Focusing on what you DO know, rather than what you DON’T
Imagine you are reading a travel journal, and the article you are interested in has several sentences like this:
“Line 1 of the subway now extends past Asan, and commuters traveling further south can easily switch to the mugunghwa, saemaul, nooriro and KTX services.”
You are unlikely to have come across the words; Asan, mugunghwa, saemaul, nooriro or KTX. That’s 5 out of 25 words that you don’t understand, but despite not understanding 20% of the text you can figure out that capital A ‘Asan’ is probably a town or city and the other words are types of train service – so you just carry on reading – no big deal. In this case, 80% comprehension is enough when you are reading about specialist subjects in your own language, or a language you know very well.
But now imagine that you are reading a similar sentence in another language; one that you are not so familiar with. How do you feel now?
“La bouffe anglaise est un cercle de l’Enfer à elle toute seule”
If you have learnt some French, you will probably know words like:
But what about bouffe and l’Enfer?
Think ‘buffet’ for bouffe and ‘Inferno’ for l’Enfer.
So basically; “English food is its own special Hell!”
If you don’t know these two words (food and Hell), the whole meaning of the sentence is lost to you. This is why a lot of second language learners become frustrated when they don’t understand every word. So, for reading it is very important for language teachers and learners to hunt out easy reading material. You can see how significant an approximate 20% lack in reading comprehension becomes when two unknown words can carry all the meaning of a sentence.
‘Real reading’, reading for pleasure or reading to find out new information, is a real life language usage that we can control. Real reading requires at least a 96-98% comprehension, but not every type of language use requires such a high level of comprehension. When we are using language with other people we are also using tone, facial expressions, gestures and a whole lot of other clues to help with meaning.
It is not so easy to control the vocabulary flow in other real life language like phone calls, shopping, chatting and listening for instructions. This is where learners have to let go of their need to understand everything. Because in these situations, trying to understand everything usually means that you end up understanding very little.
I went to pay for my lunch earlier this week and the canteen lady didn’t ask me what I had eaten, but was talking about something else I didn’t understand. I did hear the word ‘to pay’, but instead of fixing my attention on the payment I focused on the other words – the ones I didn’t understand.
If I had fixed on ‘pay’, and replied something like ‘I pay now’, or ‘how much?’ the situation would have resolved itself a lot more quickly (somebody else had already paid for my lunch), but instead I dragged it out for maximum embarrassment by focusing on what I didn’t know, rather than what I did know.