Guest Post: How to stay positive when you don't understand

Today, I played a little listening exercise to some of my students. They only started learning German a couple of months ago, and have come along really well. One of them told me "I can tell that I'm making progress - I didn't even freak out when I didn't understand a word, I just listened out for the next one I know!

Listening comprehension can be one of the most frustrating things about language learning - not understanding knocks your confidence a lot, but how do you get over the hurdle? To help us get to the bottom of this, I've enlisted help from Diana Tower, headmistress at Diana is an English teacher out in sunny Spain, and runs her website part-time. She's dedicated to tutoring and knows an awful lot about it. Diana allowed me to share this great article on staying positive here on the Fluent Language blog. So without further ado, over to her...

 CC licensed thanks to  y3rdua  on Flickr

CC licensed thanks to y3rdua on Flickr

How to stay positive when you don't understand

Do you know how to stay positive when you don't understand? First of all you need to remember something...

...not understanding is normal, natural, necessary and probably one of the most annoying parts about learning English.

But what should you do when you do not understand? It's like riding a horse or a bike. If you fall off, YOU GET BACK ON! That is the key. Here are 6 ways to help you stay positive.

Distract yourself

If you are at a party, dinner or watching a movie and you suddenly realize that you are missing EVERY word being said, disconnect for a minute. When you turn off your mind, it gives you a chance to recharge your batteries and get back into the conversation with a clear head. If you keep trying and trying to understand for 5 hours you are going to exhaust your mind and become extremely frustrated.

Don't worry. Most people understand that you can't be concentrating 100% of the time. Just reassure them that you are just resting your mind.

Focus on what you understand

Easier said than done, but once you master (perfect) this idea you will be able to understand much more than you realize.

When you start to miss words and ideas you can still usually get the general idea. When you focus on the 4 words you don't know and the joke that you missed, you are no longer listening to the conversation and therefore missing much more.

Stay positive and try to focus on the words that you DO understand. With time and practice you will understand more and more. Trust me, it is hard, but you need regular exposure and practice to become a fluent speaker, no matter if it's German or Korean.

Ask questions!

This is the hardest advice to follow because even I don't do it all the time. Imagine that you are having coffee with four friends and the conversation starts to speed up. You still understand the general idea and you can still contribute your opinion.

Suddenly they start talking about something new, using a word that you don't know. If you don't ask for clarification you might sit there not understanding and getting frustrated. This can all be avoided by taking 5 seconds and asking "sorry, what does _______ mean?" Those 5 words and 5 seconds are going to save you a lot of frustration and confusion. 

Note: My main excuse for not doing this is that I don't want to interrupt the conversation, I feel stupid and I don't want to annoy people by asking questions about vocabulary.

Don't assume the worst (stay positive), people are usually happy to help. In my 2 years of living abroad NO ONE has ever reacted negatively to a question that I have had.

Get involved!

I think this is the best trick to understand more and to fight frustration. It's simple. If you are involved in the conversation you understand more and can contribute more as well. When you are active it is much easier to stay positive and fight negative feelings.

There are two ways to use this idea.

    • Keep yourself involved in general. Try to make comments, ask questions and keep speaking periodically.

    You want to keep yourself involved so that you don't end up sitting there looking at your coke and making a mental list of what you have to do tomorrow. Worrying about tomorrow does not help you understand right now!

      • If you stop talking then people will stop talking to you. It sounds harsh but people will more likely speed up and forget that you are not a native speaker.

      If you keep talking, they remember that you are there and they will speak more slowly and usually explain expressions that they think you don't understand.

      Practice makes perfect!

      It sounds like a cliché, but it is true. The more you put yourself into conversational situations the better you are going to get at having a conversation.

      Try to start having one to one conversations. When you are confident speaking to one person, start trying group situations. The key is to stay positive and keep trying.

      Don't be so hard on yourself

      Most of us are quick to criticize ourselves but we don't look at the situation. All we see is that we didn't understand someone.

      We forget that the room was noisy (with music and other people), that in a group it is harder to hear people and that learning a language is hard in general.

      If you incorporate these suggestions and stay positive when speaking in English, I promise that with time and practice you will notice a big improvement in your understanding.

      Happy Learning!
      Diana :)

      Article appeared first on, where you can learn lots more about learning English!