A couple questions from adult students inspired this post. It is about comprehensible input, language learning, and where to get comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese, especially for beginner students.
Q: Is it helpful to listen to a lot of Mandarin, even if you don’t understand it? Should I listen to talk radio in Mandarin as a beginner student?
A: Lots of students think that it might help them learn Mandarin Chinese if they just listen to a lot of the language. They are probably hoping that language learning happens the way it does for Bart Simpson. He is immersed in French in one episode of the Simpsons and then suddenly starts speaking French (he speaks French at about the 2 minute mark). Language learning does not really work this way. Listening to large amounts of language that you do not understand is not effective. Students need to understand what they heard in order to learn a language.
This is what we call comprehensible input, language that students understand. The comprehension hypothesis states that students acquire language when they understand what they hear and read. If students do not understand what they hear and read, they will never get any meaningful language acquisition from it. This is why listening to the radio in Chinese (or a podcast, or a book on tape) as beginner student is not helpful. It will just be blah, blah, blah in the student’s ear. Stephen Krashen is the most famous researcher of comprehensible input. More information on comprehensible input is available on his website.
Q: Okay, so if I need comprehensible input to learn Mandarin, where can I get it?
A: Good comprehensible input can be tough to find! Authentic materials (i.e. readings meant for native speakers) are very trendy in language education right now. They are often too difficult for beginner students, however. They are not comprehensible.
There are several posts on this blog that can point students towards good input in Chinese for beginners. Each individual student will have to poke around and see what works best for his or her level.
Remember that comprehensible input is relative to the individual. A book that is comprehensible to one student may not work for another. The important thing is to spend time listening and reading language you can understand. Do not waste time listening to language that is too difficult. It is just blah, blah, blah and will not help you learn the language.