Is the classroom context killing comprehensible input-based language teaching?

classroom-1910012_1920It wasn’t long after I began to look into how we can learn new languages to very high levels of ability that I learned about comprehensible input.

The notion that we learn languages and become fluent not by studying and practicing words and rules, but through exposure to them in ways that we understand what is said, revolutionized my thinking.

A further revelation was discovering the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which suggests that through comprehensible input alone, even adults can effortlessly approach native-like levels in new languages, provided that the input sufficiently precedes conscious output and study.

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AUA Thai Program alumni create comprehensible input for beginners

In many of my posts I have lamented the lack of comprehensible input for language learners, whether it be in the form of classes or other resources.

In my last post, I observed that while academics today generally agree that comprehensible input is very important to language acquisition, more comprehensible input exists today mainly by accident—because technology has made so much foreign language media easily available.

However most of this media, like TV shows and movies, is aimed at native speakers and so is not very comprehensible for beginners to efficiently pick up language from.

Even though media is so easy to create and distribute today, there isn’t a comparable effort to create good comprehensible input for beginner and intermediate learners that doesn’t require study or translation.

In this post I want to take a more positive focus and highlight some work that people have been doing to create this kind of input.

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Where is all the comprehensible input?

It’s been well over 30 years since linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen popularized the notion of comprehensible input as the basis for language acquisition.

According to Krashen, even as adults we become fluent in new languages not by studying and practicing words and rules, but by gaining exposure to language in ways that make it understandable to us.

You can see Krashen demonstrating comprehensible input in a 1983 BBC documentary where he’s shown giving an audience two brief German lessons.

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Audio description of TV and movies: a great source of comprehensible input for language learners

A potential goldmine of content might be just the press of a button away if you’re a language learner who wants to pick up a language through watching and listening.

Audio description, also known as described video, video description, or visual description, adds a narrator’s description of precisely what’s happening on the screen to a program’s soundtrack.

Various logos for audio description and described video

Audio description is primarily intended to benefit people who are blind or visually impaired by making the visual content accessible to them through hearing.

What appears to be overlooked is its tremendous value as a tool for language acquisition.

By providing a great source of comprehensible input—language made understandable through context—audio description also makes the target language more accessible to language learners.

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My experiences using Crosstalk to learn Thai

In my previous post I detailed my experiences learning Mandarin Chinese using Crosstalk, a method where each person speaks their own language using non-verbal tools as needed to communicate.

Crosstalk provides a way to implement the Automatic Language Growth approach, which theorizes that adults can learn languages as well and as easily as children if they pick them up like children, through understandable experiences without study or practice, and letting speaking emerge on its own.

This suggests that adult speakers of different languages could use Crosstalk to communicate, gradually gain understanding of each other’s language, and with this, have the basis to go on and approach native-like fluency in their new languages.

While most of my experience with Crosstalk has been with Mandarin, I also have some experience with Crosstalk as part of learning the Thai language.

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My experiences using Crosstalk to learn Mandarin Chinese

Crosstalk is a term for multilingual communication where each person speaks their own language, using non-verbal tools as needed to make themselves understood.

It can be used to implement the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning, which theorizes that adults can learn languages as well and as effortlessly as children do if they learn them like children—by picking them up through experience instead of study, and listening and understanding before speaking much.

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, found the adult propensity to try to speak a new language before having a sufficient foundation of listening experience to be responsible for many of the problems adult language learners face, such as pronunciation difficulties and “broken” grammar.

Seeing the pressure his students faced to speak from early on, Brown developed Crosstalk as a way for them to gain more listening experience and communicate with speakers of the target language without having to speak it themselves.

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Looking back and forward: One year of posts on Beyond Language Learning

I started this blog at the beginning of last year with the opinion based on my research and experiences that given the right kind of opportunities, adults might be able to effortlessly learn languages to very high or even native-like levels of ability.

I wrote that these learning opportunities could involve having a lot of fun and gaining other things at the same time, something I further envision in another post describing the possibilities of optimal language learning experiences.

The ALG approach

In many posts over this past year I have focused on the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning, which I introduced early on as something that has greatly influenced my thinking in this area.

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