The One Thing You Can't Bullshit In Foreign Language Learning

The One Thing You Can't Bullshit In Foreign Language Learning


I made this comment a while back and figured it was worth repeating here:

Learning to ‘speak’ a language quickly is not as difficult as people think, but being able to actually comprehend language that’s spoken naturally and quickly takes a lot of time and exposure.

It’s the one aspect of language learning that can’t be faked.

Gimmicks that talk about ‘fast fluency’ are flawed for this reason. There’s no such thing as ‘fast comprehension’.

Comprehension, particularly listening comprehension, is the one aspect of language learning that you can’t bullshit.

It’s not that difficult to learn how to speak a language in a very short amount of time (even several weeks), but to acquire an ear for the language and to be able to catch what people are saying takes a lot of time and exposure to the target language.

People want fast results and the gimmick-peddlers are more than happy to offer those fast results for dollars, but unfortunately there’s no such thing when it comes to listening comprehension.

You need time.

Lots of it.

Of the 4 language skillsspeaking, listening, reading and writing – it’s my view that listening is the biggest hurdle and the toughest (or at least most time consuming) challenge to beat without a doubt.

What I learned from Australian military language testing

I passed my testing for entry into the Australian Defence Force a while back as a signals operator linguist for the Air Force.

It’s actually been a long-term dream of mine to serve in the armed forces and I saw it as a great way to put my passion for foreign languages to use, and to also be paid to acquire more languages. For a few personal reasons I had to put the application on hold at the time and ended up heading to The Republic of Georgia as a teacher instead.

The point that I want to make concerning the testing that the military do to determine foreign language aptitude is that it’s primarily centered on listening comprehension.

For the test, myself and 30 other people were given a short briefing on an artificial language that the military had designed (with its own grammar system and vocabulary), and then we had to listen to recordings of that language and translate them as we heard them.

This was a very difficult task and only myself and 3 others (out of 30) ended up being successful.

Even other people in the room who were saying prior to the test that they could speak a few languages ended up failing the test.

Obviously, the main reason for the test being focused on listening ability is that the job requires listening to and translating a lot of intercepted transmissions but I also believe that it’s because listening comprehension is a major indicator of a person’s aptitude for language acquisition (anyone can learn a language sure but some people do it better than others).

Even though it was quite possible and likely that the Defence Force would require us in future to able to communicate (i.e. speak) those languages, the thing they were most interested in for testing was how well we could listen.

A person’s real language level is only evident during an unscripted conversation with a native speaker

There’s a straightforward reason for this:

The learner might be able to say a lot in their target language but as soon as a native speaker says something which warrants a response, it’s going to be very obvious whether or not the learner actually understands what’s being said.

I’ve seen a lot of polyglot videos on YouTube and various blogs, and people claiming to have picked up some language in a matter of weeks (the media always sensationalizes this) but assessment of their levels can only happen in a two-way, natural conversation with a native speaker (try italki if you haven’t already).

‘Speaking ability can be faked entirely but listening comprehension can’t.’

This is why exams like IELTS consist of a native speaker having an unscripted conversation with the foreign learner because this enables the examiners to properly assess their level.

It’s also why I dispense entirely with any approach that says it’s all about speaking immediately, because if that’s your sole focus then you aren’t allowing yourself adequate time to soak up the language around you.

Your primary goal is just to be understood rather than to be understood and to understand.

Some people speak brilliantly but have poor comprehension and get overwhelmed in conversations because they’ve taken this approach.

Whenever I recommend tools and resources to people, one of the most important factors I look for is how useful it is as a listening comprehension tool (high quality audio content is the main reason I selectively use and plug products like Glossika, Earworms MBT and Rocket quite often here).

Again so you remember it:

You can’t bullshit listening comprehension.

You might not want to hear it but it takes time and there are no shortcuts.

Expose yourself daily to target language dialogue (take some time to shut up and listen!) whether it’s a product with quality, natural audio or a human being (even better) and your comprehension level will gradually improve.

Make sure to read this post if you haven’t already: How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension.

Support me by sharing:

Here's what you should read next:

How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)

Passive Language Learning Is Nonsense And Here's Why...

How To Learn Languages With Music And Interlinear Lyrics

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic


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Purely out of curiosity, are you still going ahead with the Air Force position? That particular position is the only full-time ADF career I've ever considered


It's definitely a possibility for me, David.

Have you gone through the recruitment process yet? There's also a cryptolinguist position in the Navy.


No I haven't. I was an Army Reservist for a while, but my area of study is actually completely different (social work). However, languages have always been a strong point for me having grown up bilingual. Also, I recently returned from some time in a Spanish immersion school in South America.

I guess the RAAF was always one of those "what if" things that has been in the back of my mind.


So very true. Fluency means a lot of different things to people, but honestly, until you can listen, and comprehend conversations in your target language, you shouldn't really claim to be proficient.



Thanks, Desmond.

Jerry Bauer

You are 100% correct. I am an American who ls currently living in Bogota, Colombia and the way that the people speak here in NOTHING like what was on the audio cds that I listened to prior to coming here. CDs don't use real language spoken as natives speak. For me listening is the HARDEST thing to do. I ask questions but don't understand the answer.
Jerry Bauer, ssp
Bogota, Colombia


Thanks Jerry.

True. I had the same problem in Egypt when I first started using audio that was unnatural and slow. I didn't have a clue what people were saying.

This is why I urge people to start off with completely natural audio material from the very beginning. There's no such as 'advanced audio' - it's 'natural audio'.

Just keep surrounding yourself with the language and you'll improve (very handy being in Columbia! :)).


I absolutely agree!!! It doesn't help to learn to paraphrase sentences from a book.

Mike N.

I had a similar experience when I joined the United States Army.

Anyone who had foreign language proficiency on their enlistment papers was made to take the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery). The test sounds fairly similar to the one you've described in that the government uses a made-up language to test aptitude for learning foreign languages but it has both an oral and a written segment.

I had forgotten about that experience actually, so I'm glad you reminded me! I'll have to write a post about my experience.


Hi Mike.

I think the audio material was actually provided to the Australia Defence Force by the US military. You and I might have done the same test. :)



Do you remember what language the test was in? My father took the test years and years ago, and his recollection was that the language used was Esperanto. I took a similar test a while back as well, and the language used was Kurdish (this was before most anyone had ever heard of Kurds).

Tod Daniels

I've met more than my fair share of non-native Thai speakers (as in foreigners) at various and sundry schools here in Bangkok. Even ones who had good intonation and sentence structure seemed to struggle when deciphering regular speed normal (colloquially) spoken Thai. This seemed to occur even if they knew the topic being discussed.

I think you bring up a very valid point. Personally I rarely use the term "fluency" (because it can mean many different things to different people). Instead I use; "fluidity in speaking" (pausing when a native speaker would, using cadence in speaking like a native speaker, instead of having that "chopped up" foreign speaker sound to the language).
Interesting post, thanx


Thanks Tod.
Very true.

I'd be interested to hear more about your experiences with the Thai language in future. It's a language that I'm hoping to tackle over the next year or so.


I find this article to be inspirational. Too many language blogs out there go off about how easy it is to achieve fluency in a language when in reality it's a lot of hard work and dedication. While this is true to an extent that learning a language is easier than many people make it out to be (i.e. North Americans) but it can be discouraging to those struggling with their language goals. For example, if I go around telling everyone I meet, "Learning another language is super easy! In a few months you'll reach fluency!" and they struggle with it this could make them feel inadequate or incapable of learning another language. I think the best approach is to say, "it's a lot of work but totally worth the effort."

Anyone can spend a few weeks to a few months studying a phrase book and appear to be fluent but when confronted with topics by native speakers not mentioned in the phrase book they are SOL. This is the current state of my Turkish right now.


Thanks a lot Kevin! :)
How long have you been learning Turkish for?

Great to connect with another language learning blogger too!


My Turkish has been dormant since 2008 for many different reasons but I'm slowly getting into the habit of studying little by little. The only problem I'm having is finding someone to practice with (as you've experienced yourself being an Australian, the difference in time zones has made it challenging to keep in touch with my friends who speak my target language). My wife and I are working towards my dream of living in Turkey for several months in order for me to reach C2 level in the language :)


> The learner might be able to say a lot in their target language but as soon as a native speaker says something which warrants a response, it’s going to be very obvious whether or not the learner actually understands what’s being said.

I basically agree with this, but I would put it a slightly different way. Comprehension indeed takes a great deal of time to build, but more telling still is your ability to engage in that scenario. You may feel that you're confident and you can talk about a lot of things, but being exposed to natives and the completely arbitrary gamut of topics they are prone to bring up is the real test of how agile you are.

This is true in our native language(s) too, we're simply not able to have a meaningful conversation about absolutely everything, yet we are very good at engaging on almost any subject whether we know it or not. Thus our "foreign" language ability is a striving to approximate this.


Regarding listening practice, do you have any thoughts on the relative merits of, for example, an hour a day over 4 months versus 4 hours a day over one month ? To what extent can you compress this practice to achieve results in less time ?


That's actually a really good point.

If you have the time and devotion to spend four hours a day listening rather than one I'm sure your listening comprehension will improve at a faster rate.

The only problem is there does come a point where too much study can be detrimental and cause you not to retain as much information. Even in an immersion context abroad there's only so much you can handle each day before you feel tired and overwhelmed.

I'd like to other peoples' opinions on this though.


Okay I'll venture a few thoughts but won't claim to have all the answers. I'm sure you will already be aware of many of the things I am saying here, Donovan.
Firstly there are different types of listening. At a lower level in a new language I could listen right through an audiobook such as assimil, listening and checking what I don't understand, then spending some time on the bits where I'm not getting it and go right through the book like this. (Other study such as speaking, writing etc could be done in a wave later or on different days or even on the same day if one really wanted to although I wouldn't personally do it all on the same day). This kind of listening is pretty intensive and will fully get my language brain going and will tire me out.
Another kind of listening might be extensive listening of audio that I have already understood and just play in the background when I am doing other things. It could be the same Assimil text just played in the background. This would be a low-key way of keeping it fresh and allow certain things to click (because the actual acquisition process of the linguistic content is not a one-shot wonder).
Another way of listening could be to listen to authentic stuff such as dramas or movies. If one is still at a low level one could just be trying to identify the sounds, as the first step to understanding the content is to hear the sounds. Here issues such as the way words flow together, phonological shortcuts and tendencies etc will be more of an issue. One could do this kind of listening. Of course excessive listening of extremely difficult stuff when one is at an extremely low level is not advised by many researchers and is probably not the fastest way to increase listening comprehension. Tolerance of ambiguity and not being able to understand something may also be a factor. I am comfortable listening to things I really don't understand but I understand that many of my English students will get really annoyed and their attention will wander with things above their level so I would not force this kind of listening on people...
One could do listening with dramas on in the target language in the background when one is doing chores or eating. The same drama could play multiple times until we get more and more of it and we wouldn't worry about the bits where we lose concentration and focus on our chores for a while because it's all goo and better than not doing any listening, and the bits we missed will come around anyway. I have listened to the first two seasons of Prison Break in Japanese, but most of the time I was actually doing other stuff like making my breakfast, eating or household chores. If one listens to the drama multiple times in this way one will develop a curiosity about the parts one doesn't understand and playing the same episode once in one's mother tongue may make a lot of light-bulbs light up in one's head and make the target language version much easier to understand the next time. All this without using a dictionary or ever giving the drama one's full attention.
Watching shows intently with subtitles on in either the target language or a language one knows is another kind of listening, and there are no shortage of other things one can do. Obviously passively listening is not going to cut it all the time and sometimes we may really need to focus on our listening practice. With difficult materials I don't think it would be easy to keep this up for hours and hours on end. Like Donovan said, burnout is an issue.
Anyway, the amount of listening you do may depend on what is practical for you and on your other goals, but from experience if I were at a lower level in a language with limited time to spend on listening, I would spend time getting comfortable with the same texts listening to them on multiple days and moving ahead more slowly, whereas if I had more time a day on listening, I would feel more comfortable listening to all kinds of stuff in all kinds of ways.
Motivation is also an issue. When motivation really drops, it may be better to just watch, listen and appreciate something rather than force oneself to do something one is beginning to hate doing. Although my Persian level is actually quite low, I suddenly found that the sounds and the words in the Persian music I always just listen to for pleasure are extremely clear and I recognize many words and some expressions all of a sudden. This is without ever even looking up a word in most of these songs or looking at an English translation. This is the great thing about listening, even listening just for fun.


Love the post Donovan!


Thanks Jared :)


Came across your website as I was looking for information regarding the Signals Operator Linguist specialist testing. Your website was the only one I found was useful. I've sat the initial JOES Day (Now referred to as the YOU Session) where you sit the general aptitude test and are filtered to suitable jobs.

Do you have any tips or advice on how I could prepare for the specialist testing? As you've passed it, any advice would be greatly appreciated.


G'day Jade.

As they tell you, there's no way you can study for this exam. You either have the right aptitude for it or you don't.

However, one way you can 'warm yourself up' for the test is to go over some basic grammar for languages you don't know (pay special attention to affixes) and listen to audio in those languages to try and spot certain grammatical features.

So for example in Modern Standard Arabic, the suffix -uka on verbs generally means "you (m)" as a direct object, and -uki means "you (f)". So listen to Arabic audio and try to hear these suffixes.

You won't be doing a real language like Arabic but it will help prepare you to listen for these features.

When you do your test, they'll explain affixes and other grammatical rules for the artificial language and then get you to listen to recordings and translate them.

Hope that helps! Good luck :)


Thank you very much for your advice. I have my testing this Thursday so fingers crossed I pass. The statistics of when you sat your testing has me a little worried. 3 out of 30 passing is pretty poor so it must be very difficult.

Well done that you passed :) Where are you at with your application or are you enlisted in the RAAF now? I know it can be quite a long process going through recruiting so I hope you haven't had too many issues.


I agree! Thanks for putting this so succinctly.

Arabic is a serious problem in the area, as no one speaks according the rules of Modern Standard, which is the basis of most Arabic courses. I learned Arabic first in Morocco, then Modern Standard, then Levantine. It was better than courses.

I'm looking for more structured ways of learning languages beginning with listening comprehension. That's how babies start: listen for 1.5-2 years, then make up nonsense, then speak.

Do you have any suggestions on how to improve listening comprehension?


I strongly agreed with everything except the bit about immediately discounting anything that tells you to speak immediately: both the speak-immediately and the silent period methods can be effective depending on a multitude of factors the most important of which is the learner themselves which dictates what will and won't work for them. Also, speaking immediately doesn't preclude doing a lot of listening and work on listening comprehension.

Anyway, I have absolutely found that listening comprehension is, by far, the toughest part of learning a language, my experience matches yours, yes, definitely. I also find that my preferred method of dealing with this is movies--movies in the language in question with subtitles in the language in question (the one being spoken), that's massively important. I find that maybe 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 or so foreign language movies will have subtitles in the language spoken. Luckily right now I'm learning Spanish which is one of the easiest choices in terms of available learning material (e.g. there are more Spanish-language movies available on Amazon on DVD than any other foreign language, around 11,000 vs 6,000 for French, the next most prolific one). My personal favorites so far are Maria Full of Grace and Pan's Labyrinth, for what it's worth.

I like your work, keep it up.


David Duenzl

Great post,
I've applied for a Cryptologic Linguist role with the Royal Australian Navy and will have this test in a couple of weeks. I've also looked at the RAAF role you described too but am more excited about a life at sea.


Thanks mate.

Best of luck with the test!


So true - you cannot fake unscripted conversation! Although I have to say my comprehension has always been higher than my speaking skills and my ability to communicate freely in another language has always been the last skill to come.


Nice post. This has also been my experience. I also find that the better my listening gets, the more natural my speaking gets, and it seems to relate directly to noticing things around me. With Korean putting the radio on all the time when I'm driving over the last couple of years seems to have helped a fair bit.
I've found that the method outlined in on a site for learning Telugu that is based on the Birkenbihl method interesting. It seems like an efficient way to learn to understand a lot of simple content quickly with courses like Assimil or Teach Yourself or something similar. Of course then you'd have to move on to harder content. Global listening of difficult content that you can't understand also seems to be good for adjusting the ears to the sounds of the language. I figure it's necessary to have some tolerance of ambiguity/not understanding things to do this second type of listening. I've noticed a lot of my students really hate listening to stuff they don't understand but actually I quite like it.


Very true observations. It is essentially the Turing test of foreign language acquisition. It's easy enough if you're "scripting," it's when someone asks the robot a super novel question (or makes a novel comment.) Syntax is not equivalent to semantics. That's when the rubber hits the road. I'll never forget this experience when my FIL told me in his native tongue "all dogs have gonorrhea" and I went outside and told my husband I must have misunderstood because I heard him say that all dogs have gonorrhea.


just a quick question.... for the dlab the adf give, do they give you a paper and pencil to work with? and exactly how fast do they read out these questions?


It was all done on computer (no paper) and from memory I think it was naturally spoken speed.


Do you know where to found test for the ADF?


I completely agree with the points you have. I took the IELTS before and the listening section has all types of English accents


I so agree. I am new on here, but don't know how many times I have heard someone...usually their grandparents for example came from Mexico. They will say that they understand Spanish, but can't really speak it. I say that they are full of BS. But I am just a beginner in Spanish as well, but I did reach a 2 level proficiency in German as an Army linguist, so I have some reference. Have other out there heard this common line that the person can understand the language, but just can't speak it very well? Thanks.


i grew up in Australia with Ialian parents and i can understand a lot what is being said but i do not speak Italian.


I believe it's the rule, rather than the exception (even for L1 people), that comprehension > production. Vocabulary provides a simple frinstance: Almost everyone recognizes words that they really cannot throw comfortably into a pragmatically well-constructed sentence in casual conversation. I would struggle to use words like 'egregiously' and 'pusillanimous', but I know what a speaker (or writer) is driving at. They are something like 'over-the-top-bad', and 'dishonest', and I can only hope I spelled them correctly.


Very well said all the complication and benefits of having knowledge in foreign language!! Learning part of second language is easy but it's hard for the first couple of years to catch what different language speakers are saying at once.


Thank you sooo much for this-one of the best language learning articles I've ever read; this made me realise I'm not crap at language learning, I just need to practice listening more.

Jorge Sivit

If I had to choose one skill to be strong at, I would choose listening comprehension too because, as you say, it’s the skill that let’s you soak the language around you—all of it: vocabulary, grammar, intonation, usage…

I think is a good idea to work on all language skills though. Learning full phrases, for example, will allow you to recognise them as units more easily when you hear them and thus help you improve your listening comprehension faster.


I agree 100%, with the caveat that listening should, wherever possible in the early stages, be accompanied with some sort of active response. In other words, basic greetings can be mirrored, according to culture, with slight gestures of: high-fiving, bowing, nodding, fist-bumping, arm-spreading, smiling, eye-contact (or avoidance, where appropriate). Just slight muscle-movements will suffice. Classroom activities can be shadowed by imaginary book-opening, page-finding/turning, arm-raising, etc.

When the input becomes increasingly abstract, that will become somewhat impractical but then in the upper intermediate and advanced stages, real conversation will be taking up a greater load anyway.


I started my German study by reading a stick-figure picture book paperback, and listening to library German course stuff.

In order to sell a course—either responsible/irresponsible commercial or academic—the author/swindler, as the case may be, does have to make the case that:

"This course will have/features immediate communicative skills..." Blah, blah...
"...the way children acquire... naturally, etc...."

No they don't. Apart from babbling and picking up a preliminary phonemic inventory, infants keep their ears open and their mouths shut. They are mapping the features, static and dynamic, of the real world into semantic and syntactic representations.

This does take a long, long time, but it's the best place to start. Total Physical Response cultists have taken things a bit too far in some cases, but they have the right idea. In the beginning, as long as someone is making appropriate non-oral, or minimal oral (yes/no; ya/nein; ne/aniyo, etc.) responses, he or she is making good acquisitional progress. After a month they can work on phonetic output by successive approximation.


Finally, I found a language learning blog post that is honest. I am native in Greek and let's say fluent in English (depends on how you define fluency, but still) and currently on an intermediate level in the Swedish language.

I've been doing some googling around language learning facts, because I wanted to find out if other people experiences the same struggles that I do; I'm at a point that I can form my own sentences, can and already had a couple of small talks in Swedish and effectively read a text (obviously not a highly intellectual one, such as academic level etc). But I always reach a point that I think "How would I ever reach the point to express [insert a situation/feeling/opinion] in Swedish"? and then I get disappointed. So I thought about getting some insight from other language learners online.

What I MOSTLY found, was blogs of polyglots saying things like "you don't need grammar", "throw away your coursebook", "speak like a native in 4 months" etc. I am a skeptical person in general, so I did not really believe those things. However, my meta-search on these resources didn't find a lot of criticism. People like to thing that shortcuts, free meals, call it whatever you like, are there and that they are making the smart choice.

My approach differs, and as I can see by your post it's close to yours. I will try to take more advice from you from now on, since it seems that I found a serious person on this whole thing.

Personally, my biggest problem in language learning now is the emotional roller-coaster; I successfully have a small talk and I feel I'm really close to ACTUALLY be consider a Swedish speaker (even better when this talk is oral). On the other hand, I reach a point where I can't express myself, and suddenly I feel like I know nothing. I am sure many people can relate to that. I plan on working hard to get out of this.

Thanks for all your advice!


Mezzoguild recommends a few resources in his article. I have found the Glossika method to be quite good. Sometimes just learning verbatim standard sentences may be ok. After all, even native speakers tend to re-use and recycle ready-made sentences all the time.

David Porter

I agree that reports of learning a language in a few weeks are sensationalized. They can even be discouraging for new learners who feel like they're moving too slow. Unscripted conversations are hard on learners, but they're essential. Great post.


Thanks to this article, it made me realize why clearly I havent advanced in my spanish language pursuit -- it's because i neglected an important aspect of learning it, which is the listening part. I'm focusing more on this aspect by starting to listen to short Spanish files, while reading the transcript, then get the meaning of words i encountered the first time. Will listen and study one file throughout the day, until I know the file by heart. I'll start today, by the way. Wish me luck!


I found your observations both interesting and valid. Thanks for highlighting that an inordinate amount of time needs to be invested in listening in order to be able to have meaningful conversations in the target language. I have noticed that the time lag when a person reacts to output is also indicative of language level. Sometimes it is only a fraction of second that gives it away: How quickly you get the meaning and then are able to respond with the appropriate response. Especially at higher levels, how quickly can you come with answers in a quiz programme.

I have found that listening comprehension comes to the fore especially in tonal languages. It is virtually impossible to have a fluent dialogue without a solid listening comprehension base and in the case of a tonal language that may take several thousand hours.

Really interesting to hear how you did that test in the military. To me this raises the question if we can learn even more from the way interpreters learn their trade. Shadowing is of course one aspect. Is there anything else we can adopt from that profession?

Tina Villanueva

So very true!! Thanks for putting into text what I tell my students every year!


I like your realistic, down to earth approach to language learning. I've read a few articles of yours, looking forward to reading more. So, questions about this article :How about different types of learners? Does this mean those who understand and retain information best by reading or images have less chances in achieving fluency? Also, why not speaking from the beginning? Learners are usually scared of speaking, of making mistakes, of their accent etc. Why not do both speaking and taking the time with listening more from day 1? I have the feeling that you include "communication" in what you call speaking here
(I agree with those who suggest language skills are 5 not 4, adding communication as a very different skill than speaking). Sorry for the absence of paragraphs, I'm not on the computer.

Ed Love

Yep, no doubt about it. Compared to listening and understanding, reading and writing, and even speaking, are a doddle!

Thanks for yet one more fascinating helpful article.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein