Hey everyone, my name is Ethan. I’m a long-time language learner and Co-Founder and CEO of Refold.
Like many people, I struggled a long time with learning languages. When I began learning Spanish, I tried almost every method, app, and resource under the sun but I still wasn’t happy with my progress.
Eventually, I decided that the only way I was going to make any progress learning Spanish was to move to a country that spoke it, so I packed my bags and moved to Peru to attend an intensive immersion school.
Would you believe, that even after months of intensive study in Peru, I still couldn’t understand native speakers?
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was in Peru, chatting with a Venezuelan food cart vendor I had befriended. He was speaking so fast that I could barely understand him. So I asked him to slow down and he did…for a few sentences. Then he’d speed right back up again.
This happened every time we spoke. It was literally impossible for him to speak slowly for an entire conversation.
Have you experienced something similar?
You’ve put in the work
You’re serious about learning your target language, so you diligently put in the work every single day.
- Learned lots of vocabulary and sentences
- Worked through a mountain of beginner resources
- Read tons of graded readers
Yet for some reason when you try to watch a show in your target language or try to listen to a podcast it’s overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that it feels like you can’t understand the language at all.
Why is understanding native speakers so hard?
Here’s why. Native speakers speak incredibly fast. If you’re busy trying to translate everything they say in your head, you’ll never keep up.
Instead, you need to understand them at the same speed they speak — immediately and without thinking.
This won’t happen overnight. It takes a HUGE amount of practice. Adult native speakers have spent tens of thousands of hours practicing understanding their language, so their ability to understand is instantaneous and automatic.
Think about it. It’s the same with you and your native language. You’ve been surrounded by the language since you were a baby. You don’t need to stop and think about understanding the conversations you hear in your daily life. You just do. It’s instinctual.
The only way you’ll understand at the speed of thought is by developing an instinct for understanding your target language, just like the instinct you have in your native language.
How do we develop an instinct for our target language?
Since I launched Refold, we’ve worked tirelessly to solve this problem.
Here’s the good news: You’re probably already on the right track!
Using content made for learners (graded readers, textbooks, beginner-oriented video content) is a great way to plant the seeds of understanding in your brain.
However, there’s a problem with this approach: learner resources can only carry you so far. You can’t rely on learner content alone to develop a deep instinctual understanding of the language.
Here’s why learner content isn’t enough:
- Learner content is organized by level, but native speech is unorganized and everything is mixed together.
- Learner content uses limited vocabulary, but native speech contains a HUGE amount of vocabulary. Native speakers use around 10,000 words in daily conversations and understand over 20,000.
- Learner content is clean and orderly, but native speech is a mess. Native speakers drop or merge sounds together, mumble, use weird grammar constructions, say things that don’t make sense, use tons of filler words, and don’t always speak in complete sentences.
- Learner content is slow, but native speech is fast.
To develop an instinct for the language, you need to move beyond beginner materials and surround yourself with the language as it’s actually used in the real world by native speakers.
Luckily you don’t need to move to a different country (like I did) to surround yourself with the language! You can consume native media content like TV, books, social media, and podcasts all from the comfort of your own home.
What if you don’t feel ready for native media content?
The truth is you’ll never feel ready.
We actually have a name for this phenomenon. We call it the comfort trap.
The comfort trap is the experience you have when you try to engage with native media content, and it leaves you feeling uncomfortable, inadequate, and like you’re wasting your time. As a result, you stick to easy learner content instead of stepping out of your comfort zone.
Unfortunately, most learners never escape the comfort trap. This is really sad because consuming native media content is where the real fun of language learning begins.
How you can escape the comfort trap
Ready to escape the comfort trap and level up to native media content? I put together this guide to show you how.
Here are six key ideas that can help you understand native media content:
✅ Just do it!
Stop waiting until you feel ready. Instead, start consuming native media content today. You need to start somewhere, and I promise you won’t be wasting your time.
If you need help figuring out how to find optimal content to watch, check out this video where we break that all down for you.
🙃 Stop trying to understand!
You need to change your goal. If understanding isn’t possible, don’t try, or you’ll quickly become overwhelmed.
Instead, accept that you’re not going to understand everything and focus on just trying to notice what you can. Every familiar word that you notice is a win!
The key word here is “notice.” When we use this word, we don’t mean just recognizing words. To get the most out of the content you’re consuming, you need to learn how to notice words the right way. To learn more about how you can develop that skill, reference this video:
📄 Use subtitles or transcripts!
Pure listening is hard, so we recommend using a reading aid to help you focus on learning the words and grammar. That way you’ll be able to see the words as you hear them.
Then, once you’ve listened to that piece of content and understood it with the text, you can re-listen to it without the text to further develop your listening skills!
🛠️ Use tools!
Even when using text and audio together, understanding native content can be a struggle. Tools like LingQ and Language Reactor make content that feels out of your reach more understandable by allowing you to do dictionary lookups quickly and easily. Give them a try!
😈 Cheat to win!
When consuming native content, try these comprehension hacks:
- Rewind - Not sure what just happened in the show you’re watching? Rewind it! Look up words you don’t know and look for context clues. Language reactor makes it easy to rewind to the last line of dialogue with just one button press!
- Rewatch - Watch something you’ve already seen in your native language! You’ll already be familiar with all of the intricacies of the plot, so you can sit back, relax, and just enjoy the show while absorbing as much as you can of the language.
- Spoil the plot - Read a plot summary before diving in! With foreknowledge of the plot, you can spend less time trying to figure out what the heck is going on and more time learning the unknown words and grammar.
- Slow it down - Try changing the speed of the audio or video to as low as .8x speed! This will give you more time to process what you’re reading and hearing. You can speed the content up later once you can follow it at .8x speed comfortably.
⏲️ Spend a lot of time with the language!
This is one of the most important things I want you to take away from this blog post. At the end of the day, language learning is a numbers game. You need to put in the hours and be consistent about it. If you can do that, fluency will be yours.
Just how long will it take? We did the math and mapped out your progress if you spend 1 or 2 hours with your target language every day. Watch this video to take a look into your future.
Understanding native speakers is hard. To do that, you can’t rely on translating in your head. Instead, you need to develop an instinct for the language just as strong as the instinct you’ve developed for your native language. To do that, you need to consume lots of native media content — even if you don’t feel ready for it yet. Luckily, you can use many tools and strategies to make understanding native media content easier.