This Is Why You Understand English Better Than You Can Speak It—and What You Can Do About It

Published on
April 16, 2021
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Updated on
October 19, 2021
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📖
10
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Ramsay Lewis

It’s normal to understand English better than you can speak it, but it’s still frustrating. Here’s why that happens and how you can fix it.

This Is Why You Understand English Better Than You Can Speak It—and What You Can Do About It

When I first came to Brazil I knew zero Portuguese. 

It was almost an accident that I was there, so I hadn’t prepared at all. 

Luckily, I knew some Spanish, and if I just changed my accent a bit, I found that most people could understand me. 

But I couldn’t understand them at all.

Fast forward several years. I’m now at a high intermediate level, struggling towards being advanced. Now my problem is quite different: I can understand much more than I can say.

Just as one example: I’m currently taking an online university-level calculus class in Portuguese. I can follow almost everything the professor is saying. But when I have a question? All of that vocabulary that I understood vanishes into thin air. 

I’m left embarrassed and stuttering.

It’s not that I can’t speak Portuguese—I can. But the vocabulary that I understand is several times greater than the vocabulary that I can use when I’m speaking. It’s the same with grammar: I can understand much more complicated grammatical structures than I can produce. 

And I know I’m not alone in this—indeed, it’s common among language learners. Language comprehension is almost always more advanced than language production

English is no exception, and this is a problem that affects almost all English learners. 

It’s something that many members of Leonardo English have spoken about, and you can see people talking about this problem all over the internet.

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In this article, I want to explore this problem, and help explain why that is. 

Why is it that you can understand a podcast in English but can’t speak like the host? 

Why is it that I have no problems understanding a word, but when I want to use it, I can’t remember it in time?

And what can we language learners do to close the gap between comprehension and production? Let’s see if we can find some answers.

Comprehension and production are different processes

To understand why our language comprehension develops differently than our ability to produce language, we have to understand that they are distinct processes

Language comprehension is the ability to understand language input. It is a process of decoding meaning from linguistic input using contextual information and the recipient’s knowledge of the world. 

Language production is the creation of language output—either spoken or written. It refers to all the stages from having an idea that you want to express, to translating it into a linguistic form.

While they’re related, and you do need one to do the other, there’s evidence that these two processes are distinct.

Comprehension and production use different parts of the brain

For one thing, these two processes seem to take place in different regions of the brain.

A part of the brain called “Wernicke’s area” is famously associated with speech recognition. People with damage to this area suffer from receptive aphasia—the inability to understand language input.

Language production seems to originate in a different part of the brain called “Broca’s area”. Patients with damage to this area usually experience expressive aphasia—they have impediments to their production of language, though not to their comprehension.

So part of the reason that language learners notice differences in their ability to recognise a word versus produce it may have to do with those two functions simply being different processes in different parts of the brain. 

Comprehension seems to be a prerequisite for recall

Not only are comprehension and production different processes, but they also may come at different times. In fact, some language researchers argue that comprehension of a word is usually required before you can use it in your language.

And that makes sense—you might think this is blindingly obvious. 

If you don’t know what a “carousel” is, for instance, you’re not going to be able to use it when you’re describing your trip to the fair. 

This is supported by research on children’s language development: it’s almost always the case that children demonstrate comprehension of a term or grammatical structure before they can use it themselves. 

Knowing other languages can interrupt production

Another interesting challenge is that languages can interfere with one another. 

You may have had this experience: you’re trying to remember a word in English and instead, the word in your native language comes to mind. 

Or, perhaps after a long English study session, you might find yourself unable to find a word in your native language, and instead the English one pops out. 

Well, it turns out that fluent multilingual speakers are able to inhibit one language when they are using another. It’s a tool that helps them produce language effectively.

For instance, if you speak both French and English at an advanced level, and you’re in conversation with someone who only speaks English, you unconsciously inhibit your French to make speaking English easier.

But we can only do that effectively when we’re proficient in both of the languages. 

When we’re not as strong in a language, it’s easier for other languages to pop in and interfere.

That’s part of the reason you might find that words from your native language pop up when you’re trying to speak English. 

A lack of proficiency in English may make it more difficult to inhibit your other languages. 

Languages interfere with comprehension, too, but we may not notice it

So what about comprehension? Could your native language—or other languages you speak—interfere with understanding English?

There is some evidence that it could. 

In some studies, researchers found that response times to comprehension tasks were lengthened when other languages were activated. 

But interference probably isn’t as noticeable in comprehension as it is in production. 

If you’re having a conversation with a friend in English, you probably won’t notice that your native language makes you take a tiny bit longer to understand what they’re saying. 

You would notice when you try to respond to them and your native language comes out.

In other words, interference from our other languages may have a more noticeable effect on our speech production than on our comprehension. That’s one reason production may feel harder. 

And again, the better your English, the better you can inhibit your other languages. And the less they would interfere.

We listen more than we speak

Even in our own language, we "consume" language—listen to it and read it—much more than we “produce” it by speaking or writing. 

There will be words that you understand in your native language but you probably wouldn’t be able to use in conversation. 

This is because we are a lot more used to comprehending language than producing it. 

This, of course, makes us better at comprehension than production.

When it comes to learning English, it’s exactly the same story; we listen and read more than we speak and write.

This will be especially true if you learned English in a classroom. 

A classroom environment typically gives you little opportunity to practise speaking. When it did, it might have even been stressful. 

The result is that, for almost all of us, we develop our comprehension skills much more than our production skills. 

So, why is comprehension easier?

Together, I think the evidence paints a picture of why it's so common that language learners often feel like their comprehension is better than their production—why they understand more than they can say

  1. Production and comprehension are different processes. Being strong in one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re as strong in the other. 
  2. Comprehension comes first. You need to understand a word before you can use it. It makes sense that there are more words on our “I understand this” vocabulary list than on our “I can use this” list. 
  3. Our native language may interfere with our speaking. When we’re learning, we may not be able to inhibit our native language, so it can interfere with our English and make speaking more difficult. Our native language may interfere with our comprehension too, but we may not notice that as much.
  4. Most of us listen more in our second languages than we speak. So it makes sense that we understand more than we can say. 

What can you do about it?

If your English comprehension is really advanced, well done, give yourself a pat on the back

Now it’s a case of turning that excellent comprehension from “passive” knowledge into “active” knowledge. It’s time to close the gap between what you understand and what you can say.

To improve your English production, you now need to spend more time working on output activities such as speaking and writing

Some of my favourites output activities include:

You can also make your listening activities more active and increase your output in the process.

This is one of the most effective techniques, as not only are you continually exposing yourself to native English comprehensible input, but you are also doing active output activities at the same time.

For example, here are some ways to scaffold output activities on top of listening to Leonardo English podcasts:

  • Shadowing (of course)
  • Write a summary of a podcast episode you listened to
  • Record a summary of a podcast episode you listened to
  • Explain what the podcast was about, out loud, to a friend
  • Leave a comment on our Instagram or Facebook responding to the topic (What did you think about it? What did you learn?)
  • Join the Leonardo English community and chat with other members about the podcast episodes

These are all ideas for building output activities into your English learning programme

The more you practice your output, the easier it will get, and the smaller the gap will be between what you understand and what you can say. 

What shouldn’t you do?

Here are a few ideas about what isn’t the best way to address a perceived weakness in your English production. 

Blindly memorise vocabulary lists

Yes, expanding your vocabulary is a great way to increase the number of words you have access to when you're speaking. Building your vocabulary is useful, and we’ve posted some ideas for the most effective ways to improve your vocabulary before. 

But simply memorising vocabulary lists out of context isn’t going to be very effective.

Instead, the ideal way to learn vocabulary is to learn them in context

You want to do activities where you can see vocabulary being used. For example, learning all the key vocabulary in a Leonardo English episode would be much more useful than memorising words from a list of IELTS vocabulary. 

Focus only on speaking right away

Speaking English is, of course, essential to learning it. And speaking activities should start when you are a beginner. 

But dumping yourself immediately into full-on conversations with native speakers may not be the most effective or comfortable way to learn English. Not only will it be frustrating and possibly overwhelming, but you also may not learn much. 

Rather than overemphasising conversation right away, combine your speaking and other output activities with listening and reading activities

Focus too much on grammar

Yes, grammar is important. You need to speak with reasonable accuracy for others to understand you. 

But grammar shouldn’t be the sole focus of your study. And actually, we can pick up a lot of grammar through comprehensible input—by listening to others speak. 

There are plenty of incredibly successful English speakers who have learned English without ever spending a minute working on grammar activities, and instead have acquired grammar rules through listening to native speakers.

So, yes, you can include grammar exercises in your English learning plan if you like. But make sure you don’t focus on grammar so much that you forget to actually listen and speak English. 

Keep practising to close the comprehension-production gap

I absolutely know how frustrating it can be to be in a conversation and have something to say, but not be able to say it. 

Understanding isn’t the problem. Speaking is.

There are some good reasons for that. Comprehension and production aren’t the same processes, so it makes sense that one could be better than the other. 

And actually, understanding a word is likely a prerequisite for using it—you wouldn’t say a word you didn’t understand. So most people likely have a pool of words that they can understand that’s much bigger than the pool of words they can use

In addition, when we’re not yet proficient in a language, our native language can interfere. And it may interfere more with production than with comprehension. 

That’s all normal. 

What’s the solution? 

It’s not magic: practice and perseverance. 

Keep speaking English. Keep listening and reading to English. Do activities that expose yourself to new words, phrases and sentence structures.

And make it part of your day—every day if you can. Even just a little.

Over time, you will find that your production starts to creep closer to your comprehension. And you’ll get to a place where you’re actually quite comfortable speaking in English. 

Just keep at it. 

References

Alsaigh, T., & Kennison, S. M. (2017). Second language interference during first language processing by Arabic–English bilinguals. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1956.

Clark, E. V., & Hecht, B. F. (1983). Comprehension, production, and language acquisition. Annual Review of Psychology, 34(1), 325-349.

de Bot, K. (2004). The multilingual lexicon: Modelling selection and control. International Journal of Multilingualism, 1(1), 17-32.

Izumi, S. (2003). Comprehension and production processes in second language learning: In search of the psycholinguistic rationale of the output hypothesis. Applied Linguistics, 24(2), 168-196.

Treiman, R., Clifton Jr, C., Meyer, A. S., & Wurm, L. H. (2003). Language comprehension and production. Handbook of Psychology, 525-547.