I am Chinese, and my native language is not English. I have learned the syntax of English, and I can analyze and understand a sentence in reading. However, this is not the case during listening.
Listening is much harder than reading for me. During reading, I can parse a sentence over and over again, building the syntax tree in mind, which is almost impossible for me during the streaming process of listening when facing complex structures. I notice that native speakers can easily use subordinate clauses with a relatively fast pace of speaking and others can still understand. How do they just make this happen? I mean that subordinate clauses make the structure of a sentence a tree rather than linear. For me, it takes too much time to understand such a complex one to catch the next sentence.
Sometimes I can find a way to understand it. Let us take the sentence "Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm based on the concept of "objects" which can contain data and code" for an example. I know that the correct structure is
(Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm (based on the concept of "objects" (which can contain data and code))).
But when I have received "Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm", I get the main idea. Then when I hear "based", I know that the following part is to describe the "programming paradigm". When I am receiving the subordinate clause, what I keep in mind is not the whole parent level clause but just the head noun like "(programming paradigm) based on the concept of 'objects'" and "('objects') which can contain data and code". As a result, what I am parsing as during listening is instead
(Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm) (based on the concept of "objects") (which can contain data and code).
As you can see, I parse this sentence which is actually a 3-layer clause into a sequence of 3 single-level clauses. This way enables me to focus on the current clause, but I still need to struggle to remember the main idea. If there were more levels of nested subordinate clauses, my brain would explode. In that case, when I was in the innermost subordinate clause, I would totally forget what kind of information the main clause conveys. I don't think human brains have the ability to remember the whole complex sentence and then parse it in oral English. However, native speakers can speak super fast. So I wonder how they handle this. My specific questions are:
- Do they just grasp the main idea in the main clause or understand the whole including all details in the subordinate ones?
- When they are receiving a subordinate one, how can they avoid getting lost? How do they maintain the macrostructure of the sentence?
- To the above question, I guess that native speakers do not maintain the whole syntax tree in mind. When they append a subordinate clause, they assume that the receivers have got the main idea. They just want to add more details to the previous noun and the process of appending subordinate clauses sequentially seems random and can continue forever . This process is actually creating deeper and deeper nested structure, and in practice the speaker constructs it in a linear way, just appending. Is my guess correct?
When subordinate clauses are applied to subjects rather than objects, things get more complicated because the linearization illustrated above won't work. Like "Tens of thousands who refuse to get vaccinated are likely to face charges by ...", when we finish describing the subject, we need to return back to the main clause to use the correct inflectional form of the verb "are". In this case, It seems that we need to remember the trace of subjects from root level. I know only computers are good at it. However, I always hear this type of complex sentences from TV news streams. Normal native speakers may not speak as fluently as news anchors, but they can understand it! My question is
- How can native speakers still use the correct inflection of a verb for the current clause after diving into a long or even nested subordinate clause?
I admit that practice makes perfect. But I can hardly catch up with anchors in news after a long time. If I used the way of first parsing a sentence into a syntax tree then understanding it, I would miss tens of sentences for just one. Some tell me that they think little about syntax when speaking, but I don't grow up in an English environment so my brain is not built that way. I need the "software" way to know how it works. What is a systematic and logical way to understand complex oral English? Shortcuts or tricks are fine!