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!

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    Start by thinking how you would tell me how to understand complex sentences in Chinese.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 7:02
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    @JamesK From my experience, Chinese has many problems in the sense of syntax. Most modifiers in Chinese are pre-head, and there is no inflection form of verb in Chinese. For instance, the counterpart of "I like the person who helps those that he is unfamiliar with." in Chinese is something like "I like the (help (he is unfamiliar with) those) person". This kind of nested structure is hard for Chinese to understand, and in fact, oral Chinese consists of simple sentences most and people tend to express a complex idea via multiple separate sentences, which is sometimes tedious and ambiguous.
    – Suxin Li
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 11:16
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    Actually I think English and Chinese are more similar to each other than (say) English and German in this regard. They are both mostly analytic, Chinese more extremely so than English. Native speakers deal with this kind of complexity without thinking about it. You have to use your slow conscious brain to do the analysis. As your experience grows you can get your fast language organ to work out the proper verb forms. There really isn't a short cut. You really just have to spend most of your life using English (as native speakers do)
    – James K
    Commented Oct 27, 2021 at 14:47
  • There are four areas in language learning: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening is a skill that must be acquired in stages. There are books and methods for that. Also, you can put on Closed Captions in movies and read them. That is one way to improve your listening skills. And generally, spoken language is very different from what is found in writing. So, all this stuff about subordinate clauses is somewhat overblown: I saw the boy who was walking down the street yesterday. Is that understable? There are two clauses.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 30, 2021 at 17:54
  • The kind of sentence you are quoting sounds like something that would only appear in a book intended for reading. Perhaps compare with actual spoken examples of people explaining such concepts (e.g. University lectures). I think you'll find that the spoken versions tend to be less elaborate. And less likely to make one's "brain explode".
    – Brandin
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 7:47

2 Answers 2


OK, here goes... I can see that you've spent a lot of time & effort on learning syntax & structural linguistics, which is great & something to be proud of :)

However, that's one particular way of analysing language (the study of language itself) which differs from using it to convey messages & developing communicative competence. Think of it as the difference between studying the parts of a car & how they work vs learning to drive the car.

Here's a quick lesson in cognitive linguistics: As you've correctly noted & others have commented on, it's not actually possible to parse syntax in the way you've described while listening to speech in real time; human working memory capacity is nowhere near enough. The cognitive processes we use to make sense of the messages contained in language, spoken & written, are many & varied. One relevant example here is "chunking", i.e. that we store, use & adapt "pre-fabricated" constructions (words, phrases & patterns). Our brains are highly sensitive to recurrent, structured, meaningful (consequential) stimuli & our brains tend to notice, process, categorise & store them as form-meaning pairings. This is why practising making meaning from the target language is a great way to develop communicative competence, i.e. connect words, phrases & patterns with meaning. The main principle is "meaning first", i.e. always have interpreting the content of the messages as your goal, linguistic analyses are only necessary to support this.

There's too much to explain here but a doctor of applied linguistics, Florencia Henshaw, has made some fabulous short, evidence-informed video presentations & critiques of typical language learning principles, strategies & techniques here: https://www.youtube.com/c/Unpackinglanguagepedagogy/playlists

Here's a more thorough review of the research to date on which language learning strategies & techniques are mostly likely to be effective (& which are likely to be counter-productive!): Boers, F. (2021) "EVALUATING SECOND LANGUAGE VOCABULARY AND GRAMMAR INSTRUCTION: A Synthesis of the Research on Teaching Words, Phrases, and Patterns"

P.S. From a meaning centred perspective on linguistics, you might also be interested in Construction Grammar. Dr Adele Goldberg has written 3 excellent books on it & you can find some video introductions to Construction Grammar in general by Dr Martin Hilpert here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKgdsSsfw-fZyiK6ahhdg4N3n4NrpdgWk

I hope this helps & good luck!


Actually, such sentences can be difficult for native speakers as well. I am not sure I understand your parsing, so let me offer my own.

(Object-oriented programming) is (a programming paradigm (based on the concept of ("objects" which can contain data and code))). In other words, I think it is meant to say:

"This type of programming involves a certain paradigm. This paradigm is based on things called objects. These objects can contain data and code."

In this case, I think the parsing is actually linear, so you don't need to track any levels. The sentence just proceeds from the general to the particular. In the original sentence, you could simply return to talking about the programming by saying something like: "It is especially useful in..." I think this is possible because it would be the subject of both sentences and so would retain a certain prominence in the mind of the listener. In my separate sentences, however, this would not be possible, and you would have to begin your next sentence by repeating the word "programming."

Your difficulty might stem from a difference between how English and Chinese speakers maintain grammatical topics in their sentences. I don't understand the full details of this in either English or Chinese; however, my intuition just tells me that using the same subject in consecutive sentences might be enough when there is a clear overall theme to what is being discussed. In this case, you are providing a definition of "object programming," so I would assume that it would remain the topic for any subsequent independent material and would tend to be the subject of the next follow-up sentences.

Another difficulty for a student of English at your apparent level might be wondering what the word "which" is connected too. Native speakers could also have this difficulty, since grammatically it could be connected to either the word "objects" or the word "paradigm."

To distinguish which word is meant, you have to look for the punctuation (especially commas), although many writers do not use commas correctly, and punctuation is not really reliable unless a professional editor is involved. In speech, you look for pauses and a marked change in the intonation, such as a temporary lowering of the voice.

Consider this rewritten sentence:

"Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm, based on the concept of 'objects,' which can contain data and code."

In this case the parsing is:

"((Object-oriented programming)) is ((a programming paradigm(, based on the concept of 'objects,') (which can contain data and code)))."

The meaning here is different from what we had before. In this case, it would be the following:

"This type of programming involves a paradigm. That paradigm contains data and code. The paradigm happens to be based on the concept of "objects," but that is not important for you to know."

In this case, the information is not linear and requires the listener to hold the first part of the sentence in your head for a brief period while the writer/speaker inserts the phrase "(, based on the concept of 'objects,')" in the middle of the thought. Such an insertion is called a parenthetical and means that it involves supplementary material. It should be marked by parentheses or one or more commas. The material is not necessary for the main point and can be ignored. It has no impact on the grammar. If you deleted it, the meaning would still be grammatically correct and unchanged, just without the additional information.

I think native English speakers parse such sentences by recognizing that because of the comma break or the break in the intonation, the writer/speaker has the option to continue the main point later in the sentence. It would be the same as if the speaker briefly had to cough and just continued the sentence from where it had been interrupted.

The parenthetical must be relatively short, or even native speakers will lose the thread of what is being said.

In either case, it is not always clear in speech what a relative clause refers to, so very complex sentences are usually reworded or supplemented to make the meaning clear.

In writing, you have to look for the commas to identify these things. In speech, there is usually a clear break in the intonation, such as a lowering of the voice for the words that are part of the parenthetical. You can also sometimes identify a difference between whether the word "which" or the word "that" is used. "That" usually requires a closer connection with a preceding word and implies that it is marking material that is essential for correct understanding. "Which" can be used in the same way, without a comma, but can also mark nonessential material.

For fun, I put your sentence into Google Translate, since I was unsure how to translate this type of sentence into Chinese. I got:


In somewhat literal English, I understand this to say: "Object-oriented programs are a kind of related-to-object-concepts programming style that contains data and code."

I think this meaning is wrong. My Chinese is not very good and certainly not up to this kind of technical language; however, I think I understand the grammar and that this translates the wrong meaning that I described earlier in this post. It incorrectly links "the data and code" to "the paradigm," rather then to "the objects."

To get the right meaning, I think you have to split up the Chinese into two sentences. If the technical terms are correctly translated, I think you would have to translate the English as:


""Object-oriented programs are a kind of related-to-object-concepts programming style. These objects can include data and code."

Analyzing the Chinese reveals one other issue about how listeners process these types of sentences. In both English and Chinese it is harder to process something that involves multiple layers of the same grammatical structure back to back. In English, the phrase "based on the concept of objects" is a participle phrase, whereas "which can contain data and code" is a relative clause. Phrases generally bind more closely to the word they modify than clause do, making the whole thing easier to process as a listener.

The sentence in question would start to become hard to process if two nested relatively clauses were used, instead of using a participle phrase and a relative clause. If I used nested relative clauses, the sentence would be: "Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm which is based on the concept of 'objects' which can contain data and code."

Since the meaning is still linear, I think I would understand such a sentence at first hearing, but would be somewhat bothered by hearing the word "which" twice, applying to two different things and to two different levels of the sentence. It would be better if one of the occurrences of "which" were replaced with "that," as in: "Object-oriented programming is a programming paradigm which is based on the concept of 'objects' that can contain data and code." Again, the word "that" tends to bind more closely than "which," making the sentence easier to process. It would be better yet to use the original sentence with the phrase and the clause.

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    Commented Nov 20, 2021 at 16:11

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