FuzzyLaw Mini-article

4 Dec 2014

I understand it but I can't explain it!

By Mai Barry

I feel that there is a significant gap between one's understanding and one's ability to explain. In other words, in many cases we may underestimate people's understanding of a terminology or a situation if we only judge it on their explanation (or in particular, their response to our “explain in your own words” request).

As someone who learned English as a second language, I find that my reading/listening vocabulary is significantly larger than my speaking/writing reserves. For example I may not necessarily use adjectives such as “recalcitrant” or “cantankerous” in my spoken English. I have found this to be a common experience within non native English speakers. Arguably the gap between understanding and ability to explain is not exclusive to non native speakers. How many times do we encounter someone saying “I can't explain it but you know what I mean” ?

I spent a year working as a discrimination caseworker for a pan equality organisation. I helped clients put together statements that detailed the event and described how they felt about the alleged discrimination. More often than not, I found myself trying different ways to phrase things so the client can then tell me whether that would be a fair description of how they feel. I often asked “Would you say XYZ make you feel ABC?” My clients often struggle with describing their emotions for many reasons. First they tended to get quite emotional, which could affect their fluency. Secondly many of my clients did not speak English as a first language. Finally there seemed to be some sort of combined effect as clients tended to be even more upset when they struggled with finding the words.

Therefore, I think it is important to recognise between understanding and the ability to explain something. You can only explain something if you understand it. However going the other way may be difficult. In other words, just because you cannot explain a concept (very well) it does not follow that you do not understand it (equally).

I wonder if this gap varies between people with different educational backgrounds and if so by how much. Being aware that the gap exists can be beneficial when we evaluate people's understanding of a certain subject (as opposed to evaluating their ability to explain that subject).

Information about the author: Mai Barry is an experienced interpreter and translator working in Vietnamese and English. She has an academic background in Economics and International Political Economy and experience as a race descrimination case worker, in higher education and the public sector and as a contributor to www.soi.com.vn - Vietnam's leading website on visual arts. Mai is registered as an interpreter with the Wales Interpretation and Translation Service: Gwasanaeth Dehongli a Chyfieithu Cymru.


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