Let’s Get Right to it, What is the Secret?
It is really not that much of a secret for language learning, since there is decades of research of proof for it. But since there are so many language education programs out there who don’t seem to “get it,” we will go ahead and still call it a secret. The secret to being able to acquire a language is something called comprehensible input. What is comprehensible input, you say? There are already so many posts on this blog about it. Here, here and here, for example. I realize, however, that I have never written a standalone piece that is all about comprehensible input. We also call it CI.
Why Have I Not Heard of Comprehensible Input Before?
In short, comprehensible input is language that we hear or read that we can understand. Many students (or their parents) start from the assumption that we learn language by breaking it down into lists of vocabulary and grammar “rules.” This actually is not a very good way to learn. It is how many high school programs still teach language. They’re not very effective, are they? Ask most people what language they studied in high school and they will probably tell you that they don’t remember a word of it. To understand more about why the old grammar + vocabulary recipe usually only yields disappointing results, check here.
Finally, a Definition
Back to comprehensible input. We know it is not teaching students a grammar “rule”, handing out a sheet of words and telling students to “make a sentence.” What is it exactly then? Comprehensible input is language that the students can understand. For beginner students, this means that the language is slower, uses simple words, and also uses shorter sentences. Where does this language come from? It comes from the teacher. In a beginner language class, the teacher has to do a lot of talking.
But wait, you say, everything you have ever read about quality education for the past ten years tells you that if a teacher in the classroom does all the talking, the class is bad, bad, bad! Ah yes, student-centered learning. Of course, all teaching should be focused on outcomes for the students. If you are not there for the students, find another career. Teaching is not for you. Having said that, in a good beginner language class, the teacher needs to do most of the talking.
Where Can Students Get Comprehensible Input?
Why? The short answer is that the students don’t know any Chinese yet! The students need to hear language that they can understand in order to learn it. They can’t learn it from each other since the other students don’t speak Chinese. They have to learn it from the teacher since she is the only person in the room who knows the language. There are of course videos, songs, etc., that can also provide input to the students. The main source of input is still going to be the teacher, however. She has to do a lot of talking so that students can get the input that they need.
Don’t Look to the Other Students for CI
I know that talking about a teacher doing most of the talking, while students just listen gives a lot of education people a case of the vapors. But it true. Students can’t learn from each other in the language classroom because they DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. That is why they’re there. You simply can’t learn from someone who does not know how to do it themselves.
The teacher not only has to do most of the talking, but she also can’t just talk the way she normally would to another person who is fluent in Chinese. Nope. She has to make sure that the students can understand what she is saying. Remember the Charlie Brown teacher voice? Wah wah wah wah, wah. Yep, that is what we are trying to avoid.
So, teachers need to talk slowly to their students, using words that the students know (or can quickly get the meaning of), and using short sentences. What exactly does that look like? It can look like this. This is a Chinese teacher doing a basic picture talk example on Twitter (video). Notice all the repetition, easy to understand words, and short sentences. This is comprehensible input. It is language that the students hear and understand.
Reading is an Important Source of Comprehensible Input Too
We do not just hear language, we read it too. Reading is a major source of comprehensible input. For beginners, comprehensible input is usually not a storybook meant for native speakers. Nor is it a photo of a menu from a restaurant in China. Just like with aural/oral langue, it has simple words, short sentences, and most importantly: the students can understand it!
More Sources of Input
There are many teachers who have worked on developing great books that provide comprehensible input for beginner readers. Haiyun Lu has a whole series about kittens that I have used with beginner students. Terry Waltz has also written many chapter books that beginner students can read. Her books are available on her website.
As for aural/oral langauge, there are several ways for teachers to make sure that there students get comprehensible input. I like movie talk, which you can read more about here. Picture talk is also a great tool for getting students the input that they need. I talk more about picture talk here. Movie talk and picture talk are great ideas that several teachers who have come before me developed.
There is another way to give students the comprehensible input that they need. It is the ancient art of having a conversation. It is not easy to create a conversation between 2-15 people in a second language that most of the participants don’t speak yet. It can be done, however. It won’t look like a conversation between native speakers. That is okay. Often, in my adult classes we will talk about the siblings we have, and look for commonalities.
Why isn’t Everyone Using CI?
So if comprehensible input is the secret sauce for language learning, why are so many schools still handing out textbooks and teaching grammar “rules”? Well, it is much easier to follow a textbook than is it do create comprehensible input. In district schools, there are also lots of pesky rules that teachers need to follow. Sadly, many teachers don’t have the confidence to ditch the textbook. What’s worse, is that they might not have the level of fluency needed to come up with lessons on their own. So there we are. Comprehensible input is what the students need. Very often, however, it is not what they get in the classroom.