You Don’t Understand Everything In Your Native Language. Stop Trying To Do So In Your Target Language!

One of my most misguided thought patterns when learning Chinese involved the thought "when will I finally reach a point where I can basically understand everything?”

Judging by comments I see online from other ambitious learners this seems to be a common frustration. In this blog I’ll explain why I think it’s based on flawed thinking which if left uncorrected can have detrimental effects on your learning. I’ll also suggest how you can reframe your goals towards a more productive mindset.

Let me know your thoughts!!


Interesting mind game. While it’s true that not all content is understandable in our native languages, I don’t think it’s relevant.
Sure, I wouldn’t be able to understand very old manuscripts or content in a completely unfamiliar field. But what I can be sure of is that I understand everything in my bubble of reality.
Same with foreign languages: with time and exposure, you will get to the point where you have the illusion of 100% understanding. Just like in our native language.
In other words, I think complete understanding is a valid and achievable goal. Even more, I cannot imagine not having this goal in mind.
Many people achieve it, but YMMV, especially with foreign and distant languages like Chinese is for Europeans.

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Forgive me but I’m not sure I’ve completely understood your point.

Are you agreeing or disagreeing with any of the points I made in my blog? If so which ones?

“Some people react defensively when I point out that being an educated native speaker doesn’t make them infallible.” Still tilting at straw windmills, I see. :slight_smile:

I do think first focusing your efforts on becoming proficient in the domains (bubbles) of the language where you want to be proficient is good advice. If, upon achieving proficiency in that domain, you find that sufficient, then you will have achieved your goal. If you find you want more, you can set new goals and set out to learn those from the foothold you have already established in the language.

This also provides more achievable milestones to those looking to “understand everything”.

I think he means your interpretation of “understand everything” is overly literal, and that people really mean that want to achieve understanding akin to that of their native language. That is still a lofty goal, to be sure.

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I agree mostly with this. Particularly in terms of “output”. As I do more and more of that, my focus is on outputting things related to my sphere…my personal language of what I do or what I engage in on a typical day.

From the input side, I’m honestly curious about everything so to say “stop trying” here I disagree with, at least personally. I do agree with the idea that you can focus on those topics or subjects that truly matter to you first and then branch out, but I would at least like to get to a point where, even if I don’t necessarily understand the subject matter, at least with perhaps a few clarifying questions I might be able to engage with someone who might be telling me something. It might not have been interesting to me before, but if I’m interested in what this person has to say about it (I like the person or they are very enthusiastic about their interest perhaps) then I would want to attempt to understand. This is also incumbent on them to dumb things down a bit, even in our own native language at times.


If someone said to me their goal was to understand everything in a specific language, I would not assume they literally mean everything. I would assume what they mean is that they wish to have comprehension of the language as though they were a native speaker.

Treating it literally and responding as such is not really engaging on their intent, and dismissing their goal like this is some sort of gotcha is a little silly.

However, even that is a lofty goal that probably needs to be made more bite-sized to be actionable. To which telling someone to focus on their interests or things relevant to their daily life is a fine starting point.

Relating it to speaking can be summarized like this:


“Still tilting at straw windmills, I see.”

Bit harsh. I have heard a lot of learners massively overestimate how much they know in their native language and not reflecting enough on this point.

“If someone said to me their goal was to understand everything in a specific language, I would not assume they literally mean everything.”

Unless they stated that they did literally mean everything. I’ve heard learners make these comments. My blog was initially inspired by interactions I had with Mandarin learners on the Refold discord server.

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Sorry, I meant it to be a playful jab.

Still, I’ve noticed a theme to your posts. To me the exaggerated problem statements like the roving bands of swashbuckling bandits claiming CEFR levels they haven’t earned, LingQ stat infallibility, or omnipotent L1 mastery, undermine the presentation of your message.

I did find this article more interesting. We often hear about expectation management in response to the “Learn X language in 7 days” type content, which negatively impacts beginners, but I think it is useful to consider expectation management in the latter stages of the process as well.

I also appreciated the “bubble” idea, not only because I think it is ultimately what happens anyway, but because you can actively use the concept to make the pieces more bite sized, as noxialisrex said.

Some CI purists’ versions of acquisition (e.g. refold, Dr. Brown, Dreaming Spanish) are daunting because you’re building a large working language model in your head all in one shot, without being able to really use it until you have much of it built, which is why they say wait to speak. Something like TPRS is less daunting, and perhaps more fun, because you can speak right away based on small working model created with curated input and then later work to expand it. The problem with TPRS is that it is hard to implement on your own. Your “bubble” approach is one way to break the language down and build a manageable size model, and then grow from there, even in a self-study scenario. I like it.



“Sorry, I meant it to be a playful jab.”

No worries :wink:

“Still, I’ve noticed a theme to your posts. To me the exaggerated problem statements like the roving bands of swashbuckling bandits claiming CEFR levels they haven’t earned, LingQ stat infallibility, or omnipotent L1 mastery, undermine the presentation of your message.”

OK I’ll take the point on the LingQ stat post. I did come across one individual who cared so much about LingQ stats and attached so much importance to them that he literally launched an investigation into my stats after I started posting about my Mandarin learning experience and concluded that I’d somehow been “cheating”. He then posted his findings publicly and I was triggered by that. So people like that definately do exist, but there aren’t many and the vast majority of users aren’t total and utter fools like that user.

But with the CEFR post I don’t think that’s fair as I never suggested people were claiming CEFR levels they hadn’t earned. Although I don’t think proficiency tests are useful for measuring real life language ability I do think they’re hard and require work. So anyone who takes one and gets a high score telling them they’re B2 or whatever has in that sense “earned it”. But if they’ve spent most of their time preparing for exams rather than language learning - a common problem - then they will probably still suck at the language which is tragic.

Fair enough on the CEFR. My point was rather that I don’t perceive the issues to be as extreme as presented, but I perhaps I’m just not exposed to the more aggressive and overly stat or level focused language learners, so it is hard for me to fathom someone accusing someone of “cheating” for lingQ stats. It’s a strange world!

BTW, I had actually heard your interview with Benny Lewis a quite a while back, and I hadn’t connected that to you (here on lingQ). I enjoyed that one. Well done.


Thank you for your support :slight_smile:

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I am not in these conversations so I can’t really judge. The Refold discord is going to get a lot of “true believers”, but the nature of online communications is people are more hyperbolic. Even if they say something is literal, it’s often literally figurative :slight_smile: .

A reasonable person is going to know on some level that they aren’t able to understand every topic under the sun through any language. And certainly not be competent to talk about them, unless they speak fluent word salad. If a gentle prod doesn’t highlight this for them online, about all you can do is get practice for your D1 exam.

"Even if they say something is literal, it’s often literally figurative :slight_smile: .’

I think it’s more that many people haven’t reflected on the issue very much so in response to my suggestion that there are many things they don’t understand as a native speaker they make comments like: “It would have to be really niche or technical for me to not understand it in English.”

Those comments and other ones from learners I’ve seen both on here and Refold from people whose comprehension goals are too general and ill defined inspired me to write the blog.

Like this one: No end in sight

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Sounds like we largely agree. Good to be curious. But you can’t learn everything at once. Focus is key.