Have you ever been on the brink of a colossal discovery on your language learning journey and out of nowhere you hit a roadblock? The roadblock I’m talking about has many names, “uncertainty, indecision, hesitation, doubt”, but for simplicity sake, we’ll call it confusion. Confusion in and of itself is a massive deterrent for all language learners, the only real way to get over its perplexing nature is with time and adjustments (multiple adjustments).
Confusion, like mistakes, is a natural part of language learning. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say it’s a natural part of learning anything new. To be fair confusion sucks, you want to know why? Because unlike mistakes it can last a very, very, VERY long time unresolved. It is also a more personal matter since it’s up to you to solve your own case of confusion. Mistakes can be corrected in a flash, and you can just ask somebody to do your dirty work. But, NOOOOO confusion lasts buddy and it makes sure you’re aware of its presence.
Let’s face it, you’re going to get some aspect of your target language confused at one point in your journey. Whether this aspect is grammar, vocabulary, or speaking you’re going to run into the problem. You may have already read our Mistakes and Blunders article where we discuss the importance and existence of ‘mistakes’ in language learning – confusion, however, is a slightly different matter.
So how do we define confusion in language learning? We’ll be using three different definitions for the sake of this article. By no means are we professionals when it comes to linguistic terminology so before we list our own definitions we’d just like to mention that Merriam Webster defines confusion as such:
- “the quality or state of being confused”
- “a confused mass or mixture”
- “an act or instance of confusion”
I don’t know about you all, but I was taught never to define a word using its root. So I give Merriam a low score on that note.
- Confusion is the inability to properly express pre-existing knowledge in a comprehensible format.
- Confusion can be defined as interchanging suitable words/grammar for inappropriate words/grammar.
- Confusion is the loss of control from conscious thought due to the presence of hesitation.
No matter which definition we choose to stick with, confusion is a phenomenon experienced amongst all language learners.
Possible Reasons for Confusion and Their Solutions
Confusion is quite the conundrum, but it’s an overkill to say that it serves no purpose. Have you ever considered the fact that you wouldn’t get confused if you had nothing to be confused about? Well, that’s where I’m headed with this logic. The conflict of knowledge is fairly common in language learning, but a learner must learn how to embrace their moments of misguidance and learn from their mistakes. If you find yourself getting confused often, it simply means that you’re aware that you’re learning. Remember when you first started the language and everything seemed so new? Briefly put, there was no conflict – therefore there may have been less confusion.
Everyone is different, I know you’ve heard that a million and one times reading these articles, but this time it really holds water. People’s learning styles aren’t the same meaning that the way we perceive information will vary. Let’s explore some possible theories as to how these perspectives can become “confused”.
New Information – Different Presentation
Imagine you’ve been learning how to cook your food using a stick, sunlight, and logs of wood your entire life, and suddenly someone shows you a frying pan and a gas stove. Apply this same logic to learning different parts of your target language.
When I started learning kanji, I just thought they were nothing but lines and strokes until one day my Sensei (bless his soul) told me that kanji are more than just lines and stokes. He then introduced me to radicals – the building blocks of kanji, and I must admit I was SOOOOOOO confused. I remained confused for what seemed like years but was only 2 weeks as I began to learn the in’s and outs of kanji. Eventually, I became adjusted to the new perspective of kanji my Sensei had been trying to teach me, then soon everything cleared up. I went from knowing 50 kanji to 1300 in that one semester.
When you’re introduced to new information meant to teach some new aspect of your target language it’s important to remember that you still have control over how that information is interpreted.
Confusion is the loss of control from conscious thought due to the presence of hesitation.
Hesitation to approach this new information from a new perspective will leave you in a state of confusion. I wouldn’t exactly call it cognitive dissonance, but in order to fully comprehend the new information, there is certainly an adjustment period.
The Solution: Fight fire with fire. Use your own preferred learning style to interpret the new style of teaching as well as the new information. This sounds more confusing than the original confusion at hand, but trust me it’s not too difficult to figure out. However, it does involve some problem-solving skills – you need to be thinking “If problem A is approaching problem B from the perspective of C, how can I approach problem B from the perspective of D while using the perspective of C. In other words, figure it out your way, but still incorporate the new style of teaching you’re being presented to interpret the information. Does that make sense?
Exposure to Unknown Information
Okay, so picture this you’re surrounded by your friends who all study your target language, however, they’re admittedly of a higher skill level. Now, one friend speaks the language at a near-native level, if not “BETTER”. One day you’re all sitting in a chat lounge speaking with some natives and your golden friend starts to speak about “something”. I use the word “something” because you have no idea what the hell he is talking about. All you know is that that “something” is not something you’ve encountered in your studies yet, nor do you know if you’ll ever encounter it… Because let’s be honest when native speakers start to gasp in shock and engage in an intellectual debate, pulling textbooks off the shelves to fact check information, that’s when you just know.
Anyway, what I’m saying here is that when the topic of the conversation suddenly switches into a higher realm of discussion that you’re not used to, buckle up kiddies – confusion is right around the corner, and this kind is going to hit you HARD.
Confusion is the inability to properly express pre-existing knowledge in a comprehensible format.
How can you express pre-existing knowledge when the topic is light years beyond your comprehension level?
This leaves you with one option, observe. The observance isn’t a bad thing, but some people prefer action rather than passive behavior. This is where people are left in a self-wallowing pool of despair, and yeah, I know that sounds terrible, but that’s only because it is terrible.
The Solution: Increase your input gradually. The more input you receive the better chance you have of comprehending conversations. Output, while important in this matter isn’t as crucial as input. How are you to output input that you don’t know yet? Language learning needs to have an equal ratio of input and output for this exact reason. If the ratio is messed up you’ll either end up stagnant or unbalanced in different categories like reading, writing and speaking. To conclude this point, just learn more words, grammar, and patterns and work on outputting them slowly until you’re up to speed.
Your Tongue Is Running
Ever heard the phrase “Cat got your tongue?”. The meaning behind it is when you want to say something, but some unknown force is holding you back. Okay now that we have that meaning out of the way, forget about it – because this point is the exact opposite. I guess you can say “A cat doesn’t have your tongue.”
Languages are fun, we know that for a fact as language learners. But we can get carried away sometimes during our conversations. This usually leads to us losing track of our thoughts and we end up switching up correct output for wrong output.
Confusion can be defined as interchanging suitable words/grammar for inappropriate words/grammar.
For example, I was in a conversation once and participants in said conversation were all very energetic. This led to me and my big mouth getting “carried away” and attempting to use a Kansai dialect when we were all speaking in the common Tokyo tongue. The result was tragic I ended up saying all kinds of intelligible things even though I was perfectly capable of expressing the information in a comprehensible format.
It can also be as simple as using the wrong word in the wrong context. Once my friends and I were drinking and we noticed one guy was laying on the couch groaning. So, I went over to him and said “お前弱者だなあああ. Which translates to “Wow, you sure are a weakling.” What I meant to say was “お前弱いですね. This instead translates as, “Hmmm I guess you’re a lightweight.” See the difference?
The Solution: Slow down your thoughts, remember your background and don’t overextend by reaching into topics you’re not comfortable with yet. Stick to the safe grounds using what you know comfortable until reaching into that “untapped” vocabulary bank in the back of your head. If you’ve been studying your target language for a good while you probably know at least twice as many words as you think you know. The problem, however, is that you haven’t activated those words yet, so their usage is limited to reading and listening.
To Be Confused Or Not To Be Confused – Is That The Question?
The truth is you can’t avoid it, either way, so my best advice is to just let it enter your life and wreak havoc. I’m not saying let that havoc go on forever because it can be detrimental to your language learning journey. However, I am saying to let it play around for a little while before you completely stomp it out of your life. Confusion for all intents and purposes is meant to shake up your lifestyle. Think about it, what happens when you get confused? You look for a solution to the problem, right? And after you find that solution, I’d hope that you make a mental note of what that situation taught you, and how you managed to solve it AKA solve the confusion. The grand takeaway that we should get from the concept of confusion is that when we overcome a difficulty that is slightly outside our range of comprehension, we improve in a permanent manner.
So next time you get confused, remember these simple tricks:
(1) Fight Fire with Fire: Be open to new and better approaches but stick to your style
(2) Increase Your Input Gradually: Make sure your surroundings match to your language level
(3) Slow Down Your Thoughts: Stop to think clearly about the situation in order to comprehend the information you’re receiving.