It 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.
This led me to first try learning Mandarin through comprehensible input without study or translation, using TV, videos, and ALG’s Crosstalk technique, speaking English with tutors who spoke Mandarin to me.
Eventually, I went to Bangkok, Thailand to acquire Thai in the AUA Thai Program, where ALG has mainly been put into practice.
At this school, teachers create thousands of hours of comprehensible input every year with stories, jokes, demonstrations, and games, using non-verbal communication so that even complete beginners can pick up the language just by watching and listening.
My experiences have given me a glimpse at how much is possible with comprehensible input alone as a way of learning a language.
Unfortunately, this approach of picking up a language from scratch without study can be very difficult to implement today.
I think the main difficulty is the lack of comprehensible input that’s available to adults who are beginners in a language.
ALG’s approach to comprehensible input focuses not merely on understanding messages but, as much as possible, creating highly memorable, understandable real-life experiences through which one can effortlessly pick up language from.
This is wonderful when it can be done, but it can also be difficult and resource-intensive for teachers to implement.
Over the past year, I’ve been looking more into other comprehensible input-based methods and techniques that have been successfully implemented such as TPRS, TPR, Story Listening, and MovieTalk.
I think that all of these methods provide great ways to promote natural language acquisition, giving language teachers actionable ways to create comprehensible input without necessarily needing a lot of materials or training.
I think they also hold incredible potential that’s yet to be realized, and ought to be developed further.
At the same time, I’m concerned that the context where they’re typically used is holding them back.
CI-based teaching: “Schooled down to size”?
As I read material and discussions about these approaches, and indeed, much of the conversation about comprehensible input (CI) online, I feel very much an outsider.
So much of it seems to be for and by teachers in elementary and high schools, especially in the American education system.
Methods like TPRS appear to have caught on with many schoolteachers because they provide a successful alternative to the grammar–translation and other methods long used in schools, which can have students studying the language for years but unable to hold even a simple conversation in it.
I worry that the use of these CI-based methods overwhelmingly within public school systems is not only keeping them from being made available to more people, but also suffocating the development of all the possibilities these great techniques provide for promoting second language acquisition.
Undoubtedly, there are some good things that have come out of their development in the school context that are surely relevant to wider use, such the great care for the learner’s feelings shown in TPRS.
But in discussions about CI-based teaching, I find that so much of the focus seems to be on dealing with issues like classroom management, time limitations, meeting curriculum and testing requirements, as well as colleagues and administrators who are skeptical or even hostile to the concept of comprehensible input.
Besides those issues, there is the need to pace teaching to the slowest learners in the class, and the fact that many students are not intrinsically interested in learning the language.
While it’s both noble and necessary to be concerned about slower learners and unmotivated learners, I’m concerned that this care and attention may be coming at the expense of helping the faster and highly motivated ones be able to achieve their full potential.
Dealing with all these demands, the focus of much of the conversation on comprehensible input has become about how to shoehorn language acquisition into the existing school system.
I fear that as a result, methods like TPRS are being “schooled down to size,” to borrow the words of Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society.
The philosopher and education critic was writing about the limitations that people put on themselves as a result of the focus of institutions on what can easily be measured at the expense of what cannot be easily measured.
Similarly, I think the focus on testing in schools, when things like language acquisition cannot be so easily or quickly measured, is one of many aspects of schooling that may be limiting the development of CI-based methods.
There seems to be a level of awareness of these kinds of problems in schools among the communities that have grown around TPRS and other CI-based methods.
Indeed, Dr. Stephen Krashen, the linguist and educational researcher who popularized comprehensible input, has been a vocal critic of the emphasis on testing in schools.
However, despite many teachers wanting to do things differently, it seems the requirements of the school system end up taking priority, and with limited time and resources, they find themselves trapped by the system.
Moving beyond the classroom
I certainly don’t mean to diminish the dedication and great work of many teachers who are using CI-based methods in schools.
What I would like to see though is discussion about developing opportunities for comprehensible input moving beyond the confines of the classroom system, be it those of public schools or elsewhere.
While the AUA Thai Program that I attended provided comprehensible input in a classroom setting, as I experienced firsthand, this setting could be limiting and in fact, it was never intended to be the endpoint for the ALG approach that it uses.
The approach has been implemented in other ways, such as a full-time, live-in immersion setting full of real-life experiences with comprehensible input, and Crosstalk, where people speak their own languages in the same conversation, using non-verbal techniques to make what they say comprehensible.
This sort of approach of language acquisition without study or practice could also be implemented effectively with the help of these other CI-based methods.
Ultimately, I would like to see all these CI-based approaches developed so that great opportunities for comprehensible input are available everywhere, to everyone who wishes to learn a language, at every age.
While of course, we all have to deal with things as they are where we are today, let’s also remember to think and talk about all the great things that can be, and then do what we can to bring them about.