How to understand what you are reading in another language

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Perhaps you have already had the experience of being frustrated by not being able to understand the language you are studying. You do what your workbook or your teacher asks, but you just can't understand what you want. You've already memorized a lot of vocabulary and you even think you have a good foundation of grammar and then you think the problem is in you.

In this article we will try to show you what could be causing you not to understand what you read in the language you study. But before we try to give you the clues, let's first separate two concepts.

Listening Comprehension vs Text Comprehension

First you must know which one you are having difficulty with then know where to put your energy. As the name itself says “auditory”, is that you understand through sounds and “textual”, through texts. In most cases there is a great difficulty in listening comprehension, since to understand what is being said, you possibly saw it before the written form, even if it was in your study material, this of course if it is not your native language.

Based on this, to be able to read, it is assumed:

  • Vocabulary;
  • notion of several structures;
  • Grounded knowledge of at least the main grammars;
  • And practice!

And with practice, I don't say sit and exercise, but read materials really created by natives such as books, e-books, news sites, and among other content formats that can train your reading ability. Of course, at the beginning you will have to start by reading books or materials either from the course you are taking or from the book you are studying to build your base.

Base is a very important factor, it is the base that will allow you to migrate to more complex materials and created by natives. The problem is the paradox of forever building “base” and never facing “practice”, being precisely reading content created by natives. So, having a base, you need to know how to choose something that pleases you and is at least 40% understandable.

If it is something that is barely understandable, you will hardly be able to concentrate on what is written. Possibly, at the beginning most things related to reading will be very difficult to understand, but this difficulty will be overcome through reading practice and your study of structures, sentences, grammar and vocabulary. There are also other activities to improve your reading which we will comment on below.

An addendum, we are not saying to be an ultra expert in grammar, just use it to learn something you don't understand, you don't need to know all concepts to be able to understand what is said in languages. As you get used to the language, automatically, you will start to understand more and more.

- why you don't understand what you read in the language you study
Structures of a text

Structures of a Language

At structures are really of paramount importance for you to understand the language, they are what make up a sentence, that is, the more familiar you are, the easier it is for you to assume the idea or the meaning of what is being said. Even without having studied it grammatically in depth.

If you don't understand what structures are, I'll give an example in English:

  • I go to corner.
  • I go to the bakery.
  • I go to door.

What do these phrases have in common? “I'm going to…” Right?! These are structures, they are elements within a sentence that follow patterns and are able to link to other words or sentences. The trick to developing your speech in the language is to memorize these patterns, because once you know them, when you speak, you will only need to change one or another small element. As in the example of [go to], which simply add a word that represents local and sounds good with [o, a]. Let's look at examples in English and Japanese to see that this is inevitable in any language.

In English:

 I'll go to the hotel.

I will go to the hotel.

I'll go to the store

I will go to the store.
 I'll go there now.

I go there now.

Note the pattern, “I'll go” repeating itself, and just add information that makes sense by linking to it.

In japanese:

Daigaku ni iku

go to college

Gakkou ni iku

Go to school.

Toshokan ni iku

Go to the library.

Note the pattern, “に行く / Ni iku” repeating itself, and just add some information that makes sense by linking to it. With consumption and exposure to different patterns of language structures, you become able to infer the meaning of sentences by knowing different structures. That's why you can't study just by isolated words.

In other words, you will overcome your reading difficulties, knowing the meaning of different structures and vocabularies. Vocabulary and grammar you will acquire through study, that is, by taking notes, typing, saving for review, but reading should never be left out, even with low comprehension.
- why you don't understand what you read in the language you study
Listening and Reading


Reading has no escape, you will really need to read something even if little daily. If you study Japanese, you can start with manga, which is usually simple in language, or even watch something SUBTITLED IN JAPANESE, that is, appearing almost everything in kanji (ideograms), and watching while reading what is written.

This activity is very powerful, as it improves your interpretation of texts as you have the clear context of what is being said and the sound that comes in the background. Even this activity will require a certain sense of reading, as the scenes and subtitles go by very quickly.

Another thing to help train reading is to get articles from the site NHK easy news which are news easy to understand. You can use these articles to practice your reading, or maybe use a light novel that will really require a high level of reading, both in kanji recognition and text interpretation skills, that is, until then you must develop your reading with what you are capable of.

In short, that's it, Study and Practice, both incessantly, there is no magic solution, theoretical knowledge aligned with constant practice is what will guarantee you real results.

Discover our website and repertoire of Japanese language content, there you will find a lot of content and different types of classes that will really develop your base to start taking big steps in the Japanese language.

I hope you enjoyed this article, if you liked it share and leave your opinion in the comments. Good studies!

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