patience! Keep working at it and you’ll get there!


Thanks. This was very insightful.

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Lol that’s an insane number of known words. Surely you mean read words?

Good one. Never thought of this.

True - slang words and accents are definitely a thing.

As a Russian Beginner I’ve found that many of the LingQ dialogue speakers ‘join’ words, i.e. letters from the next word are spoken as part of the first word, with the second word then starting on its second letter. Many syllables are also ‘swallowed’. Both will make comprehension difficult until one is more comfortable with the language, the brain knows the word but doesn’t recognize it starting with the spoken letter.


Listening to fast Russian content repeatedly. Taking one piece and listening to it until understanding is automatic without translation in the head. Brain will get stronger and faster at understanding quick talking. It worked for me with English. However at the beginning slow content is very effective in my view.


Which number are you referring to? The 11 million? That would be read words.
Known words would have to be very high if you want fluent understanding without resorting to English. 100k is just the start. This is a Slavic language. Slavic languages are very, very word rich and the words have many different variations in form of declensions, aspect, conjugation.
Better to adjust your expectations now then to get frustrated later.


yeah, but don’t confuse “lingQ known words” with general known words. Because lingQ counts all the variations like a single word, so the numbers are different.

The article above is mentioning 11 million words for learning the most common 9000 words. But in that case, the verb “to be” and ALL is variations would be counted as 1 word, I guess.

In any case, let’s start reading because we have an awful amount of work to do! So, what am I doing here? Jeez! Damn procrastinating!