As a non-native English speaker I've recently noticed that I have the ability to grok the meaning of certain words thanks to the context and expectations of what is going to be said.

The use of the term "grok" is intentional, as it is fairly grokkable by itself. The meanings I'm trying to convey with it are:

  1. (transitive, slang) to understand (something) intuitively
  2. to know (something) without having to think intellectually (such as knowing the number of objects in a collection without needing to count them: see subitize).

This is also how I recall learning my native language and thus I consider it to be a important part of language learning.

What I'm interested in is to know what knowledge would be required in order to be able to instantly understand new words, grammar structures and so forth. Should I expect this to happen at all stages of learning in different degrees or is this just more prevalent at high levels of understanding? Is there some area of study I can prioritize to take advantage of this phenomenon?

Also (although this may be a matter for another question) I would like to know up until which point can I be confident in that I got the right understanding.

  • 5
    This depends on context. If you're standing in a crowded building, and someone yells "ਅੱਗ" while pointing at some flames, then runs away screaming, it doesn't take much knowledge of Punjabi "grock" the meaning. On the other hand, if you hear the same word in a news report later that evening "ਅੱਜ ਉੱਥੇ ਇੱਕ ਭੀੜ ਇਮਾਰਤ ਵਿਚ ਅੱਗ ਸੀ." the meaning will probably be lost on you. So I don't think "at what point in learning" has anything to do with it. Rather, it's entirely contextual.
    – Flimzy
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 11:44
  • @Flimzy that is a great point. You might want to add that as an answer.
    – fi12
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 14:46
  • "I have the ability to grok the meaning of certain words" and "This is also how I recall learning my native language" actual examples of your experience would be helpful.
    – user3169
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 18:06
  • Intuition/empathy and language are different things. The primary purpose of language is for when intuition/empathy don't work.
    – user3169
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 18:08
  • @Flimzy Oh, that's so true. So to answer my question it would be something like "enough to understand the context", wouldn't it? Should I change the question to focus on the "how can I take advantage of that" part or is something so random that taking advantage of it wouldn't be feasible?
    – Very
    Commented Jun 1, 2016 at 13:50

2 Answers 2


To add to what others have said, there really are too many factors that can work together to allow one to figure out the definition of a word, many of which are not directly related to proficiency.

It can depend on how many of the others words you know. If you read a sentence where a single word is unknown, you obviously have an advantage to if you only know half of the words. For example, in English, if I give you the sentence: "the small ___ barked at the cat", then it is reasonable to guess that the blank should be "dog", because the verb "bark" is only commonly used with dogs.

It can also depend on how much you already know about a given topic. If you have extensive knowledge about cooking, and are watching a cooking show in a foreign language, you will have an advantage to someone who knows little about cooking. In topics with highly specialized terms, like science or mathematics, having previous knowledge may be essential to determining the meaning. For example, even a native speaker of English will likely not be able to determine the meaning of the sentence "lung adenocarcinoma distally rewires hepatic circadian homeostasis" without an already existing knowledge of common biological and medical terms.

It can depend on how similar a foreign language is to a native language. For example, if one's native language is from the Germanic family, then the word "wasser" (water) in German is likely easier to understand than the word "mizu" in Japanese.

Lastly, it can depend on the specific language you are learning. If the unknown word is derived from other words you already know, then it will obviously be easier to determine its meaning. The more a language does this, the easier it will be to learn new words without looking them up. In Esperanto, if you know the word "bona" (good) and some basic grammar, then the meaning of the verb "plibonigi" (to improve) will be obvious, even if you never heard the word before. Sometimes, the way a language is written can help also. In Japanese, if you know that the character 神 (kami) means "god" or "divine" and the character 学 (gaku) means "learning" or "study", then it may be easy to determine when reading that 神学 (shingaku) means "theology", or "the study of god", even if you never seen that word before.

All of this can also be further complicated by the use of idioms. For example, it is likely impossible to determine the meaning of the English phrase "kick the bucket" (to die) without looking it up or being exposed to it a number of times.

The best way to be certain you are properly understanding a language is to learn as much as you can. The more you know, the more will become clear. However, it is impossible to say how much you will need to know. It could take 1 month or several years before you are confortable, depending on the language and on your previous knowledge.


It really depends on the person.

Some learn early and catch on very fast and others might learn a bit slower. It all depends on how you learn and how fast you learn. There is really no stages in learning other than you developing more and more each day and your fluency slowly creeping upwards. To understand grammar and new words quickly, you need a lot of basic information to base of on to quickly understand the new concepts. Of course as said before, some learn slower than others so there is no stage or level you need to be in to grok new words and concepts.

Fast learners learn faster than slow learners, who learn slower. The more proficient you are in the language, the easier it becomes to understand the new concepts. Now it all comes down to how much more proficient you get per day/week/month etc.

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