How Meaningful Repetition of Language Supports Comprehension and Acquisition

A friend who uses the ALG (Automatic Language Growth) approach to learn and teach languages recently asked a discussion group what reasoning, if any, is behind so much repetition of words when teaching with comprehensible input-based methods like TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling).

He had attended some language classes that used a lot of circling, a technique where the teacher asks many questions about a statement they’ve just made and solicits and provides answers.

For example, the teacher says “John is drinking coffee,” then asks: “Is John drinking tea?” (Students: “No.”) Teacher: “No, John is not drinking tea. Is John drinking coffee?” (Students: “Yes.”) Teacher: “Yes, John is drinking coffee. Who is drinking coffee? Is John drinking coffee?”, and so on.

From even this very brief example, it’s clear that the circling technique provides enormous amounts of repetition of language: “coffee” appears five times and the verb “drink” is used seven times.

However, my friend noted that even when a teacher made the meaning of a word clear and repeated it hundreds of times during a lesson, he usually wouldn’t remember it the next day.

At the same time, he would hear other words only a few times in the lesson, and then, hearing them again later a few more times, start to understand them despite far fewer repetitions.

This suggests that hearing the word repeated over time is more effective than hearing a bunch of massed repetitions at one time, something which he noted is consistent with the more general learning principle that spaced practice is better for retention than massed practice, also known as cramming.

So what good is all that repetition in a short time then?

A TPRS teacher gave a concise and insightful response to my friend’s question. To paraphrase it:

Massed repetition supports comprehension.

Spaced repetition supports acquisition.

The massed repetition within classes is not necessarily going to directly lead to acquisition, rather, it’s there to support comprehension.

And better comprehension leads to more acquisition.

Some things may “click” and be picked up almost immediately, but acquisition of words and structures mainly happens over time through encountering them in different contexts.

How repetition of language supports comprehension

learn-real-polish-circling-sample
Example of circling from Learn Real Polish (http://realpolish.pl)

Reading this answer reminded me of how the power of meaningful repetition to aid comprehension really stood out for me when I first took more of an interest in TPRS.

I came across a site called Learn Real Polish that offers a course with recordings of simple stories in Polish, told and then retold with a lot of circling: the speaker asks many questions about each statement, and gives the answers right after.

I tried out a sample lesson and was amazed to find that despite never having studied Polish before, within an hour I was already following a story told with circling that I was listening to, with some support from seeing a transcript, as well as the context and clues about the meaning of some words.

The circling questions provided a lot of redundancy and made the text much less informationally dense, which made it far easier to follow.

Also, the question and answer forms gave more of a sense of structure in listening that would not otherwise be there.

Even with no knowledge of a language, we can hear patterns in how questions are asked and answered, getting clues to what is being said by the intonation that is used.

In contrast to this expansion of language, giving learners’ brains more to work with, too often, language learning materials and even the way many people speak to language learners go in the opposite direction.

Shorter statements are used under the assumption that they will be easier for the learner.

But this deprives learners of the redundancy that could make the material much easier to understand.

The repetition that learners get through techniques like circling allows them not only to hear new words more but provide more context and space to make sense of what is being said.

One very important aspect of this repetition is that it is meaningful.

The words aren’t simply being repeated, something which at worst recalls the familiar situation where a native speaker or inexperienced teacher just repeats the same thing over and over again to a learner who doesn’t understand in vain hope that they’ll get it.

In contrast, techniques like circling involve a story and other context like non-verbal communication to support comprehension, and use questions that require people to process meaning in order to answer them.

The questions can also be interesting, entertaining, and even elaborate on the message or story being told, adding more details or description.

There is not just a lot of repetition, but a lot of variation with all the repetition.

The circling technique appears to have gotten a bad rap in some corners, but this appears to be a result of it being misused, turned into a stale drill where the focus has become on trying to teach language rather than a dynamic way of communicating something meaningful and helping to get a story or message across.

Using meaningful repetition with ALG

A language teacher or learner who is familiar with the Automatic Language Growth approach and is trying to apply it might be skeptical about the use of repetition with techniques like circling.

I think that one reason for this is that the ALG conception of comprehensible input emphasizes understandable experiences, or happenings, over merely understanding messages in the target language.

This means hearing the language in contexts like compelling, real-life experiences that ideally produce strong, lifelong memories.

These experiences may lead to words begin acquired even after just hearing them once, or leave strong traces in memory so even if a word isn’t understood right away the learner picks it up when they hear it again months or even years later.

These are great things to aim for, but providing this level of experience takes a lot of resources and often it’s just not possible to deliver on this consistently.

Without this, we need to make the most of what we can provide in places like the classroom using things like interesting stories.

Using many circling questions in meaningful and interesting ways could increase students’ level of comprehension of stories, as well as increase their engagement.

Also, hearing a word many times in context should create a stronger impression to match what might be created by a stronger experience that is lacking.

The brain will then be more likely to make connections across time with these memories to lead to acquisition of words.

From my experience with ALG in the classroom context, I think that providing more repetition through the meaningful and communicative use of techniques like circling could to a lot to support comprehension and acquisition.

At the same time, it could be done keeping with ALG principles like avoiding conscious speaking practice and focus on the language, based on the theory that it’s the use of these adult abilities, rather than a loss of ability to pick up languages and become near-native, that leads to adults’ typical lower attainment in second languages compared to young children.

I plan to further explore the use of repetition in ALG in future posts.

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