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.
In the first lesson, he welcomes them with a short speech in German, while in the second, he speaks simple German using many gestures to get the meaning across.
The first lesson is incomprehensible to those who don’t know any German, but in the second, even rank beginners can easily understand what he is talking about and start to recognize words he uses.
“If you understood lesson number two, I did everything necessary to teach you German,” Krashen says.
“We acquire language in only one way,” he declares. “When we understand messages.”
This, Krashen says, is comprehensible input, and it takes us to fluency in new languages though a subconscious process he calls acquisition, where our conscious attention is on meaning rather than form.
“We acquire language when we understand what people tell us, what is said,” he explains. “Not how it’s said, but what is said.”
Krashen contrasts language acquisition with language learning, which he defines as the conscious study of language, a process he says does not lead to acquisition.
While many academics dispute this sharp distinction Krashen has drawn between learning and acquisition, they widely agree that comprehensible input is very important, if not essential to language learning.
Today, the concept of comprehensible input is well-known enough in language teaching that in many places it’s practically taken for granted.
This begs the question: Where is all the comprehensible input?
The lack of comprehensible input for beginners
Krashen would probably be the first to note that his German demonstration isn’t the best example of comprehensible input.
While it’s a bit humorous and entertaining, the messages it communicates are rather trivial.
In contrast, Krashen has written that ideally, comprehensible input should be compelling—in his words, “so interesting you forget that it is in another language.”
Even so, his demonstration shows what decades later is still rare—second-language content that through non-verbal communication is understandable enough that even a beginner can pick up language from it efficiently without study or translation.
Far more comprehensible input is available to language learners today, but this is mainly by accident: advances in technology and media have made massive amounts of audiovisual content in many languages available at the touch of a button.
However, much of this content, such as TV shows and movies, is directed at native speakers, so it’s most useful to learners who are already at higher levels of ability.
Despite the advances that have made it so easy to make and distribute media, there hasn’t been a comparable effort to create massive amounts of the sort of input that Krashen demonstrated, which is much more useful to beginning learners.
Also, while there is probably more comprehensible input-based teaching today, much of this teaching seems to be confined to relatively few public schools.
What’s more, methods in use such as TPRS often rely on explicit tools like translation to make the language understandable, instead of the non-verbal communication that Krashen used.
My search for compelling comprehensible input
The sort of comprehensible input that Krashen demonstrated appears to be so rare that I had to go halfway around the world to find it in abundance.
The ALG approach says that given enough comprehensible input, language will effortlessly emerge on its own, and if adults follow this childlike approach of learning to speak without study or practice, they can reach the same native-like levels of ability that children do.
Since 1984, the AUA Thai Program has been mostly alone in providing classes where even a beginner can pick up a language just by watching and listening without the need for study, translation, or practice.
The teachers speak Thai and make this input comprehensible through non-verbal communication and context as they tell stories, have discussions, make jokes, and play games.
Why is it that there are so few opportunities for comprehensible input like this, either in the form of classes or in the form of media?
This is something I have long wondered about and I will offer a few guesses here as to reasons why:
- The communicative approach appears to be much more widely used than comprehension-based approaches today and has taken up many of Krashen’s ideas. It focuses on communicating meaning over explicit study of grammar and language. Comprehensible input is seen as being created through interaction with the instructor and between students, so perhaps little need is seen for creating further opportunities for comprehensible input.
- Many of the creators of media for language learning and media in general appear to be unaware of or uninterested in comprehensible input. They have no idea how they could make content that’s both interesting and understandable to beginners.
- Many things are researched and then taught in educational training but then do not find their way into consistent practice in teaching, and this may apply to comprehensible input as well.
But perhaps the strongest reason is that most language learners today get to the point of understanding a lot of what they hear in their second language as a result of some combination of study, classes, immersion, and speaking with people who will adjust to their level.
People succeed enough with these approaches that the demand isn’t realized for something different: comprehensible input that is in itself both highly understandable and interesting for beginners in a language.
The future of comprehensible input
I would suggest that were this kind of comprehensible input available, these learners who have succeeded would have had better ways to get to where they are today and beyond, and those who have failed or not even begun would have much better chances at success.
To me the big advantage of this kind of comprehensible input is that if we can subconsciously pick up language while focusing on meaning, we can do many other things while still acquiring language, from gaining new knowledge and skills to just relaxing and being entertained.
Furthermore, if ALG theory is accurate and it’s conscious study and practice of language, not a loss of childhood ability, that keeps adults from becoming native-like in second languages, this kind of comprehensible input might give adults a path to routinely achieve higher levels of fluency than we see them achieve today.
The compelling comprehensible input that’s available today for beginners is barely a start compared to what’s possible in terms of quality and quantity.
I think in the near future, we will see the creation of massive amounts of this kind of comprehensible input and a wide range of opportunities for this kind of input.
In coming posts, I will look at ways to find and create comprehensible input for beginners and how this kind of content is being created today.