Comprehension without translating a foreign language

When I first set out to learn my first foreign language, the biggest problem was that I didn’t have any idea what speaking a foreign language was all about. That is to say:

How do those who have mastered a foreign language understand it? Do they need to translate a language to comprehend? Or do they directly get its meaning without translating?

No one around me spoke a foreign language. I didn’t know which direction I should head for. I was a total “stray sheep”.

I guess many people have got the same question as I had. Now that I successfully learned languages, I would like to share this inspirational tip with the next generation. Don’t waste your precious time by doing wrong with no fruitful result.

Analysis on the process of understanding a foreign language and how to tackle

Before discussing how to master direct comprehension, I would like to prove the fact that you can learn to comprehend a foreign language, not via translation into your first language.

I segment the whole process into smaller components for a clear analysis. Here are major obstacles for understanding a foreign language:

  1. Vocabulary
  2. Word Order
  3. Declension

Vocabulary: Comprehending words in a foreign language

Many learners may say vocabulary is the biggest factor that prevents from direct comprehension.

Maybe most of you never thought about why. The reason why they might say they cannot understand a foreign vocabulary is because they can only understand words when we have learned as a child and because adults are not able to learn a new vocabulary.

Newly coined vocabulary

As a matter of fact, grown-ups also acquire new vocabulary. New words and their concepts are created every year. Although no one on earth knew words like Internet or Twitter before, we use them very casually today. When we hear an unfamiliar new word for the first time, we might not understand it. We might ask someone or search the web, or do nothing at all.

Loan Words

Some might claim these are words from my first language. The backbone or something of foreign words is another thing. Then do you need to translate “café latte” into coffee with milk every time you hear it? I don’t think you do. As this example shows, the fact that you use these words originated from another language means you have the potential to directly understand a foreign language.

the mechanism we get accustomed to new vocabulary

Foreign Vocabulary is learnable in the two senses above combined.

The point is we gradually get the meaning of these terms by repeated exposure. In our brain, the connection of neurons are reinforced and optimized through the same patterns of processing. Ultimately the processing of comprehension will be automatized in a subconscious manner. This is how we learn a vocabulary.

Word Order

The word order of some languages might look upside down for other languages. These orders could prevent you from a quick response.

The English grammar goes like this;


John was a guitarist.


So, the sentence below is not correct in the sense of the grammar.


Guitarist John was a.


But we can still understand its meaning. John Lennon was a guitarist. Or you could interpret it as “There was a guitarist, whose name was John.” Anyway, not much different. The thing is, we do not need to refer to the words order to get the meaning. Because we have other factors like knowledge and contexts to inference it. We know John is a name and that a guitarist is a kind of occupations. Or we know the background that John Lennon was a member of a Band called the Beatles.


A declension is the changing of word endings. The representative language with this syntax is Latin.

For the same reason as the word order, the declension doesn’t affect your understanding, you can ignore what case.  We don’t need the grammatical indications such as the case for understanding. We can inference on the basis of other factors.

Practice for mastery of no-translate comprehension

The principle for learning is no different from  the Latin phrase “REPETITIO EST MATER STUDIORUM.” The method for mastery is to absorb a substantial amount of input to get accustomed to the subconscious processing. So, what is an effective way of accumulating input?

Here are two elements of effective input:

  • simple-structured sentences
  • Place and direction vocabulary

Simple-structured sentences

Examples of simple sentences as below:

A = B as A is B. in English.

A is (adjectives)

Places and Directions

The reasons why phrases indicating places and directions are easy to understand for language learners are that they are often visible or easy to visualize in your head.

  • On the chair is a cat.
  • There is a bottle of milk left in the fridge.

NEXT CHAPTER:Comprehensible Input

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