Proposition: A small child knows language, but does not understand language. The child knows language the way an animal knows its way around the forest, the way you know how to walk or run. The learning is both deep and shallow—because these words are metaphors and depend on the perspective of the observer on the phenomenon not the phenomenon itself. The child knows how to use words the way it knows how to move its arms and practices, regularizing situations via repeating the sounds (we could at this point call them sounds rather than words) that get uttered in this situation. “Now we use the soap.” “Now we open the door.” “Now we say goodnight.” The child goes through a well documented phase in which it uses irregular verbs correctly and then a phase when it no longer uses them correctly, when “we went to the store” turns into “we goed to the store.” That’s the moment when understanding begins. The next phase is to return to correct use of irregular verbs but it’s not a return, but an advance, a sign of a yet more sophisticated understanding.
We never lose this instinctive relationship to our first language. It develops into understanding, but understanding doesn’t erase the instinctive origin and basis of our knowing. Language habits that never rise to understanding are hard to break.
As we grow older we gradually those this instinctive way of learning. It’s obvious with language, but it is true of everything we learn. We turn from “picking it up” (it could be an instrument or sport for example) to funneling it through our understanding. We learn the rules of cases and declensions and genders, we learn scales, and roots, and sevenths, and tunnel a path from understanding through the hard crust of the understanding. But we have to get there. You can’t think of what you’re doing on the soccer field. You can’t think about the right way to say, “The way your eyes reflect the sun is just wonderful.”
The goal is knowing. Understanding is not the only path.