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alike; having common qualities; comparable
similar
intricate
equal
separate
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ESL Story: The language of understanding

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It's a very pleasurable sensation to be able to understand lengthy comments addressed to you in a foreign language that you have been at great pains to master over a long period of time. But it's a frustrating experience not to know the expressions in English that indicate that you do understand what is being said or alternatively not to know what you should say when you have lost the thread of the speaker's argument.

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A few mumbled sounds of comprehension along the lines of mm, mm, mhm – mhm or the occasional inspired aha together with the doubtful em - em, well none of these offers any real personal satisfaction. In an attempt to fill in a little of this knowledge gap I want to suggest some expressions available in English to show understanding or lack of it together with the situations in which they might be used.

The most commonly used one is I see. We say this when someone is explaining what he is doing or how he has come to be in a certain predicament: The reason why I'm standing waiting for the bus this morning is because the car wouldn't work – and you remark – Oh, I see. Or alternatively: The reason why I'm pushing the car this morning is because I couldn't find my wallet – to which you could well reply – I don't see what you mean. When the speaker is telling you a story and recounting the incidents step by step, a suitable rejoinder would be I follow. I heard a knock so I went to the front door to see who it was and I saw this man with his face bleeding. Well, naturally I thought he'd had an accident. – You show your agreement by adding – I follow or conversely – I'm sorry I don't quite follow. Expressing agreement with as well as support for the speaker is I'm with you and the negative idea I'm not quite with you or I'm not with you at all. When you're being corrected or being told off in a gentle manner, you can show your compliance with I've got the message. Now you probably know this already but I want to make it quite clear that if it's at all possible you must look in the driving mirror before you slam on the brakes – assuring the driving instructor you won't do it again you maintain – Yes, that's all right I've got the message, don't worry. The negative idea is usually used for second and third persons. Thus the instructor is wondering whether he has made his point: I have a feeling he hasn't quite got the message. A more forceful expression along the same lines and one that's survived decimalisation is: The penny's dropped with the negative: The penny hasn't dropped yet. Invariably we use this when we want to convince the speaker that we've understood something that is perhaps rather complicated. The whole point of the joke lies in the pun on the word 'lift' which can mean 'raise' and in a slang sense 'steal', do you see it now? Well, if you do see a joke after it has been explained, then is the time to say: Yes, yes the penny's dropped now. When someone is explaining a manual skill, for example, an assurance that you've mastered the skill is shown by saying: I've got the idea. And the negative notion by: I haven't got the hang of it yet. Now you hold the stick like this and adopt a crouching position before you strike the ball. Should this movement come easily to you, then you tell your coach: Yes, I think I've got the idea now.

Mind you there are occasions when you can't say precisely one way or the other whether you have actually understood an explanation that has been given. For situations like these we use: I've got the general drift. To the question: And what did you make of the Professor's two-hour discourse on Applied Linguistics? you could well reply: Well, I won't say I understood all of it but at least I got the general drift. Two more expressions that are mainly used in the negative or interrogative: I don't see what you're getting at/driving at or What are you getting at/driving at? convey failure to understand as well as a certain irritation. When the speaker is being hesitant and is not coming to the point as in: We come next to the question of remuneration. Well - er as you may know we're not a wealthy organisation and so – you could justifiably interrupt with a: What exactly are you driving at?

And finally there are those few precious times when you understand every single point in a speaker's argument. For such situations when you see, you follow, you're with the speaker, you get the message, the penny drops and you get the idea then you can proudly announce: Yes, that's as clear as daylight. On the other hand when you are completely lost, and here's hoping you won't feel like using it now, you can answer the question: Do you understand what I'm saying? With these words spoken with appropriate sarcasm: Oh yes thank you it's all as clear as mud.

Dear Friend,
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: The language of understanding.

Many thanks.

If you have any English grammar or vocabulary questions,
please post them on this English Grammar Forum.


Next:ESL Story: The language of ups and downs

Author: Alan Townend




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