The science of letting go

There’s a lot of debate around language learning communities on whether extensive or intensive reading is better for acquiring languages. Without going into the benefits of either approach, I think there comes a time in the life of a language learner where they need to get comfortable with the idea that they simply cannot understand everything they come across. This becomes even more important in real time conversations where missing a few words here and there will not impact the contextual understanding of the situation but might set you back if you become obsessed in achieving complete coverage of known words all the time.

Refold calls this “Tolerate the Ambiguity” and provides a bit of a summary explanation, however I know it’s not easy to get into this mindset and to just “let go” and move on when faced with unknowns, especially for people who are used to analyzing every single word as they show up.

As for myself, I’m confident to say that I’ve applied this same exact type of approach and methodology when I was learning English as a teenager, and now as I am learning Japanese. Although the two languages are very different in syntax and grammar, the same type of technique can be used with very little variation.

Word classification

The first thing we need to understand is that words have different weights and “levels” in a sentence. As a language learner you want to cast a net as wide as possible and try to get through as many meaningful sentences as you can without being bogged down by annoying unknowns. I have already talked about content words vs function words in Optimal Reading Immersion - Narrow Reading.

Beyond those, there are also a few more levels of comprehension you can get from a sentence and after a certain threshold it’s okay to move on because most of the “important” meaning has already been conveyed to you. The rest will just be flavor words that make reading more pleasant (assuming you know those words). Think about adjectives, adverbs, descriptions, things that don’t move the plot forward but help in painting a more vivid and florid mental picture of a scene. You don’t need those to understand what you’re reading.

Within the group of content words, we can identify things like:

  • Nouns
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Pronouns
  • Verbs/Predicates

Let me show you with an actual example how our (well, at least mine) brain parses a sentence with a high level of unknowns and let’s see if we can figure out a way to make it more pleasant to tolerate its ambiguity:

Start from no comprehension (aside from one name):

“John kek i gloop bleyng toop i moop clein voov pleen. Maper doop ug kek i boof ug gleem vloofi toot ug meem toot luul kloog momo veev ugi baba mep dood t uga”

Let’s add function words into the mix:

“John kek a gloop bleyng with a moop clein voov pleen. Ever since ug kek a boof ug gleem vloofi and ug meem and luul kloog every veev ugi baba mep dood at uga”

Of course this still makes no sense, but what if we suddenly understood all the adjectives and adverbs? Would it become easier?

“John kek a young bleyng with a very respectable academic pleen. Ever since ug kek a boof ug gleem vloofi and ug quickly and fearlessly kloog every veev ugi baba mep dood at uga”

Hmm this is still incomprehensible, we kind know it is talking about some “academic” stuff but we don’t know what, and it’s still pretty much up in the air.

But what if instead of adjectives and adverbs, we prioritized nouns and pronouns? Let’s forget about adjectives and adverbs and pretend we only looked up nouns and pronouns instead:

“John kek a gloop student with a moop clein voov career. Ever since he kek a child he gleem reading and he meem and luul kloog every book his parents mep dood at him”

Wow okay, suddenly we get a bit more meaning out of this. We know it’s about a student with a career, and the sentence talks about his (?) childhood and reading books with his parents… We can kinda make a “theme” out of this, but still comprehension is hard. We might be able to infer some verbs from context, like the fragment “John kek a gloop student” most likely is “John was a gloop student”.

Let’s go one step further and add verbs into the mix:

“John was a gloop student with a moop clein voov career. Ever since he was a child he enjoyed reading and he meem and luul devoured every book his parents would throw at him”

Wow okay, this suddenly became understandable really quickly, didn’t it? We still don’t know what kind of career he has, what kind of student he is, and how he would “devour” books. We might not have the nuance of what “devour” means in this context but intuition tells us it’s not literally about eating books, and obviously his parents aren’t literally throwing the books at him. Still, this level of comprehension is more than enough to follow the narrative plot and we don’t need to stop and look up all the other words (unless we really want to).

Just for completeness sake, this was the full sentence:

“John was a young student with a very respectable academic career. Ever since he was a child he enjoyed reading and he quickly and fearlessly devoured every book his parents would throw at him.”

This is exactly how I have learned English growing up. I would read a lot of books (shout out to the Wheel of Time series!) and mostly focus on core vocab which usually consisted of nouns and verbs. We have a limited amount things we are willing to put up with, spending all our energy to look up every single word we don’t know in the dictionary will get us to burn out relatively quickly, before we actually get to enjoy the contents of the story we are reading.

As you move along a story, you will sometimes find the same words repeated here and there, and if they catch your attention, looking them up can be a good thing, however more often than not, an author might drop a single unknown descriptive word in the middle of a long-winded sentence and then never use it again. It’s really not worth it to get hung up on that because it will not impact the rest of your experience anyway.

To conclude, my personal list of priority content words, in order, is as follows:

  1. Nouns

  2. Verbs

  3. Pronouns

  4. Adverbs

  5. Adjectives

If you have a more-or-less complete understanding of 1 to 3, you are very likely already able to understand the general gist of most of the stuff you read.

Make stuff up

So what do we do when we are met with a barrage of unknown words of low core usefulness? What if we get a huge string of adjectives and adverbs like “moop clein voov career” or snippets like “meem and luul” from the passage above?

I know this sounds crazy but… make things up. You should already have a decent amount of context from what you’re reading, and generally speaking, besides a few tricky words, you should already have a decent idea if the sentence you’re reading is a positive or negative statement about something.

We don’t really need to know exactly what a certain adjective or adverb means but it’s good to know if it’s a good or bad thing in context. And context will usually get us there already without having to touch a dictionary. If you read “He stabbed him meem, before he could say a single word, with a drood sneer on his face.” You might infer that “meem” is something that describes a quick and fast action (“before he could say a single word”) and that “drood” is used to describe a word like “sneer” (which has already some negative connotation) in the context of someone getting stabbed, so it’s definitely not a positive quality.

On top of all of this, we already saw the word “meem” in the earlier passage used to describe “devouring books”, so even subconsciously, without thinking much about it, we can get a nuance of speed and fast-paced action (“quickly”).

All of this comes to us more or less naturally once we let go of the requirement that we need to understand 100% of everything we read. Our brains are pattern matching machines that work at their own pace and you cannot force them to work any faster (or more meem :)). We make guesses, we come up with assumptions, and we reinforce those with more exposure.

Making guesses and literally making stuff up is what gives us independence and mastery over the language, because we make it our own, like a child does growing up in their natural environment.

You will make mistakes, you will have to fix incorrect assumptions or get into awkward situations where you misunderstand things (especially in conversations) but that’s just the nature of how languages are. You shouldn’t be avoiding them because it’s what makes us grow.