The Three Levels of Language Comprehension

When it comes to learning a language, it can be hard to know what level you’re at.

Fortunately there is actually a rather simple way to test it, just as long as you know what the three levels of comprehension are.

I’m going to talk a little bit about each one, starting from the lowest and ending on the highest.

After that I will show you how to “test” yourself at each stage of the game. Let’s begin!

Level Zero – You Know Nothing

This first level isn’t really a level at all, but is actually the absence of any kind of comprehension.

This would be any time you hear someone speaking in a language, and it all sounds like garbage to you.

You might be able to correctly identify the name of the language, since we hear the major ones often enough and they all have distinct qualities,but you still wouldn’t know a word of what was said.

This is the level that everyone starts at, and when it comes to your target language you simply have to decide that you want to learn the new language and start working on it from there in order to get to the next level.

Level One – Individual Words Here and There

This is the level that most beginners are at after they’ve started their journey.

At this point, you will be able to recognize a word or two out of the occasional sentence, but the majority of words will surly elude you.

Most likely you will catch the big, common ones like “Thank you, sorry, good morning” and so on.

Sometime you will even catch a word out of other people’s conversations that will allow you to at least have an idea of what they are talking about.

You’ll know that they mentioned a “cat” at some point, but you’re not really sure why they are talking about the lovable felines.

The cat could have been doing something funny, or perhaps the person just wants a new one.

Seeing as how most adults know 20,000 – 35,000 words in their native tongue, you might feel like you’re stuck at this level for a long time.

If that’s the case, then don’t worry about it.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that this situation is temporary. As long as you continue to study and use the language, you will eventually get out of this level and into the next one.

The quickest way would be to study the highest frequency words first, and to do so within the context of complete sentences.

This will allow you to zip though the “individual words” phase of comprehension and get into the next part.

Level Two – Complete Phrases, But Still Not Everything

This is when things become really exciting for the diligent language learner!

As you continue to get better, there will be these moments of Total Comprehension that will make you feel amazing!

Usually it’s when you are watching a show or reading a book in the target language, and you come across one part where a character says something and you just get it.

Not only do you know all of the individual words, but you also know how they work with each other in the complete sentence for an overall meaning.

Now, you may or may not know what the people were saying right before or after this “golden phrase” that you understood, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that you are now above the level of individual words, and are now at the sentence level of the language, which is where all native materials and people are at as well.

These moments of Total Clarity are like a shot in the arm of motivation and exhilaration for anyone and everyone who has been struggling with the language for some time, wondering if they can really do it.

Just like with Level One, where the more words you learned the better you got, at Level Two the game switches slightly in that you try to consume as many sentences as you can in order to get better at understanding, what else, more full sentences.

At this point, you are generally considered to be at an intermediate level with the language, and could be pretty close to breaking through to that fluency-level comprehension!

Level Three – You Understand 95% of What You Read and Hear

As long as you never give up on learning the language, and you continue to improve your study methods based off of what is working, you will eventually arrive at the point where you understand nearly everything.

This is the point where you can really start using the language itself to learn new words from the way that they are used in context.

In other words, this is the exact opposite of Level One!

Instead of only understanding a word here and there, you know all the words in a full sentence except for a single word that pops up!

Once you’ve reached this point in the game, you will most likely have all of the high frequency words down by heart and the only new ones that you see now are the more obscure ones that you encounter once a week or a month.

The way to continue improving at this point is usually by reading lots of books, and novels in particular.

A good book could easily have over 100,000 words in it, and since the author is a word smith and doesn’t want to bore the reader by overusing the same words, they tend to throw in some that you don’t hear all that often in everyday speech.

Usually when a person reaches this point, they stop spending so much time “studying” the language, and instead they simple use it for enjoyment or communication or whatever.

But that doesn’t mean that the learning stops, just that it takes on a new role. At this point, you begin to learn how to use a lot of new words, without necessarily knowing the definitions of the words.

This is especially true for your native language, and will also be for your target language at some point in time.

As a final note, this is where most adults are at with their native language. So this is actually the final goal for the language learner as well.

But is there another level above this?

Level Four – Theoretically, You Understand Everything

I don’t include Level Four in the “Three Levels of Comprehension” for one simple reason: No one has achieved it!

Now, I haven’t researched this so if you can prove me wrong, please feel free to do so, but when we look at the basic data we see a few things:

  • Native adults know 20,000 – 35,000 words.
  • There are over 170,000 words (in English, for example).

From this we can see that, even a person who has lived their entire lives immersed in a single language only knows about 12-20% of the words that their mother tongue comprises of.

This fact gets compounded since older words are marked obsolete, and new words are created all the time!

Not only that, but also words which previously had only a single meaning can gain a new unexpected meaning at any time!

Language is alive! It is constantly in a flux of birth, growth, and death.

The point I’m trying to make is that, you will probably never learn 100% of the words in any language, so Level Four doesn’t really exist.

It’s just a thought experiment.

I mean, even if you did learn all of those words, most other people do not know them, so you wouldn’t really be able to use them for communication anyway.

How to Test Your Level of Comprehension

Now we get to the final part of this lesson, and it’s actually a rather easy one to implement.

Pick up a book or put on a show in the target language that is aimed at entertainment for natives of the language, and see how much you understand.

That’s it.

This is really the only true test to see how well you understand the language since it’s how it happens in real life.

It’s pretty random, and unforgiving. But that’s the way your first language was when you were learning it, so you just have to accept it.

But there are better ways to go about it so that you don’t feel too overwhelmed or discouraged during Levels One and Two in the process.

I would recommend that you start with something that is aimed at children. This is fitting since your level with the target language is also that of a child’s.

Then I would read or watch it all the way through without stopping or looking up any words.

You want a real life test to see where you’re at.

Go ahead and take some notes once you’re finished like, “I understood about 20% of the words” or anything that you feel is pertinent to how well you did.

Then set that book or show aside for one month while you go back to your core study methods for the language.

After the month, test yourself again with the same thing, and after writing down how well you did, compare it to the previous time!

This is very important for two reasons:

  1. It will motivate you to continue when you see progress.
  2. It will let you know how effective your study method is.

If your comprehension improved from the last time, then what you’re doing to learn the language is working!

But if not, then it may be time to consider finding another way to study.

But regardless of the outcome, it’s a nice way to get some unbiased feedback concerning how well you can understand the language at any time in your journey.

What do you guys think?

How would you rate yourself on the Three Levels of Comprehension?

What methods do you use to test your own progress with the target language?


  • Daniel

    I think using books and movies meant for Japanese people is a pretty good way to test your abilities.

    One of the main problems with things like the JLPT is that people think that all you have to do is pass that particular test, and then you’re fluent.

    But it doesn’t really work out that way.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I guess you could say that passing the JLPT is a good way to get those credentials and greater access to employment in Japan, but if your goal is to attain fluency or mastery with Japanese then you’ll have to go further with your studies.

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