It’s really fascinating seeing for yourself how your brain works.
As you gradually learn a foreign language there are several definite levels of understanding one seems to pass through:
Stage 1. Ask a beginner how much of a German conversation they understood, they’ll probably say diplomatically “Bits and pieces.” Which tends to mean “just above nothing”. The brain picks out familiar words (those taught in class or ones that sound like English words), and from the words you can deduce what the conversation is about, but you don’t know exactly what is being said…and you could be mistaken.
Stage 2. Once you gain enough fluency and confidence to initiate a conversation, then your understanding will increase to comprehension through participation. You understand what you are saying (hopefully!) and since you are actively controlling the subject of the conversation (and probably the pace, complexity) you are clued-in to follow it word-for-word and derive precise meaning. However, listening in on other people’s conversations is still just a wall of noise and guess-work.
Stage 3. You can listen in on other people’s conversations from halfway through; following word-for-word and instantaneously translating their exact meaning (provided of course that they aren’t speaking with excessive slang/jargon/heavy accent).
Thanks to a couple of recent scenarios, I became aware of this difference between levels of cognitive understanding. Somebody said something to me in German. I had an instant awareness of the gist of what they were wanting to get across. My brain also heard the individual German words very clearly. However, it was several seconds before I mentally translated the words & sentences uttered to derive the exact meaning of what had been said to me.
As a native English speaker, when I hear something in English my brain must simultaneously pick up the abstract gist and the precise meaning as the words are spoken in the subconscious. With German I’m operating under something of a time lag. Hopefully this time lag will shrink until the point where I can reliably translate meaning as soon as I hear the words (which will be when my subconscious German ability gets sharper). The “time lag” issues negate the overall usefulness of my level of German – ’cause it isn’t much fun trying to speak with somebody when you’re always two steps behind. Nor is it allowing you to properly practice speaking in return.
At least I usually don’t need to go home and thumb through a dictionary to work out what has been said to me, though. It’s good news that I’m seemingly keyed in to the accent enough to determine the individual words, too. More practice, exposure and immersion will certainly make perfect…
Finally, while we’re on the subject of brains & foreign languages…
A positive attitude and optimistic mindset plays an absolutely VITAL role in learning a language. Which sounds a bit wishy-washy – for what good can an attitude do when faced with practicalities and realities? – but just consider the alternative for a moment.
What happens when you have a negative attitude towards learning a foreign language? What happens when you constantly say to yourself “No, I can’t speak German,” “I never understand anything” or “I’m just not any good at this?”
Well, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You avoid situations where you might have to use your foreign language skills. When somebody talks to you in the foreign language you have a panic reflex (“Oh no, not German! I can’t understand this!”). You do less personal studying/learning because, well, you don’t really see the point if you’re no good at it.
I try to go through my Germanic life with the following outlook:
“I know that my German is rough, highly imperfect and that I’m still far from proficient with it,
But I *am* capable of communicating meaning, understanding what is said to me and learning as I go along.
So I will do my best with what I have, keep calm and accept that I’ll make mistakes along the way (I’ll laugh about them later),
And through that process I’ll gradually move towards the level of proficiency that I desire.”