The Secret to Language Learning: Comprehensible Input

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.

**GASP**

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.

girl listening to headphones
Get that comprehensible input

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!

person reading at the beach
Read your way to comprehensible input

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.

Did Science Just Tell Adult Language Learners to Give Up?

Massive Study from MIT About Second Language Acquisition Defines Critical Period

This study, from MIT has gotten a great deal of attention in the past week and a half. It suggests that there is a critical period for people to start learning a second language. Based on data from close to 700,000 English speakers, the study showed that people need to start leaning the language before age 10 to achieve native-like proficiency. This study spawned lots of articles across the web. Some of those articles took a optimistic approach to the results and some felt the study indicated that language learning is nearly impossible past a certain age.

The more optimistic headlines include these:

Ability to Learn Languages Stays Strong Until Late Teens, Study Finds (Education Week)

The Window for Learning a Language May Stay Open Surprisingly Long (Sciencenews.org)

The more pessimistic headlines include these:

To Master a Language, Start it Early (The Economist)

Want to Learn a New Language Fluently? Start Before Age 10, Study Finds (The Telegraph)

Why it is Hard to Learn Another Language After Childhood (Time)

The Difference Between Fluent and Native-Like

While this study looked at the ability of people to learn English at different stages of life, there are implications for all language learning. Should students give up on learning Mandarin Chinese if they are older than age ten? Is there reason for this pessimism?

People can learn a second (or third) language at any age. A great response to the gloomier headlines is here. The author of this response, linguistics professor Monika Schmid, points out that the MIT study is about achieving native-like ability in a second language. The study never even mentions fluency. There are many, many people in the world who speak a second language fluently, but without a native-like ability. As I write this, I am sitting across the table from my husband. English is his second language. He teaches in English. He writes articles in English. Additionally, he uses English in meetings. No native English speaker, after having a conversation with his in English, would assume he grew up in America. And yet he has the high degree of fluency that is necessary for the life he leads in this country.

Adult Students Should Not Give Up on their Language Goals

The pessimistic headlines about language learning ability, and more importantly the articles, miss a key point. Native-like ability is not the same as fluency. So what if a person does not “pass” as a native-speaker? As long as a person achieves the fluency necessary to do what she wants to do, that is enough. Some students might want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to travel. Some students may want to learn Mandarin Chinese for business. Still others may want to bond with family members. All of these students may require different levels of language ability (and literacy). They do not need to seem native-like. Their goals are absolutely achievable.

It is far from impossible to learn a second language past the age of ten. Anyone can do it. The MIT study did not cover language teaching methods at all. With the right input (from a teacher), any student can learn a new language. Students can also learn at any age. They might not achieve native-like ability, but who cares? The goal should be a desired level of fluency, not anything else.

If you are any age, and wish to learn Mandarin Chinese, use the contact form to get in touch.

photo of the word possible with im crossed out
You Can Learn Mandarin Chinese At Any Age

Acquiring Measure Words

What Are Measure Words?

The other day I got an email with a link to a resource promising to help students learn the 115 most common measure words. Measure words are a feature of the Chinese language. Each noun in Chinese has a measure word that is used between it and a number. For example, in the phrase 三只狗 (three dogs) the character 只 is the measure word. Each noun will have at least one. Some students, especially adults who have limited time in their schedules for language learning like to look at charts that describe grammar. There is very little evidence, however, that looking at a resource like a chart will help a student acquire a second language. While adults may like an orderly description of a language, children, especially young ones, do not like to sit still and read about grammar.

Will A List Help?

Measure words are usually described as one of those tricky things to learn in Chinese. We do not really have them in English. In English, we say “a pair of scissors” or a “cup of water,” but measure words are much more extensive in Chinese. So if looking at a list of measure words*, does not help a student acquire measure words, then what does?

How Should Students Learn Measure Words?

Students will acquire the correct measure words if they hear them repeatedly. As stated above, looking at a chart of measure words is not the best use of learning time. Instead, if students hear a noun paired with a measure word over and over, they will retain that pair. Young children will not sit down and study a chart, but they will listen to a story. The measure word for hat is 顶. The pairing of 帽子 (hat) and 顶 shows up in the classic story Caps for Sale. There are hats in over 20 illustrations in the book. If a teacher reads the story to her students and counts the hats in the pictures the students will hear #顶帽子 over and over. Eventually, that pair will sink in for the students. They will have learned that the measure words for hats is 顶 without sitting down to explicitly learn that the hat measure word is 顶.

picture of Chinese version of Caps for Sale
Students will acquire correct measure words if they get enough input in context

*To be fair, there is a logic to them. For example, objects with a large, flat surface usually take the measure word 张

Comprehensible Input and Family (a special Thanksgiving post)

Is It Harder to Learn a Language from a Relative?

It is Thanksgiving week here in the US and in honor of family I am taking a break from writing about Chinese and second language learning to write about Spanish! Over the years, I have had many students with Chinese-speaking family members, usually a spouse, parent or grandparent. Often we joke about how the student should just learn for free at home, but the chuckles we share are usually punctuated with the same refrain: “my parent/spouse/grandparent just can’t teach me or I can’t learn from him/her.” We joke that it should be as simple as being in the same household as someone who speaks another language, but it really is just a joke because language learning is much more complex than that.

A Struggle With Spanish

I have my own jokes too, about how I could learn Chinese while living in China but I can’t seem to learn Spanish living under the same roof as my Mexican husband. I never quite believed that my brain was uniquely incapable of learning Spanish, or that my ordinarily very competent husband could not teach basic Spanish. But as our lives chugged on, I learned a few phrases but never felt like I made any progress in speaking more Spanish at home. Then something happened, and by this I mean that my nephew Luka came to stay with us for the summer from Mexico. Towards the end of the visit, I noticed myself speaking and understanding more Spanish. Either Luka had brought the magical fairy dust from Mexico that helps people learn Spanish or something else afoot. Turns out, second language acquisition theory tells us exactly what was going on.

Getting Comprehensible Input in Spanish

When Luka was living with us, I got loads more comprehensible input in Spanish. When it is just me and my husband at home, we talk about the things that married people tend to talk about, city council elections, renovating the kitchen, problems at work (only my husband has those ;)). These topics are really difficult to tackle in Spanish for someone with only a novice level of the language. They are abstract, use specialized vocabulary, and need a great deal of nuance. In Spanish, they are very much beyond frustration level for me.

With Luka in our house, however, the Spanish input I received changed. Before, it was either the same two responses to “tienes hambre?” (are you hungry) or a phrase that was too far beyond my level for me to understand anything. My husband talked to Luka about what he wanted for breakfast, chores he needed to do, the movies we watched as a family. All of these topics were very concrete, repetitive. There are only so many things a boy will eat for lunch. All of these things were comprehensible for me. Additionally, with two people speaking Spanish in front of me, I got twice the amount of input in Spanish than I received before. Really it was more like ten times the amount of Spanish because before. In the past, I only heard more than basic responses when my husband was on the phone.

photo of me and my nephew
My nephew Luka and I at my wedding

In Language, More is More

It has been several months since Luka left and my Spanish is coming along. This is the cool thing about language, more creates more. This was the shot in the arm I needed, hearing everyday conversation between two people. With this, I was able to build more of the implicit structure of the language in my head. Because I can understand more, I can say more. Since I can say more, my husband responds more (in Spanish). The other day we had a…. lively debate… about who had more shoes, all in Spanish! It was not the scintillating discussion that great relationships are made of, but it was an improvement over ““tienes hambre?”

Language-learning Glossary (especially for parents)

There are many terms used in this blog that relate to language-learning which might not be familiar to parents of students, or adults who are thinking about taking up learning Chinese. In alphabetical order, below is a glossary of definitions that might be helpful:

bilingual education= Classes in which content is taught in two languages. Bilingual education is generally designed for English language learners.

comprehensible input= Language that can be understood by the listener, although the listener may not be 100% familiar with all vocabulary and structures used in it.

dual-language= This term is used most often by public schools to describe programs in which content and literacy is taught in two languages. In the US, this means English and a target language such as Spanish, Chinese, or French. Students usually start with receiving 90% of instruction in the target language. This percentage is lowered as students progress through the grade levels.

FLES (foreign language in elementary schools)= An umbrella terms for programs for children who are in elementary school. There is a great deal of variation in FLES programs, some may have class for only an hour a week.

immersion= Immersion is often used synonymously with dual-language. The goal of an immersion program is proficiency in a target language, such as Chinese, Spanish or French.

legacy methods= These include using verb charts, teaching lists of vocabulary, doing fill-in-the-blank activities, etc. Legacy methods tend to teach students about a language (i.e. describing the grammar) at the expense of helping them become proficient in the target language.

output= Output is the language that the students produce.

proficiency= This is a high degree of ability in a language. Proficiency can be tested, while we tend to think of fluency as something more subjective.

SLA (second-language acquisition)= The process by which learners acquire a second language. Remember that humans have been acquiring second (and more) languages since before we had schools.

tasks= Tasks are more than just activities to do during class. Tasks have a purpose and always include an outcome that is not language. Tasks may include: filling in a chart, creating a list of interview questions, drawing something, making an oral report, creating a survey, etc.

two-way immersion= Two-way immersion is a for of dual-language education. In a TWI class in the US, there are roughly equal numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of another language such as Spanish.